Before becoming an FBI agent, I thought I could become successful by simply working hard. It got me through school with good grades and into my first job as a fashion buyer. My thinking shifted, however, when I met my first FBI firearms instructor. He barked out constant reminders that if I wanted to become an expert shooter, it would take more than hard work; it would take peak performance.
I felt incredible pressure to perform so I set goals within the outer boundaries of my current abilities. I bet you’ve pushed yourself to the limit as well; the bar for human performance is at an all-time high. You can do things that challenge you to continually grow and improve performance.
Let’s take a look at the best way you can become an expert:
1. Stress Is The Place To Start
Our mind is like a muscle and responds like the other muscles in our body. When we lift weights to the point of fatigue, micro-tears in the tissue trigger the stress response. Our body understands that it’s not strong enough to tolerate the stress, and as a response, it builds up muscle so it can withstand more stress in the future.
The best athletes in the world do not adhere to the old adage—no pain, no gain. They alternate rounds of intense workouts with intense times of rest. If the stress is too much or lasts for too long, they encounter the exhaustion stage. Many of us know this term better as chronic stress. The body no longer signals for repair and explains why chronic stress contributes to so many health problems.
In the same way, when we use our brain to the point of fatigue, it doesn’t function as normal. Just like a muscle, our mind becomes stronger when we stress it and then allow it to recover.
To experience growth and become an expert, we have to push ourselves to the point of resistance. Skill comes from struggle.
How To Make It Work For You:
- Isolate the skill you want to grow.
- Take on one challenge at a time.
- Alternate between cycles of stress and cycles of rest.
- Insert short breaks during your day.
- Rest and recover.
2. Stretch But Within Reason
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly suggests that the best kind of stress is a task that’s a bit beyond your sweet spot. You need to stretch yourself to perform to your greatest potential. Exactly how much you need to stretch each time is debatable, but experts generally agree that the challenge should be 4% greater than either your skill or your last effort.
Increased stress will lead to increased performance—up to a certain degree. When you move beyond the healthy levels of stress, both performance and health will decline.
In high doses, stress can kill us. Ironically, it is also fundamental to psychological and physical growth. 4% growth is seen by researchers as the magical tension between challenge and skill. Most of us don’t notice a 4% increase in performance, and it’s beneficial because this tension keeps us locked in the present and gives us enough confidence that we can do it again.
Our success begins and ends with our mental toughness. We can become an expert once we find ways to use our minds to do it.
How To Make It Work For You:
- Assess your current level of expertise in the skill you’ve identified as the one you want to grow.
- Seek out challenges that just barely move you out of your sweet spot or exceed your ability.
- Once you feel you’re in control, set another goal for yourself. If you feel anxious about the challenge, stay in your sweet spot until you think you’re ready to move on to the next step.
3. Keep Focused On The Present Moment
We intentionally focus our attention on what is important in our lives and those areas we want to grow.
Our consciousness can handle only so much information, so we have selective attention. One key part of the brain which focuses our attention is the Reticular Activating System (RAS). It filters out important information that needs more attention from the unimportant that can be ignored. Without the RAS filter, we would be over-stimulated and distracted by noises from our environment around us.
We cannot 1) focus on our goal and 2) focus our attention on the activity in front of us to achieve the goal. This overstimulates the brain. When we think about our goal, our attention becomes focused on something that will happen in the future. It pulls attention away from where it needs to be in order to focus on the present moment. This explains why so many golfers miss a putt at the end of the final round or why football players drop the ball inches from the finish line.
They choke because their attention switched from the present and moved to the future. As a result, they lose their focus. Whatever they choose to focus their attention on will make it past the mind’s filtering system. The RAS alerts the cerebral, thinking brain of changes in the environment such as:
- Physical needs: when we’re hungry, we pay attention to food
- Choices: for example, if we decide to buy a Volvo (a MUST-see video by the way!), we see them everywhere
- Names: we notice the names of those whom we love
- Emotions: if something evokes an emotion in us, it has our attention
- Contrast: we pay more attention to things that are in contrast to other things
- Novelty: the brain notices things in our environment that are new experiences for us
How To Make It Work For You: While goals are important for the long-term, your brain needs to focus on the present moment’s activity if you want to become an expert. When you are engaged in an activity that will sharpen your skill or improve your performance, focus only on that activity and stay in the present moment. Don’t allow your imagination to transport you to the finish line.
4. Maintain Single-Task Focus
Busy people tell themselves they need to multi-task to meet the busy challenges of both life and work. But they are getting sucked into a lie—a big one with serious consequences. Research indicates that people cannot pay attention to several things simultaneously; instead, they switch between at a rapid pace.
While there has been a lot of talk about how women can multi-task, there is no science to back up this assertion. In fact, psychologists have only been able to confirm that men are slower than women when switching quickly between tasks.
It is possible to engage in several tasks at once but it’s also clear that accuracy and performance drop off quickly—for both men and women. The reason multi-tasking is not efficient is that the brain works in a serial manner—one thing after another.
People can observe multiple activities, but they are not able to pay equal attention to all of them. When people do one thing at a time and devote full attention to that one thing, they’re able to improve their skillset around that one thing.
How To Make It Work For You: Create a purpose for each work session. Be specific about what you want to learn or perform. Focus all of your attention on that one task and refrain from multitasking. As you move toward peak performance and expertise, remember that quality always trumps quantity.
5. Deliberate Practice Makes The Difference
Deliberate practice is a deep concentration and focus on the activity in front of you. It tends to follow a pattern: 1) break the process into areas for improvement, 2) identify your weaknesses, 3) test new strategies for each area of improvement, 4) measure your improvement, and 5) integrate what you’ve learned into the overall process.
Most of us already know that experience and expertise do not go hand in hand. We can practice a skill for endless hours but it’s only those who deliberately practice that truly become peak performers. In any walk of life.
Researchers have found that expertise is not about a certain number of hours that are practiced. Practice does not make perfect. Deliberate practice makes perfect.
How To Make It Work For You: Don’t expect deliberate practice to be easy or comfortable. However, if the skill you seek to improve is important to you, you won’t find it a drudge, either. You will need to keep focused and concentrate on the task in front of you. If you’re serious about deliberate practice, you’ll be a lifelong learner who continues to explore and refine what you’ve learned.
© 2019 LaRae Quy. All rights reserved.
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Author of “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths”
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Great post LaRae! Love the topic of stress as it impacts both our professional and personal lives. One helpful way of dealing with stressful stretch goals is to break them down and celebrate each win. I find that a building block process is so empowering and can get me to my final destination with more excitement and less anxiety.
Such an important post. Thank you. When I meet people who are remarkably good at what they do… what always impresses me is the deep, deep practice that’s going on behind the scenes.
We see the outcome, not the work.
I’ve found this too with speaking… it takes many, many reps of honing the thinking and message to be able to “make it look easy ;-)” One of my favorite questions to ask experts is “what did you do behind the scenes that no one might realize?
Great article, it’s critical to keep balance and manage stress as positive gear for your success journey. It’s priceless to understand and use this tool effectively in day today activities. Thank you for sharing.