Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are

What’s your favourite holiday location? I’m a remote beach lover, the more deserted the better, trudging slowly over wet sand, sit on the promenade, write a postcard. It wouldn’t take much to convince me to give it all up and live in a hut on a desert island with just the shrill cries of the gulls and coconuts hitting the roof. Perfect beaches, perfect water, your own space, all the seclusion you could want.

When hearing desert Island, we often picture an idyllic tropical hideaway, sandy beaches and swaying palm trees. And what are palm trees known to be good for? Hanging up a hammock of course! That’s all I’d need, a life of Robinson Crusoe would suit me.

This is what was in the mind late one evening in 1941 of broadcaster Roy Plomley, at home in his pyjamas, when an idea came to him. He sat down and wrote to the BBC’s Head of Popular Record Programmes, Leslie Perowne. The pitch was successful and a broadcasting institution was born.

Desert Island Discs is a biographical radio programme, broadcast on Radio 4. It was first broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 29 January 1942. Each week a guest – a ‘castaway’ – is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item, that they would take if they were stranded on a desert island, whilst discussing their lives and the reasons for their choices.

More than 3,000 episodes have been recorded, each with The Sleepy Lagoon, composed by Eric Coates, as the signature opening and closing theme music. The sound of herring gulls also accompanies the tune to put emphasis on the desert island, but a listener pointed out that herring gulls live in the northern hemisphere – therefore it would not have been a tropical island as intended!

So let’s say I was castaway on my desert island, and that I could swap the music and take books instead. I think I’d take the books that I’ve enjoyed cover-to-cover, and those I’ve read in small portions but have not had the patience or time to read completely. Alone on a deserted island with little to do and few distractions, I’d enjoy them carefully line by line, hanging on every word. A good book has no ending, it opens your mind.

To me, the world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that we build ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilisations grow old and die out, but the world of words and books are volumes that live on. I have been a voracious reader all of my life and the older I get, the more I love to open a book and let it take me where it wants me to go.

I have always seen reading as an activity to stir my curiosity.  When you read a book you conduct a private conversation with the author. E. P. Whipple once wrote, books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time, which I think is a great summary of how I feel.

So, which books to take? I’d focus on books on startups, entrepreneurship and innovation, on the basis that I’d use the time to plan a cracking new business venture. So in no particular order, upon my desert island bookshelf, sheltered from the elements, I would have these lovely books:

1. Zero to One: Peter Thiel. Entrepreneur and investor Thiel shows the most important skill that every entrepreneurial leader must master is learning to think for yourself. Doing what someone else already knows takes the world from 1 to n, but when you do something new, you go from 0 to 1. Zero to One presents an optimistic view of a new way of thinking about innovation: it starts by learning to ask the questions that lead you to find value in unexpected places.

2. The Lean Startup: Eric Ries. This book has been out for some time, but still an invaluable read. Reis’ mantra is Vision-Steer-Accelerate, following a process of build-measure-learn to continuous innovation to create radically successful startups. Reis seeks to change the way companies are built and new products are launched, it’s about learning what your customers really want, testing your vision continuously, adapting and adjusting before going for scale and investment.

3. Disrupted: Ludicrous Misadventures in the Tech Start-up Bubble: Dan Lyons. A lighter read! Lyons was Tech Editor at Newsweek, and made redundant. Hubspot offered him a pile of stock options for the nebulous role of ‘marketing fellow’ and a return to work, what could possibly go wrong?  What follows is a hilarious account of Dan’s time at the start-up, a revealing trenchant analysis into the dysfunctional culture that prevails in the startup world flush with cash and devoid of experience, a de facto conspiracy between those who start and those who fund companies.

4. Thinking Fast & Slow: Daniel Kahneman. A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner in economics, Kahneman provided this bestselling explanation of how people think, describing the fast, intuitive and emotional ‘System 1’ and the slower, more deliberative and more logical ‘System 2’. By understanding these systems, you can learn to think things out more slowly, instead of acting on an impulse – a good discipline when excited about your startup.

5. Sprint – Solve big problems & test new ideas in five days: Jake Knapp. Sprint offers a transformative formula for testing ideas. Within five days, you’ll move from idea to prototype to decision. Based on Knapp’s experience at Google Ventures, it helps answer the big question every day: What’s the most important place to focus your effort, and how do you start?  A practical guide to answering critical business questions, for anyone with a big opportunity, problem, or idea who needs to get answers today.

6. Hooked – How to build habit forming products: Nir Eyal. Why do some products capture our attention while others flop? What makes us engage with certain things out of sheer habit? Is there an underlying pattern to how technologies hook us? Eyal answers these questions with the Hook Model – a four-step process that, when embedded into products, subtly encourages customer behaviour. Hooked is written for anyone who seeks to understand how products influence our behaviour.

7. Be More Pirate – How to Take On the World and Win: Sam Allende. This book is part history, business, and a revolution manifesto, a glorious celebration of movement-makers and game-changers. It’s a compelling read that will have you planning your very own mutiny on your rescue from the island from the comfort of your hammock. So whether you want to change the whole world, or just your own, this is the book you need to do it.

8. S.U.M.O. (Shut Up, Move on) the Straight-talking Guide to Succeeding in Life: Paul McGee Paul McGee′s personal development stuff has humour, insight, practical tips and personal anecdotes, a thought provoking read. Now updated to celebrate ten years since first publication, the S.U.M.O. principles will keep sanity and curiosity intact in your isolation:

  • Change Your T–Shirt: take responsibility for your own life, don′t be a victim.
  • Develop Fruity Thinking: change your thinking, change your results.
  • Hippo Time is OK: understand how setbacks affect you and how to recover from them.
  • Remember the Beachball: increase your understanding and awareness of other people′s world.
  • Learn Latin: change comes through action not intention, remove the tendency to put things off.
  • Ditch Doris Day: create your own future rather than leave it to chance. Forget the attitude que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.′

9. Business Model Generation: Alexander Osterwalder.  An old ‘un but a good ‘un. This book allows you to answer What’s your business model? Intelligently and with precision. I’ll be cheeky here and add in Osterwalders follow-on book Value Proposition Design, describing how to get product/market fit right is another must have for your island bookshelf.

10. The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Ben Horowitz. Building a business when there are no easy answers, this series of essays about what CEOs face in the ‘build phase’ – the transition from searching for a business model into a company. More than any book I’ve read, this gives an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to lead and scale a startup.

I have hours to read on the island, where my imagination could runaway, really no longer reading what is printed on the paper but swimming in a stream of impulses and inspirations. Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves. Imagine what thinking you could do with these books, the freedom and the isolation on a desert island!

Books save you time, because they give access to a range of ideas, emotions and events that would take us years or decades to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator, a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.

They also perform the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s lens, giving us contrast and perspective, descriptions that will trigger our thinking with an honesty and insight quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for, that enables us to have those informed conversations with ourselves.

