About a year ago, a friend contacted me out of the blue as he was having a hard time busting out of a slump. He had been down for a couple of months and just could not seem to lift his spirits no matter how hard he tried. Through our discussion, it was clear he was exhibiting all the tell-tale signs of depression. To name but a few symptoms: he was having trouble sleeping, had a general feeling of being down, ruminated on negative thoughts, suffering bouts of anxiety and experienced loss of appetite. Unfortunately, I was not in his country at the time and my first suggestion was that he go see his GP and talk things through. He agreed to this but also wanted to know more about the psychology of what he was facing. More specifically, he wanted to understand better how he could flip out of this current state and adopt a high performing mind set.
After reflecting on his request, I discussed with him some simple routines to incorporate into his day but stressed that this was not the time to be focused on high performance. Rather, this was a time to work on getting back on his feet. Just as a personal trainer would not prescribe an athlete’s regime to someone with no history of activity, so too the type of mental training for supra-performance is not the starting point when you are not well.
As the conversation progressed, we got onto the topic of role models, or to be more precise, his comparison points. He explained that he felt a failure as he was not at the point in his career where he felt he should be. When asked where he felt he should be, his comparison point was super-high achievers we both knew. However, using these people as his comparison point was not a productive mind-set from which to measure his self-worth.
I explained research that showed that comparing oneself upwards in this way was detrimental to getting well and was likely to be contributing to his current state. He needed more self-compassion not self-comparison. Moreover, if he really wanted to achieve goals he needed to adopt sound principles of effective goal setting that are independent of social comparison. In particular, he needed to set realistic, stretch but attainable goals that build on each other taking into account where he was currently at to achieve a final end point. To focus with envy on only those at the top of the mountain was not the way to approach getting back on his feet.
On reflection, I realise that my friend’s predicament is not unique. Over the years I have seen many people that want to run before they can crawl when it comes to high performance. As an executive psychologist part of my role is to set attainable and meaningful goals with those I work with. As my focus is on supra-performance, these goals are not for everyone. My skills is in establishing the right goals and psychological techniques, and providing the right level of support to make these goals a reality. However, it is ultimately the coachee that realises the goals. Only when they themselves are strong can they then reach for the next level in their self-development journey.
You need to put in the effort when you are in the best mental state if you want to reach your potential. If you are operating at sub-optimal levels, the key is to first get yourself well. The problem is that too many people wait until they are not well to start focusing on self-improvement. To apply psychological techniques as a band-aid in this way will result in a drop in a peak performance.
Supra-performance is not about resting on one’s laurels. It is about strengthening yourself when well to reach even higher levels of performance. While it is cliché to describe it in this way, supra-performance is an ongoing journey. It is not a destination. My friend is slowly getting back on his feet. He has started some good CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), and this, together with appropriate medication, is doing wonders. We are in regular contact and each month he is noticeably improved. I’m sure that in no time-at-all he will be back on his feet and be ready to stretch to new heights. He can now look back at this conversation and recognise that there is some strengthening that needs to go on before focusing on reaching his illustrious goals.