Why Goldilocks can teach us a thing or two about high performance
When you think of high performance, what springs to mind? I think of courage, discipline, sacrifice, and confidence. I visualise somebody with the determination to consistently improve and find new limits. I imagine people that are empowered and strive to be the best they can be – trying to reach the high standards they have set for themselves.
Sometimes it’s easy to say “Wow, that person is incredibly talented. I wish I could be like him or her!” And yes, some people are born with different gifts and inclinations such as being right-brained or left-brained or being athletically inclined or uncoordinated (like myself!) or having more introverted versus extroverted tendencies. However, when we are born, the brain is a mass of potential destined to be programmed for excellence. High performers are conditioned by habit and practice.
And while there are relative contributions of genetic inheritance to someone’s abilities, in a classic case of nurture versus nature, there are also certain conditions that need to be just right. If we understand the neuroscience and psychology that influences high performance, as well as the Goldilocks conditions that are necessary, then we can leverage this to elevate one’s mental and physical state to support excellent, enduring performance.
The neuroscience behind high performance
We all have several unique experiences that have shaped the way that we perceive things. However, in understanding how our internal drivers and external world interchangeably affect each other, it is important to understand that the foundation of almost every human being functions the same way. The brain biologically processes and stores information in the same way and consciousness is influenced in the same way.
We have three areas of the brain that we rely on for establishing our behavioural responses and performance. Understanding how they work together is an opportunity for unlocking our potential:
The basal ganglia is the instinctual part of us where we respond automatically and involuntarily to external stimuli without reflection. It is our ‘fight or flight’ mode and where our ‘gut feeling’ is.
The limbic system is also automatic and involuntary. It is fast, effortless, and subconscious. It is where our old habits are and where our emotions come from. The limbic system and basal ganglia together make up what some people call System 1 thinking.
The pre-frontal cortex is the part of our brain that is more like a computer. It is rational, reflective, and effortful. It is the thinking region and Executive function of higher-level cognitive skills where behaviours are coordinated to achieve new goals. This constitutes System 2 thinking.
Stimuli will always go through System 1 first before it reaches System 2. System 2 however, is much more energy-intensive on the brain. It needs to have everything just right to function at optimal levels, just like Goldilocks. When it gets tired, it unloads as much as possible onto to System 1 to take over. This may be when it perceives something to be threatening or stressful, or when a change occurs.
When we experience change, the prefrontal cortex (system 2) deals with our working memory, which requires a lot of energy as it needs to have everything just right. This is why change feels uncomfortable. System 2 then works hard to automate new behaviours so they don’t take up space in an already sensitive place. This is habit-formation and why consistency is key.
The psychological aspect to high performance
At the core of high performance, is an understanding of one’s own internal world and drivers. When people are aware of their thoughts, feelings, actions as well as the unfolding environment around them, they can adapt when these are not aligned with their vision.
A number of internal dynamics typically govern success, and understanding how the brain can optimise them then allows a person to choose the route that will enhance their emotional state and performance. Drivers can include:
Working on difficult goals fires up our System 2 brain, which incurs a lot more effort. Part of this effort comes from seeking clarity on which goals should be prioritised because the brain is coping with competing demands. If System 2 perceives the alternatives to be more important, the task will feel more difficult and tiring. Behaviours are more easily adopted by System 2 when they relate to one’s core values and sense of identity and purpose.
High performers have a determination to succeed. The essence of this drive comes from belief - an inner state of knowing that they will reach their goals. When there is this confidence, one’s energy is calm, and attention is targeted, enabling focus to shift away from System 2. When there is belief about being able to reach a goal, it can trigger the body to produce the same chemicals that accompany actually reaching a goal (think placebo effect).
As soon as worry or doubt creeps in, instinct overrides rational thinking and System 1 takes over. This is not to say that stress isn’t useful sometimes as it does motivate people to work under pressure; but it needs to be at optimal levels.
High performers display resilience. Focusing on setbacks will trigger the emotional System 2, but when people do something with passion and purpose, they enjoy the journey and being pushed outside of their comfort zone and that is what helps them to grow. When people persevere, their levels of dopamine increase which is linked to positive behaviour reinforcement.
High performance and the role the external environment plays
When I look at high performance and performers around the world, there is almost always a supporting team. When there is a team of people involved, they need the right inner world and thought processes - as a collective - to establish the necessary conditions for success. However, a team makes up our external environment and because we are biologically wired to connect with others, they have an impact on how we perform. What are the team-based factors that can influence our performance?
The best collaboration is built on trust, which usually accompanies a commitment to open communication, understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses and having a common purpose. When relationships are sustained on trust, people lower their inhibitions and System 1 will trigger oxytocin to be released in the brain after positive interactions with others occur.
Psychological safety is a shared belief that each member of a team or group can be themselves and offer their opinions without facing embarrassment, rejection, or punishment. A climate of psychological safety fosters authenticity and interpersonal risk-taking. To achieve this, there should be focus on creating a culture of belonging, community, and innovation where people are encouraged to push boundaries.
Again, because our brains are preoccupied with identifying threats and rewards, if it is more threat—based, not only does it handicap our strategic thinking, but it chooses the safe way as the default. High performance hinges on being able to take on new challenges, take risks and show vulnerability. With the safe way, this can’t occur and is what sets high performers apart from others.
The physical environment also influences our performance. This may include the temperature, lighting, cleanliness, the vibe, noise and more. When any of these conditions become uncomfortable, we may not be able to work at our best.
However, this is also conducive to the task at hand and the individual. The appropriate conditions will vary based on the type of activity or mode of thinking. For example, people often have an appreciation for spaces with biophilia and colour when engaging in creative brainstorming, and often feel this is inhibited in an enclosed space with no windows.
Additionally, desired conditions to perform in will be different for different types of people. Individuals with extraverted tendencies seek more stimulating environments (due to their basic rate of arousal and sympathetic nervous systems), whereas people with more introverted tendencies are more sensitive to extraneous stimuli. Therefore, two people may experience the same environment differently.
We may experience some environmental conditions as uncomfortable, especially those we can’t manipulate or control, but continuous exposure helps us to develop resilience and coping mechanisms so we don’t see these as barriers. This is why elite athletes train in conditions similar to those they will face in a competition. The more they practice a certain way of performing their art form, the more it becomes the norm and habitual, and once this occurs, they can then focus on bettering their time or style.
To conclude, if somebody asked me how I would set about enhancing my performance, I would look to create a map of interconnectivity between my inner and outer worlds. By doing this, we are then able to influence both our mind and body, which is essential if we are to face multiple challenging situations, learn from them and then not be scared to try that same thing again. Surrounding oneself with a team is like a booster jab for performance, but at the same time, believing and congratulating yourself to enhance your confidence and inform your brain that progress has been made is equally important. Finally, it goes without saying that consistency is key as habit formation then allows more room for your mind and body to become a high performer in other areas.