With the expertise, insight and guidance offered by these entrepreneur practitioners, the mastery and purpose of an entrepreneur is there to inspire you to get out of the building, and move from ‘thinking’ to ‘doing’. In addressing this challenge, I’ve been reflecting that the proper place to study elephants is the jungle, not the zoo as an appropriate starting point.

Furthermore, each of the ten books suggests a continuous learning processes includes peer and reflective learning, and that not all learning experiences are positive, dealing with failures or problems are an important source of learning.

Some people might tell you that books are no longer necessary now that we have the Internet. Don’t believe them. Books help us know other people, a telescope onto the minds of the author, and in the process, know ourselves more deeply with even greater clarity. A book in the hand has far more intimacy than any digital device or screen.

In many ways, books are the original Internet; each a hyperlink into the next rabbit hole of the written word. Just like the web pages you visit most regularly, your physical bookmarks take you back to those book pages you want to return to again and again, to reabsorb and relive, finding new meaning on each visit, because books create the habit of reading and learning.

I once watched a small hermit crab crawl out of its shell and into a larger one nearby. Maybe we are no different. There were those before us and there will be some after us. All we can do is cultivate what is given to us, and improve ourselves. Maybe our lot in this life is to leave our shells better than when we found them so that the next soul will flourish here. Books, and learning from others, can help you do this.

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are, and on the desert island, I’m staying put for a while. I think I’d enjoy my time reading and thinking about my next venture, and taking the lessons from each of the books to build my own startup success when I’m rescued. Although maybe I should also take a book about ‘How to build a boat…’

Stuart Broad: Citius, Altius, Fortius – how top performers make it happen

Stuart Broad produced another barely-believable spell of bowling on the third afternoon of England’s Second Test versus South Africa last week in Johannesburg to catapult England to a series win.

There are few greater sights in Test cricket than a quick bowler in full flow, and few can claim to have wreaked the type of devastation Broad has proved himself capable of time and time again in a single spell.

This latest spell further furnished that reputation as Broad claimed five wickets in 31 balls for the cost of just one run – and even that was a dropped catch. The timeline of his wickets revealed the extent of the damage in 49 minutes:

  • 1.23pm – Elgar c Bairstow b Broad 15; SA 23/1
  • 1.42pm – Van Zyl c Stokes b Broad 11; SA 28/2
  • 1.50pm – De Villiers c Bairstow b Broad 0; SA 30/3
  • 2.01pm – Amla c Taylor b Broad 5; SA 31/4
  • 2.12pm – Bavuma b Broad 0; SA 35/5

South Africa were 35 for 5 and Broad had the lot. Broad seized the moment in a way that he so often has in a Test career that started a little more than eight years ago when he was 21. It was the seventh time he had taken five or more wickets in a single spell.

He finished with 6 for 17 in 12.1 overs, figures that did not quite match his 8 for 15 at Trent Bridge last August against Australia, but then nothing will ever match that. He is now England’s third all time highest test wicket taker, and his match winning spell has propelled him to the top of the Test bowling rankings as World number one. Since 2012, Broad has taken more test wickets than any other bowler in the world.

Stuart Broad is that rarest thing in English sport, a player who thrives under pressure, he just loves the big stage. He rises to the moment with an inner strength few sportsmen are blessed with. Players like that are excited by the challenge.

There are two ways of looking at pressure. There is the negative mindset of worrying you might fail and could make a mistake in front of thousands of people, and you could cost your team the game. The alternative is, and Broad looks at this positive – he sees the opportunity, sees the crowd and it drives him on to seize the moment and win the match and be a hero.

He has 330 test wickets in 90 Tests, still someway behind England’s all-time record wicket taker, James Anderson on 429, but with Anderson now 33, Broad has the opportunity to aim for that top spot. He should use what Jimmy finishes with as a target to beat.

However, it’s not just the 330 wickets in 90 tests, but his match winning performances. Broad is often the catalyst. As soon as he starts lifting those knees up and running in hard, batsmen are in trouble. He was helped by conditions last week – the clouds hung around, the floodlights were on all day, the new ball was venomous and brutal. But the bowler still has to put the ball in the right place and, in those circumstances, Broad is a formidable man to face.

The spells that Broad bowls – all against Australia – have been a phenomenal statement of a high performer making it happen when it counts: The Oval in 2009 (6 for 91), Chester-le-Street in 2013 (6 for 20 in 45 balls), Trent Bridge in 2015 (a barely believable 8 for 15) and the spell last week, symptomatic of his character. If your team is in a situation where someone needs to stand up and be counted, then Broad wants to be that man, be the match-winner.

There has been a long-running debate about whether Broad is a great bowler or a bowler of great spells, bur he’s now ranked World number one so that debate can go on hold. Broad is just the 19th England bowler to be adjudged World number one since Alfred Shaw first assumed the mantle in 1877.

Close up shots of Broad as he prepared to run into the wicket showed a calmness in his face and a determination in his eyes, an inner belief and resolution. You just knew that he was going to knock those wickets over. Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable. Believe you can and you’re halfway there, as the saying goes.

The worst enemy to Broad on the field would have been his own self-doubt, but I recall an interview once where he said, I do not believe in taking the right decision on my bowling, I take a decision and make the bowl right. So what gives Broad this self-starter attitude and self-belief, what is the framework for his mental toughness and inner confidence?

We all have moments where we have to keep that self-belief. In those moments it’s just about the process. It becomes the norm. It’s a learned skill and self-belief is massive within the psychology and discipline of thinking.

Everyone faces those pinch-point situations when the heat is on – from making a critical decision in-the-moment at a meeting, to keeping a cool head on the cricket field – those times when you need to function correctly under pressure. The reality is that most people fail in extreme situations. They choke, they get stage fright and their astute, high-wire decision-making skills fail them.

We applaud champions, knowing that we would never have been able to do what they have, all attention on the champion Olympic athlete who epitomises the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius Faster, Higher, Stronger. There is something deeply captivating about exceptional performance in sport. It’s about human dignity as well as human achievement. For me it’s about saluting the person.

Given all the factors that contribute to performing – or choking – in high-pressure circumstances, what lessons can we take from Stuart Broad, what can you do to improve your performance?

Belief in self: First and foremost, Broad simply believes in his abilities and strengths. He believes he can make great things happen. I’ve never met a successful person with low self-esteem. Self-belief is vital, how many things have you not done or tried because you lacked belief in yourself? As Eleanor Roosevelt so deftly put it: Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

Belief in beating the odds: To be successful, we have to be open minded, with no sense of what you cannot do. But, bit-by-bit, life starts to teach you to limit yourself. Broad doesn’t hope he can beat the batsman on his run in to the wicket, he believes wholeheartedly that he will.  There is no second-guessing.  As they say, those who say they can and those that say they can’t are both right.  If you don’t believe you can beat the odds – chances are you won’t.

