Anyone who is serious about excellence comes to learn that it is based on perennial principles, which extend beyond any one person or pursuit. Excellence takes time, is non-linear, and there are a variety of paths to get where you want to go.
Here are nineteen interrelated habits for the journey, all of which are based on my experience working with elite performers over the past decade and my research and reporting for The Practice of Groundedness: A Transformative Path to Success That Feeds — Not Crushes — Your Soul.
Once you pick a goal, outline the steps it will take to attain it, and then do what you can to largely forget about the goal and focus on nailing those steps instead. Many people waste a lot of time and energy worrying about success or failure down the road, instead of focusing on where they are and what they can be doing (or not doing) right now.
Motivation is contagious. We are all mirrors reflecting onto one another. The people around you provide gravity when you soar and they provide a safety net when you fall. Nobody reaches the top alone.
Stress + rest = growth. Too much of the former, not enough of the latter, and the result is illness, injury, burnout. Too much of the latter, not enough of the former, and the result is complacency and stagnation.
If you go big or go home, you often end up home. But small steps taken regularly over time lead to big gains. Resist the urge to exert the heroic, Instagram-worthy effort that will leave you completely exhausted, or worse, later on. Instead, think about applying a sustainable level of effort that will build and compound over the long haul.
If you aren’t having fun along the way, then you probably won’t last very long. Not every day has to be enjoyable, the totality of the process ought to be meaningful and fulfilling, and you’ll have more staying power if you can smile often, even on the challenging days.
People think progress is a line that goes straight up and to the right. But the truth is that it’s a zig-zag. Don’t worry about up and to the right over any given week, month, or maybe even year. Worry about up and to the right over a lifetime.
If you connect your entire identity to what you are doing, then you will be on an emotional roller coaster. The highs will be high but the lows will be low. This works for some people (think: Michael Jordan) but for most it is a path to burnout. The best way to create some space between yourself and what you are doing is to be able to laugh at the former, at least occasionally, and to diversify your sense of identity. This way, if things are going poorly in one area of your life, you can lean into another. You can be a craftsperson and an athlete and a parent and a partner and a neighbor and a dog enthusiast and so on.
Your mind-body system has a wonderful feedback mechanism: how you feel. When you feel off, that usually means something is wrong. When you feel on, it means things are right. Don’t become so focused on the external that you forget to pay attention to the internal.
All you can control is your effort. Yes, learn from others, but do not become too concerned with how they are doing. Focus on making continual improvement. If you can get the most out of yourself, then you are winning the game, and the cards will fall where they may.
Talking is easy. Action is hard. Be careful of a common trap, which is when your talking about the work replaces your doing it. My own personal rule: I don’t talk about a book with other people (outside of my small writing group) until the first draft is written.
Routines are great. They automate action and lend a sense of predictability to an otherwise chaotic world. However, be sure you can release from routines when you need to. If your favorite coffee shop for doing deep-focus work shuts down that may throw you off for a day, but it ought not throw you off for a week.
Even thirty minutes of brisk walking a day will help to calm your mind, increase your ability to focus, and enhance creativity, problem solving, and emotional control. We are not minds and bodies. We are mind-body systems. Try to make physical activity a part of your job, whatever your job may be.
Emotional flexibility describes the capacity to produce context-dependent responses to life events, and to respond flexibly to changing emotional circumstances. In a nutshell, emotional flexibility is about holding everything at once — happiness, joy, and enthusiasm at the same time as anger, sadness, and frustration — and being able to feel differently at various points throughout the same day and perhaps even the same hour.
Not giving your all on something about which you care deeply can be a way of copping out. It gives you an excuse if things don’t go how you want them to. Giving your all, leaving every bit out there, exposes you. It makes you vulnerable. But that’s the point. This is what gives texture — highs, lows, and everything in between — to life. Don’t be the kid in middle school gym class who was too cool — that is, too scared — to try.
It is a lot easier to give your all if you are okay with failing. If you are not okay with failing, you’ll protect yourself, you’ll do what the cool kids did in middle school gym class (see above!). If you are okay with failing, you’ll be more likely to put your skin in the game because your ego is safe regardless of the outcome. Herein lies a big paradox: being okay with failure makes you more likely to succeed, because being okay with failure gives you permission to not hold anything back.
Anyone can show up and give it their all when everything is clicking. But only those serious about excellence show-up when things are not going so hot. The best performers have high ceilings, no doubt, but they are even better at raising their floors, which comes down to being able to put together a decent day when you don’t really want to.
Sometimes the right thing to do is forge ahead and keep going; other times the right thing to do is step away. The only way to learn which to do when is by experience. Pay close attention to when you grit and when you quit, and what you get out of each. Over time, you’ll get more refined at learning which approach makes the most sense under different circumstances.
When you attain goals along your path or notch some big wins, take the time to enjoy and celebrate them! These moments are what give you the fortitude and resilience to keep going when the going gets tough.
Your values represent your guiding principles. They serve as your internal dashboard. Regardless of what is happening around you, you can always choose to act in alignment with your values. And if you do, then you can look yourself in the mirror and fall asleep well at night.
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