Belief to deal with the inner negative voice: When you start to doubt yourself listen for a moment to that negative inner voice. Whose voice is it really? It’s often a collection of lots of different voices from different times and people from your past that causes self-belief to wane. One thing’s for sure, that inner self-critical voice shouldn’t be yours. It may masquerade as belonging to you now, but it doesn’t really. One of the first steps is to re-examine and discard many of the limiting ideas you have about yourself, ideas that you’ve somehow collected along the way. Get rid of the baggage!

Belief in flipping a weakness into strength: Dumbo, my favourite cartoon character, was humiliated by his outsize ears. He hated them at first. But, through time, he came to use them, to fulfil his destiny, even changing his attitude. Like Dumbo, if we just focus on what is not right about ourselves rather than what is, then we miss opportunities for self-belief. Focusing on perceived weaknesses without either taking steps to improve them or also giving fair focus toward our strengths gets us nowhere. Know that the positive flipside of a weakness, in the right context, can be put to good use.

Belief in perseverance: This is a big attribute of Broad’s down the years. The obstacles that cause many people to quit are minor setbacks for the true champion. Winners persist, losers desist. It is often that simple difference in self-belief that separates the successful person from the frustrated failure.

Belief in the vision: For Broad, his vision was bigger than just the winning his own individual battles with the South African batsmen. It was a vision of being part of a winning England team. It was never about his personal success, but being part of a collective team. His self-belief got him into the team, his self-belief helped him be part of a winning team.

Belief in accountability: High performers realise that only they are responsible for what they accomplish, and that their value to the team will be assessed according to their accomplishments. For this reason, they make sure to give top priority to their own preparation and performance. They take responsibility for themselves and make it happen.

Recent research into top performers and their output, looking across several industries, revealed that the top 5% of the workforce at the researched firms produced 26% of the firm’s total output. The top-performing 5% produced 400% more than you would expect. That means that top performers have an incredibly high ROI because they produce more than four times more.

Just like on the business side of the enterprise where the 80/20 rule prevails (80% of your profit comes from 20% of your products) there should be a similar 80/20 rule covering employee performance. This disproportional impact means that despite the fact that many are enamoured with the practice of treating everyone equally, it turns out that that approach may be well-intentioned but misguided because in business, just like sports, top performers have a significantly higher business impact than the average. Top performers need to be nurtured, developed and prioritised.

Do you have the capability to be a top performer? The capability to constantly get out there and make an effort, to work at what you want, to believe in yourself, to keep going when others have thrown in the towel. The capability to realise that you can achieve your dream, the capability to keep focussed?

Broad undertook the challenge because he was willing to do what he needed to do, to get what he wanted. It’s not about medals of victory, it’s more about the scars of defeat. Champions believe in themselves when no one else does, it means going beyond your comfort zone and learning to win the game your own way. Remember, every champion was once a contender that refused to give up.

Life has a unique perspective. Along the way, various landing pages, trials and tribulations will offer themselves up. It’s self-belief that determines your direction and ultimately success – its not how often you’re knocked over but how many times you get up that makes the difference. As Dr Seuss said, You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes, and with self-belief, steer yourself any direction you choose.

It’s down to perseverance – it’s the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did. The words of Dick Fosbury will always resonate with me: When my body got tired, my mind said this where winners are made; when my mind got tired, my heart said this is where champions are made. Make it count and take control when it matters most, inside your own head.

Autonomy, mastery & purpose – business lessons from learning to play golf

Hobbies are important to have as interests and a focus for constructive use of your spare time, and for many of us sport plays a key part, as participant or spectator. For me sport is a vital ingredient in my everyday life, providing physicality, camaraderie, emotional highs and lows, and an opportunity for a lively exchange of opinions.

However, as the football and rugby seasons come to an end, Summer sports beckon and for me none of tennis, cricket or athletics has ever captured my imagination as a participant. That leaves us golf. But why do hordes of people gasp at a tee shot when they have no idea where it will land? Four-day extravaganzas of umbrellas and blokes carrying the players’ kit, too lazy to carry their own gear? And the lambs’ wool sweaters in mauve and lemon and the trousers unashamedly called ‘slacks’?

Despite my reservations as to my social, political and psychological fit to the game – ignoring my latent lack of talent – I’ve started lessons to heave a small white ball 350 yards down a wide expanse of grass, onto a finely manicured area of very green grass called, appropriately, a green, and down a small hole. I wouldn’t say I’ve made it my new hobby in response to a midlife crisis, and I’ve not yet invested in an entirely new wardrobe, but I am inwardly enjoying the challenge as I’m used to playing my sport with bigger balls.

I’ve already accepted it’s a question of accepting extreme frustration and being determined when doing something knew, such is my inability to secure any degree of consistency with golf. But when searching for my ball somewhere out on the course about two miles from civilization, this set me thinking, how well do we know ourselves, what we really like and enjoy, what are we good at, what we’d like to change about ourselves, what we’re not good at, what we dream of….and what’s the point?

So take a new activity you’re investing time in, like golf. Golf is frustrating. Even if you are a feeble newbie hacker as myself, you occasionally hit a splendid shot. The memory lingers, mocking you every time you slice it into the bushes or foozle a two-foot putt ten minutes later. You know you can hit it well. So why don’t you do it more often?

Game Theory tells us it is theoretically possible to birdie every hole. Indeed, it is theoretically possible to do 18 holes in 18 shots. But no one ever comes close to this ideal. Golf constantly reminds us that we don’t quite measure up. This is annoying me immensely.

I once hit a perfect shot. It was a municipal pitch and put course in Cornwall, one sunny summer day. I was 17. It was a five-iron from the tee that dropped straight into the hole bouncing happily as it did so. I won’t say my golf life has been all downhill since then, as I’ve never again hit a small white ball so flawlessly. In fact I’ve never hit a small white ball since, I gave it up for rugby.

But 35 years on, I’m back on the course. It’s all about knowing yourself, your capabilities and stretching yourself. I am being unreasonable in my aspirations to achieve, comparing myself to those golf geniuses on Sky Sport. I seem to be competing against myself more than I’ve ever done in anything else I’ve done before, seeking constant improvement against my own shortcomings and ambitions.

So after my third lesson, I’ve jotted down some notes, reflecting on my learnings and motivations. I’m minded by Daniel Pink’s book Drive, and the role of intrinsic motivation, the kind that comes from within yourself, and the three elements of the motivation formula he identifies – autonomy, mastery, and purpose – as to why I find myself pursuing a standard of achievement in something new to satisfy an innate internal desire.

Autonomy Our self-direction is a natural inclination. Pink asserts we’re all built with inner drive, some folks are just in a higher gear than others. I’ve never been passive and inert, I’ve always gone hell-for-leather and go the extra mile as standard. Apparently this is because I have what Pink calls ‘autonomy driven motivation’. I’m curious about what I can achieve as a challenge to myself.

Mastery We want to get better at doing things. It’s why learning a language, new sporting technique or a musical instrument can be so frustrating at first. Mastery is the desire to get better at something that matters. Firstly, it is a mindset, in that we believe we can get better. Second, mastery is a pain, in that it involves not only working harder but working longer at the same thing. Finally, mastery is an asymptote, or a straight line that you may come close to but never reach. My golf feels very much like this at the moment!

Purpose People who find purpose in their life unlock the highest level of the motivation game. Pink says that it’s connecting to a cause larger than yourself that drives the deepest motivation. Purpose is what gets you out of bed in the morning and into work without groaning and grumbling — something that you just can’t fake.

Purpose provides a context for autonomy and mastery. It addresses the situation that even when we get what we want, it is not what we need. It’s connected to the drive to be different. I guess my purpose with golf is to be the best I can, for me, in the context of ensuring I become more patient, more reflective and practice to ensure I learn a new skill.

Interesting stuff and I’d highly recommend Drive. My point of departure from Pink is that in golf you play against yourself and that you need to enjoy it, and from musings born of frustration, I have identified a number of points in golf that are reflective learnings for a broader perspective to complement Pink’s trietica for my business activities.

Technical competence To be a golfer of sorts, you need certain competencies and skills. You need to know how to swing the club, whether it is an iron of a driver or a fairway wood, and I need a coach to teach me these technical skills.

Business is no different, you need to have certain competencies, such as management and leadership, strategy and finance skills, and you need training to develop and update these skills continuously. Both business and golf require hard work, constant practicing and growth of a skills set.

Psychological competence I need to understand the psyche of golf to better manage myself over 18 holes, to deal with the good, by avoiding becoming complacent, and to deal with the bad – I need to put the bad hole behind me and concentrate upon the holes ahead. Learn from the bad hole and apply the lessons to the holes ahead of us says my coach. There is a saying, applicable in golf as in business: Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you will be right.

Play within yourself In golf, you cannot allow yourself to attempt shots you cannot play, for which you do not have the competencies.  I’ve found this out to my cost, as I simply try to do the impossible, frequently. I have an inner belief that far exceeds my physical prowess. You do not need to smash every tee shot or iron shot with every ounce of power you possess.  Stroke the ball, play within yourself, says my coach.  I unfortunately struggle with this guidance.

In business, you need to apply the same rule.  Trying to do everything at full tilt can be disastrous.  Growth is something that needs to be managed carefully, nurtured from somewhere, and you need competencies and a culture that enables it.

Be alert to the environment In golf this entails the wind and rain, as well as factors such as the slopes and shapes of the fairways, and the shapes, slopes, and speed of the greens.  As a golfer you need to keenly focus on these factors and take them into consideration. Some of them change continuously and will have an effect on the shot you need to play – how you approach it and what club you need to use.

This is equally true for a business context, events and changes in the economic environment have an impact on your strategy. You need to be alert and take notice on a continuous basis in order to develop and implement a strategy that will allow you to better serve the needs of your customers.

Deal with the competition In golf, you need to understand who your competitor is and what you need to do to outwit and outplay him. However, you primarily need to focus on what you are doing yourself as you only have control over your own game.  Play your own game and not the game of your competitor.  Again I struggle with this, trying to emulate the play of far more experienced players.

Again this applies to business, you need to develop your strategy in a way that is different and better than the competitor.  Do not focus exclusively on your competitor – the true driver of success are your customers so focus upon a strategy to find, win and keep them by delivering value. This does not mean that you ignore your competition, as if you ignore your competitors you will find yourself irrelevant.

Be values-driven Here I refer to values such as integrity and character. The nature of golf is such that honesty is non-negotiable as you score yourself. You are frequently the only person that will know whether the ball moved before you hit it or not. If personal integrity is not part of your make-up, the game of golf will degenerate into chaos and become pointless. Already I’ve seen signs of people playing to win above all else with a liberal and generous interpretation of the rules.

The saying goes To lie to others is immoral, to lie to yourself is pathetic, and is true more than ever in business. Business ethics are essential, the world is now sensitised us to a lack of integrity in big business, and yet we find that it still takes place.  Greed and dishonesty have become drivers in business. To win at all costs a credo that has the potential to hurt society as we have seen in recent years.

Knowledge Golf requires lots of knowledge, for example you need to know the layout of the course and individual holes. This is important as you determine when to use an iron or the fairway wood, when to use the driver on the tee, or when to use an iron, where to chip and where to put.  You need to know where you need to take your medicine and take a drop shot, and where you can take a chance.

In a business context, we also need to know what is going on in order to develop new market space that will enable us to make the competition irrelevant and grow the market in new areas. The knowledge parallels of golf and business are clear, combing intelligence and insight create impact.

Respect This is an important aspect of golf. You need to show up, on time, dressed appropriately. When the other player is playing, you stand still, out of their line of sight, and you do not chat while they address the ball. You do not keep the players behind you waiting, you repair your pitch mark and your divot holes. All common sense really, but it’s vital a framework of respect is in place to enable the game to be played in the right spirit.

You do the same in business, you respect your customer and employees, and show respect to the society you do business in.  Operating without this virtue is a sure way to lose business from customers, loyalty of staff, and your brand reputation.

Innovation I have seen Rory Mcilroy shape shots that are amazing, I’ve tried to replicate them in my back garden to no avail, threatening the sheep stood watching with interest as the little white ball shoots in a random direction. McIlroy, faced with a certain set of conditions, and knowing the course and having trust in his skills, repeatedly comes up with shots that have a high degree of consistency in their execution, yet are unique.

In business, innovation and creativity is vital, doing more of the same will lead you nowhere, you will fall behind and lose customers.  Changes in the environment require lots of innovation.

So three weeks and three lessons into golf, I’ve adopted a share-listen-reflect-learn approach to acquiring new skills and knowledge. Pink’s motivation trietica applies – autonomy, mastery and purpose – so does the maxim if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

My drive is to continually seek to achieve a ‘Personal Best’, adopting the personal life motto of explorer Ernest Shackleton – reach beyond your expectations – and make it happen where it matters most, inside.

But, it’s just golf, deceptively simple but endlessly complicated. I know it’s really played on a five and half inch course, the space between my ears. After all, it’s not how good you are that matters, but how good you want to be.

3:59.4 – what’s your four-minute mile?

It’s 60 years ago today that Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile – 6 May 1954 at Iffley Road Track in Oxford. Two years earlier, in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Bannister set a British record in the 1500m, but did not win the medal he expected. This strengthened his resolve to be the first 4-minute miler.

Bannister was inspired by miler Sydney Wooderson’s remarkable comeback in 1945. Eight years after setting the mile record and seeing it surpassed during the war years by the great Swedish runners Arne Andersson and Gunder Hägg, Wooderson regained his old form and challenged Andersson. Wooderson lost to Andersson but set a British record of 4 min 4.2 sec in Gothenburg on 9 September.

Bannister thus started his running career in the autumn of 1946. He had never worn running spikes or run on a track, but he showed promise in running a mile in 1947 in 4 min 24.6 sec on only three weekly half-hour training sessions. He was selected as an Olympic possible in 1948 but declined as he felt he was not ready to compete.

Over the next few years, improving but chastened by this lack of success, Bannister started to train harder and more seriously. His increased attention to training paid dividends. In 1951 at the Penn Relays, Bannister broke away from the pack with a 56.7 final lap, finishing in 4 min 8.3 sec. Then, in his biggest test to date, he won a mile race on 14 July in 4 min 7.8 sec at the AAA Championships before 47,000 people.

After his relative failure at the 1952 Olympics, Bannister set himself a new goal: to be the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. On 2 May 1953, he made an attempt on the British record at Oxford. Paced by Chris Chataway, Bannister ran 4 min 3.6 sec, shattering Wooderson’s 1945 standard. “This race made me realise that the four-minute mile was not out of reach,” said Bannister.

But other runners were making attempts at the four-minute barrier and coming close. American Wes Santee ran 4 min 2.4 sec on 5 June, the fourth-fastest mile ever, and at the end of the year, Australian John Landy ran 4 min 2.0 sec. Bannister had been following Landy’s attempts and was certain his Australian rival would succeed. But knowing that Landy’s season-closing attempt on 19 April would be his last until he travelled to Finland for another race, Bannister knew he had to make his bid.

6 May 1954. Aged 25, Bannister had begun his day at a hospital in London as a junior doctor, where he sharpened his racing spikes and rubbed graphite on them so they would not pick up too much cinder ash. He took a mid-morning train from Paddington to Oxford, nervous about the rainy, windy conditions that afternoon

With winds up to 25mph, Bannister said that he favoured not running, and would try again at another meet. Just before the start, he looked across at a church in the distance and noticed the flag of St George was moving but starting to slow. The wind died. The conditions were far from perfect, but Bannister knew at least one obstacle had been eased. As the run began, the conditions did worsen, with a crosswind growing, but by then Bannister was in his stride.

The race went off as scheduled at 6pm with Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher providing the pacing. Brasher led for the first two laps, recording a time of 1 min 58.2 sec. Bannister stayed close and then as the race reached lap three, Chataway came through to maintain the pace. The time at three-quarters was 3 min 0.5 sec but Bannister knew he had to bide his time.

Bannister began his last lap. He needed to do the last one in 59 seconds. Chataway continued to lead around the front turn until Bannister began his finishing kick with about 275 yards to go (just over a half-lap). He flew past Chataway onto the last straight and threw everything at the challenge ahead, his tall, powerful style driving him on. Could he do it? He knew this was it. The world stood still. It was just him and the track. He was being carried by history.

The announcement came. The announcer excited the crowd by delaying the proclamation of the time Bannister ran as long as possible:

Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event nine, the one mile: first, number forty one, R. G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which – subject to ratification – will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire and World Record. The time was three…

The roar of the crowd drowned out the rest of the announcement. Bannister’s time was 3 min 59.4 sec. He’d done it. He’d broken the world record. He’d done what so many believed was impossible. He’d made history. It was an extraordinary end to an ordinary day, when Bannister, a medical student at St Mary’s Hospital left Paddington after a morning of work, took the train to Oxford and by the evening he was among the most famous men in the world.

But Bannister’s record only lasted 46 days. Bannister later said that he believed Landy had lost heart – the four-minute mark had become a barrier for him. And yet, just 46 days after Bannister broke the record, Landy beat his time on 21 June in Turku, Finland, with a time of 3 min 57.9 sec.

On 7 August, at the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Bannister, running for England, competed against Landy for the first time in a race billed as The Miracle Mile. They were the only two men in the world to have broken the 4-minute barrier, with Landy still holding the world record. Landy led for most of the race, building a lead of 10 yards in the third lap (of four), but was overtaken on the last bend, and Bannister won in 3 min 58.8 s, with Landy 0.8 s behind in 3 min 59.6 s.

The crucial moment of the race was that at the moment when Bannister decided to try to pass Landy, Landy looked over his left shoulder to gauge Bannister’s position and Bannister burst past him on the right, never relinquishing the lead.

Bannister went on that season to win the 1,500m at the European Championships with a record in a time of 3 min 43.8 sec. He then retired from athletics to concentrate on his work as a junior doctor and to pursue a career in neurology.

It was doubted that a man could break the four-minute barrier for the mile. Experts said for years that the human body was simply not capable of a 4-minute mile.  It wasn’t just dangerous; it was impossible. In the 1940′s, the mile record was pushed to 4 min 1 sec, where it stood for nine years, as runners struggled with the idea that, just maybe, the experts had it right.  Perhaps the human body had reached its limit.

As part of his training, Bannister relentlessly visualised the achievement in order to create a sense of certainty in his mind and body. It took a sense of extreme certainty for Bannister to do what was considered un-doable.  He alone was able to create that certainty in himself without seeing any proof that it could be done.

Bannister turned his dream into reality, expanded his mind and accomplished something no one had done before. But once he crashed through that barrier, the rest of the world saw that it was possible, and the previous record that had stood for nine years was broken routinely – 24 people broke the 4-minute mark within a year of Bannister.

Many people have been conditioned with thoughts of what can’t be done. Studies have shown that within the first eighteen years of our lives, the average person is told ‘no’ more than 148,000 times. We are constantly being told by parents, friends, teachers, television, and colleagues what we cannot do. This conditioning causes many of us to achieve a small fraction of our potential and result in a negative approach to life. A pessimist approaches life with statements of what can’t be done instead of asking how it can be done.

To dispel the pessimist in each of us, we must transform our approach to life by finding solutions instead of excuses. This small change in our approach to life will produce great outcomes. Elbert Hubbard wrote The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.

Instead of saying That can’t be done ask the question How is it possible? Equally we should not compare ourselves to so and so, rather we should ask, Am I doing my personal best? It is by pushing ourselves to our current maximum that we open the door of growth and opportunity to a new maximum.

Once Bannister proved that once you stop believing something is impossible, it becomes possible. He decided to change things. He refused to settle. When no one believed his goals were possible – he did. When he failed publicly, he picked himself up, and carried on. When his competitors were hot on his heels, he picked up his pace. He took things into his own hands, and decided to tell a better story. And in doing so – he did the impossible.

In the next 30 years the record was broken 16 more times – including British runners Ovett, Coe and Cram (3 mins 46.32 sec is the British record, set in 1985), with the current world record held by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, set 7 July 1999 in Rome at 3 min and 43 sec. But Bannister was the first.

Despite what the experts said, Bannister thought otherwise. In his mind, it was not a question of whether or not someone could run a sub-four-minute mile. For Bannister the questions to be answered were who and when. He believed that someone would break the four-minute barrier. He believed that he was capable of doing it. He believed that his unique training methods would enable him to do it. I believe this is not a dream. It is my reality. And, in the end, his convictions and confidence carried him to world-renowned prominence.

So, what’s your four-minute mile? It might be something that others have accomplished, it just might seem impossible to you. It might be something that you’ve always aspired to, but that you think you can’t do. A goal you think you can’t reach. It is mental. You need to treat this goal as a four-minute mile, and know you can do it, that you can break your four-minute mile.

The story of Bannister’s success is a lesson in that what others believe to be our abilities and limitations has absolutely no bearing on how high we can take ourselves. What does matter ultimately however, is what we believe we can achieve. We simply need to believe. Each of us needs to believe that within us is a sub-four-minute mile performance, regarding our personal or professional achievement. We need to believe that we have that performance where we cast aside all self-doubt.  We need to endeavour to refute the naysayers – and those little voices.

The lesson here is as Henry Ford says, If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.It’s about mind over matter, stepping outside your comfort zone and overcoming mental barriers. Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,  move out of it. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new. If you put yourself in a position where you have to stretch outside your comfort zone, then you are forced to expand your consciousness.We cannot become what we want to be by remaining what we are.

The first sub-four minute mile would have belonged to someone else, but Bannister wanted it more than anyone else. Three minutes and 59.4 seconds that changed history. Few other sporting moments have been crystallised in a nation’s memory in the same way as the first sub-four-minute mile. It’s still special too – more people have climbed Everest than run a sub-four-minute mile.

Inner-Vation© – lessons from Steve Peter’s ‘The Chimp Paradox’

The announcement that England plan to use the psychiatrist who helped British cyclists win Olympic gold as they continue their preparations for the World Cup last week brought Dr Steve Peters into the public domain once again. Already working with Liverpool FC players, Peters has an enviable track record of helping high-performing athletes maintain a positive mindset when competing under pressure at the highest level.

Regarded as a ‘mind-mechanic’, his most notable successes have been with Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton – Hoy says Without Steve I don’t think I could have brought home triple gold from Beijing, while Pendleton says he was the most important person in my career. Peters was a key factor in Britain’s extraordinary track cycling success at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympics, has also worked with Tour de France winners Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.

Peters is perhaps the most unlikely success story in British sports coaching. His background is in serious mental health – for 12 years he was based at Rampton high-security hospital, working with individuals suffering from severe personal disorders. He can’t help you do a Cruyff turn or a 40m cycle- sprint better, but he can help you learn what goes on inside your head.

Peters warns athletes against setting goals that are beyond their control. His philosophy is this: you cannot say I want to be the best cyclist in the world, because you have no influence over your opponents. You can, however, say I want to be the best I can possibly be, and devise a plan to achieve that aim.

When Chris Hoy climbs onto his bike he has a weapon on his side that is the envy of all his rivals. It’s not his carbon fibre bike, or a special energy diet, or some new training routine that has produced even more power in those famous quads. The weapon is the mind-management technique from sport psychologist Peters, who has never once cycled round a velodrome.

On the day of competition a lot of people start to lose it. Cyclists are hammering round the banked boards like frantic clockwork toys, and anxiety starts getting the better of them. They start saying things like: My opponent looks in good nick, their new bike looks to be going faster. I really don’t want these feelings, I really don’t want these thoughts, and they’re stopping me from competing at my best.

Hoy admits to being a very anxious man at times. In the keirin, his anxiety can threaten to take over six or seven times – the irrational, emotional side of your personality that is the most striking. Peter’s principle is called The Chimp Paradox, and explains how the human mind operates and how people can learn skills to manage their mind.

In The Chimp Paradox, Peters argues there are three elements to the psychological mind. He labels these the ‘Chimp’, the ‘Human’ and the ‘Computer’. Peter’s model is a tool for understanding and managing the functioning of the mind. The model is not a hypothesis nor strict scientific fact but based on the neuroscience of the brain. The model sees the brain as being divided into three teams:

The first team is you, the Human. You are a conscious thinking analysing being that works with facts and truth and then makes deductions using logical thinking.

The second team is the Chimp, an independent thinking brain that is not under your control. It works with feelings and impressions and then puts the ‘information’ together using emotional thinking.

The third team is the Computer. This is really a brain that is at the disposal of the Human and Chimp to put information into for reference. It acts as a memory and can also act as an automatic thinking and acting machine that is programmed to take over if the Chimp or Human is asleep or if they allow it to run ahead of them with preformed decisions and beliefs that it can act with.

The Chimp is the area of the mind that is driven by feeling, impressions, emotional thinking and gut instincts. The Chimp quickly jumps to opinions and thinks in black and white terms. It can be paranoid and its behaviour can be catastrophic, irrational and emotive. Its primary motivator is survival and it goes back to a very primitive and essential part of our human development.

It is how athletes manage their Chimp that dictates how well they perform. Put simply, learn ways to control your Chimp to train the brain to manage surges of emotion. Impulsive behaviour or nagging self-doubt can impact negatively on our professional and personal lives. Chances are, according to Peters, it’s your inner Chimp, that’s running amuck, and often at those moments of high pressure.

Essentially, there’s a battle between the separate parts of your brain, and the more primitive Chimp part is an extremely powerful emotional machine working five times faster than the Human part, so unless we have techniques for managing the inner Chimp, it often ends up in control and you’re left wondering ‘Why on earth did I do that?’

Peters asserts that managing your Chimp will be one of the biggest factors determining success in life – and it’s down to yourself to do it. Here’s his technique for doing so:

Firstly, realise you can’t bully your Chimp, you have to nurture it.  Meet the needs of your Chimp first and it will be in a position where you can then talk to it rationally and it will listen.  How?

Allow it to have its say, in an environment away from the action, for as long as it takes (typically about 10 minutes), without interruption.  Relax, go with the flow and let it out, however irrational. Once done you feel better and can begin to have a more rational conversation.

You now have the opportunity to deal with it in a measured way, using facts, truth and logic, to continue calming it and addressing its fears and concerns.  Remember they can be real.

In summary it is how to deliver the additional 15% that makes the difference between a good performer and a brilliant one. The key to success is thus managing the inner chimp – the carrier of fear, emotion and irrational thought; the part of you which will always want to jump to an immediate opinion, see things in black and white, think the worst and put you through hell. Managing the chimp allows you to make the logical decisions on the field of play, rather than be bullied by emotion.

When I let my enormous Chimp out, explained Hoy, I started thinking like a pessimist. I had a tremendous sense of foreboding, wondering about the what ifs, about crashes and mistakes. Steve has given me the skills to ask why it was happening, why I was allowing it to happen and how I could get round that. So we worked on that for a long time. I probably did more hours of mental training than I did physical.

The Athens Olympics 2004 was a tipping-point for both Hoy and Peters. The three riders in the keirin before Hoy all broke the world record. Rather than being overwhelmed by self-doubt and anxiety, Hoy used the step-by-step mental drill that the pair had been working on for months.

It was only with about 10 metres to go until the finish line that he first looked up and thought, hey, I’m in an Olympic final, says Peters, It was almost the perfect mental display.

So what exactly does Peters do? There is no recipe, it’s a simple technique that once learned can be applied to every competitive situation. Ask yourself what it is you want to do and why you can’t get there. It’s a mental warm-up, what Peter’s is effectively doing is putting you in a zone where you want to be there, and you’re ready to focus very quickly on your moment and nothing else.

Both Hoy and Pendleton could be forgiven for losing their hunger and motivation after achieving their career goals in the Laoshan Velodrome at Beijing, but they continued to kick-on, and both cite Peter’s technique as being their driver – the goals become: Let’s do the best we can, be prepared as an individual, make sure I get everything right. These are the goals because you can control these. At the end of the day you can’t do better than your best.

Peters tells a story of how, at cycling’s last World Championships, he saw Hoy looking at the giant screen over the track to see a rival break a world record. This wasn’t a part of the routine and Peters wasn’t delighted by what he saw, knowing it would provoke an anxiety. Hoy, equipped to fend off the Chimp, simply went out and secured his own world record.

Essentially Peters has identified the way in which self-doubt and irrational, impulsive behaviour can have a negative impact on our personal and professional lives. His mind-management techniques helps us to recognise when our minds are behaving in this way and overcome the self-sabotage to achieve more positive results in all aspects of our life.

The human part of the mind, as labelled by Peters, is rational, evidence-based, thinks in shades of grey and operates a balanced judgement. It is driven by self-fulfilment i.e. having a real, greater purpose in life rather than the moment-to -moment survival instinct of the Chimp.

Most of us might say the human part of the mind sounds like the part we’d aspire to achieve. But Peters argues it’s more complicated than that. As well as being your worst enemy at times, the Chimp can also be your best friend, and therein lies the paradox in the title. There is a time and a place for everyone’s inner Chimp to prove both useful and necessary.

Nonetheless the Chimp has an ability to hijack us and take over our reactions to situations rendering us irrational, emotional and out of control in a way which we regret afterwards. You cannot bypass the Chimp part of your nature, nor can you control it with willpower. You need to acknowledge it and work through it.

Research across various sports is that possibly as many as 90% of elite athletes will say that mental attitude and ability to deal with emotions and thoughts are critical to a successful performance. Mental resolve in elite sport is often cited as the difference between victory and defeat – keeping focus at the pinnacle of an event, the determination to convert potential into successful outcomes.

For example, two riders in the same race may have different emotions. One may be relaxed and managing their emotions well, therefore for them the impact of emotion during the race will be low. Whereas, the second rider may be a very anxious individual, who panics easily and loses confidence, and for this rider the impact of their emotions on their performance is very high.

I certainly feel far more aware of my own inner Chimp, and am beginning to recognise the moments when it has a tendency to derail my best laid plans. Having this mental measure as a check and balance in my everyday life, as well as having methods to manage and get the best out of this side of my personality rather than deny it, has already made this an invaluable impact, both personally and professionally.

I call this ‘Inner-Vation©’ – it’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be. When top athletes achieve a ‘Personal Best’, it’s all about realising their potential and achieving success in that moment of opportunity when it really matters, to enable them to reach beyond their expectations.

Success leaves footprints, and whatever your personal development needs or growth aspirations, you can make a leap forwards by modelling what others have done and adapting it to fit your own circumstances and objectives.  We all live lives of infinite potential but few of us make the most of what we’ve got. Opportunity is everywhere, but some people miss it because it looks like work.

Nothing should hold you back from reaching your potential, and that includes you, so what is it that’s holding you back? If it’s your Chimp, then take a look at Steve Peter’s The Chimp Paradox, and remove those inner demons.

Strictly Dancing – lessons from being outside of your comfort zone

Fifteen celebrities. 132 dances. Three finalists. Only one winner.  Abbey Clancy won Strictly Come Dancing 2013 on Saturday, lifting the glitterball trophy. Her winning dance was a quickstep to Katrina and the Waves’ Walking On Sunshine, scoring 38 points. She was a complete amateur going into the contest, but was the first contestant to score a perfect 40, for a salsa performed during the tenth week of the show’s run.

The final was determined entirely by public votes and more than six million votes were cast. Clancy lifted the trophy to the strains of Abba’s Dancing Queen as everyone clapped along like drunken aunties at a disco. Tickertape falls. Applause rings out. Credits roll. The End.

Ben Cohen left the contest in week nine,  a couple of weeks ago. Dubbed the ‘David Beckham of rugby’, Cohen is the 10th-highest point scorer in England rugby history and third in the list of all-time England try scorers. Part of the England Ruby World Cup winning-team in 2003, the former winger handled the leap from Scrum to Samba pretty well.

He said playing in a World Cup final was easier than taking part in the contest: I’m used to running out with 14 other guys and there’s safety in numbers. The beast of the dance floor, Ben became famous for his muscular physique and often shirtless routines on the show.

Cohen was given the boot following the sequined stunner at Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom, in a show full of classics from the Rumba and Foxtrot to the Viennese Waltz and the Tango. But as usual, one contestant had to leave and Ben lost to Mark Benton in a head-to-head dance-off.

The elimination of Cohen was poignant as he was totally outside his comfort zone, but all the more startling for happening, I recall, after a Foxtrot. Time and again in the competition the former winger had impressed me in the traditional ballroom disciplines, but struggled to impose himself in the more free-form Latin-based dances.

When I say impressed me, I mean I’d look more like a whirligig washing line dressed like a bouncer on the dance floor and pity my wife, held to ransom as my dance partner in an expensive alluring frock, being flung around with the aplomb of a rioter releasing a Molotov cocktail.

If Cohen was going to go, surely it would have been the week before after the Samba round, when the judges’ scores plunged him right down. Heinous was one of the verdicts – which my dictionary defines as shockingly evil or wicked which is possibly a bit strong for looking clunky doing some shoulder wiggles and failing to pull off a set of hip thrusts.

Perhaps he didn’t quite boss the dance area as he used to boss the gap between opponent and white line hurtling down the wing in his pomp, but he stood up tall to the challenge when he had to. True, judges accused him of having a cumbersome bodyline and encouraged him to pull out right through the centre, which can be tricky for a big bloke, believe me, especially when wearing ridiculously tight pants.

The point for me is that even after the harsh judges’ critique, and the ridicule Cohen potentially opened himself up to by entering in the first place, he set himself targets and had a go at something new. He threw himself into a new challenge with passion, energy, two massive feet and chunky shoulders.

He was obviously well outside of his comfort zone but I admired his determination, he had the drive of wanting to change things by his own efforts, a fierce competitive streak, and a will to win. These are key attributes we all need, remember, failure only establishes that our determination to succeed was not strong enough. All things are possible for those who believe.

And at the end, whoever thought Cohen would come off worse in a 50-50 challenge with Mark Benton? Still, let’s not get too morose about Big Ben, with stout thighs, a boyish smile that fills his face and ruddy complexion necessary for seasonal work as a departmental store Santa, he has enough about him to escape being a pro-celebrity dance victim.

But for me, I’ll never be able to Salsa, Cha-Cha-Cha or Tango.  I have two left feet and can’t dance for toffee.  I’m good at arm wrestling though. But maybe my negative mindset is just holding me back? Most people hold themselves back in some way with self-imposed mental limits, who knows where they come from, but they are very real and they can completely inhibit what people are capable of. Maybe part of the enduring popularity of Strictly is that it is possible to overcome seemingly impossible challenges, and that there is hope for all of us.

Getting out of your comfort zone takes so much work. There’s actually a lot of science that explains why it’s so hard to break out, and why it’s good for you when you do it. With a little understanding and some adjustments, you can break away from your routine and do great things. Jesse Owens once said: We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.

It’s important to push the boundaries, and when you do, it often feels like a big deal. But what is the ‘comfort zone’ exactly? Why is it that we tend to get comfortable with the familiar routines? Simply, your comfort zone is a behavioural space where your activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimise stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security.

The idea of the comfort zone goes back to a classic experiment in psychology in 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximize performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety, a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This space is called Optimal Anxiety, and it’s just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed to be productive, and our performance drops off sharply.

The idea of Optimal Anxiety is familiar to anyone who’s pushed themselves to get to the next level to accomplish something. We all know that when you really challenge yourself, you can turn up amazing results. However, pushing too hard can actually cause a negative result, and reinforce the idea that challenging yourself is a bad idea. It’s our natural tendency to return to an anxiety neutral, comfortable state.

Even so, your comfort zone is neither a good or bad thing. It’s a natural state that most people trend towards. But don’t demonise your comfort zone as something holding you back, we all need that head space, but Optimal Anxiety is that place where your mental productivity and performance reach their peak.

Whether you love or loathe the sequins, the tight trousers and the self-importance attitude of the judges, there are great personal and business lessons to be gleaned from a twirl on the dance floor in terms of pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone, as shown by Ben Cohen. For example:

Be open to learning To be successful in business it is vital to keep expanding your knowledge and learn new skills. When you learn and take action on what you’ve learned, you will grow.

Ben aimed to achieve the best performance each time, whilst remembering to make all right moves. He was probably terrified before taking the stage, but what did he do? As in his rugby career, he stepped up, faced the fear, and put into practice his learning, and danced to his heart’s content! The Strictly contestants developed over the weeks and you can see those who were open to learning from their professional dance mentors to become better performers.

Remove the boundaries and barriers Even though the Strictly contestants are celebrities, learning to dance takes them far beyond their comfort zone. In business when you stay safe what happens? Nothing. Business throws up a whole host of opportunities for new experiences, and like the contestants who will have to learn new steps and styles, you will have high and low times.

Breaking out of your safety zone, doing something new and removing the boundaries and barriers will make your business become one of the best experiences of your life.

Curiosity When you get stuck in your comfort zone you are closed to new thinking. Curiosity on the other hand, fills you with anticipation, it opens you up to consider something new and creates enthusiasm – the emotions you experience are often a result of what you focus your mind on.

How do you become more curious? Curiosity is a habit. The more curious you are the more curious you become, and over time it becomes more of a natural part of you to develop an appetite to explore new things. Curiosity removes inertia.

Do it in small steps What holds us back is often a belief that facing something head on will be overwhelming. However, doing stuff in incremental steps allows you to stretch your comfort zone, and slowly makes it less uncomfortable and frightening so you can expand your comfort zone a little more each time.

We all improve by taking small steps, building on new skills to make it the new ‘normal’. In seeking this steady, focused and gradual improvement you can make it a habit to get out of your comfort zone every day. Every day make an effort in an area where you need to grow. There are no victories without battles. There is no growth without challenge – what’s the alternative, a slow fall into mediocrity?

Focus on the positive past to envision a positive future Think back to the previous times when you have broken away and done something new, and focus on the positive memories of when you took a chance and what you achieved. Shackleton is quoted as saying: One of the things that made me persist in the Antarctic in the face of sickening discouragements was my determination to name a portion of the earth’s surface after my father. What does success look like?

Frequently, we automatically play back negative experiences in our minds before we are about to do something, creating a fear of failure rather than an expectation of success. We blank out the positive memories and our previous positive achievements. Avoid that trap – if you don’t think you can win the race, why bother entering?

See yourself holding the prize, have self-belief that you will achieve the goals you have set yourself. From the start of the Strictly contest you can quickly see two or three who want it and have the determination to make it happen. Displayed in each step they take, every turn made, and by the expression on their face, they stand out because they believe they can win the prize. Do you see yourself holding the prize for your business?

Accept that it will be uncomfortable Even if you do the things above it can still be uncomfortable to step out of your comfort zone. But simply accept it, the discomfort will be temporary. If you accept that the discomfort is just part of the journey then it tends to become not so significant. If on the other hand you focus on how hard it is, think about it a lot and create all sorts of drama and excuses around it, then you feed the discomfort and it becomes so uncomfortable that you can become paralysed from taking action.

As Ben Cohen showed, success begins at the end of your comfort zone. Breakout and become comfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown, push and stretch yourself and you’ll configure new perspectives by taking risks and making yourself a little scared. I don’t want to be a ballroom dancer, but I’ll push myself time and again to learn and experience new things. Optimal Anxiety is the only place to be.

James – the tassel was worth the hassle!

Earlier this week I was wearing my ‘proud Dad’ smile, and tears welling up in my eye (don’t be silly, it’s just the aircon) as my son James graduated, surviving the torrid three years of full-time university study at Lancaster University. It didn’t seem five minutes since I was taking James for his first haircut.

Amidst the transition from graduands to graduates, I reflected that the graduation ceremony is an event where the vice-chancellor tells hundreds of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that individuality is the key to success. Wearing square-shaped mortarboards pulled down to fit snugly on their heads, my hope is that from time to time these folks will let their minds be bold, and wear sombreros.

Graduation is a joyous time full of celebration, accolades and recognition, warm reflection tinged with sadness about the passage of time now ending, and great anticipation about life beyond the student bar, flat and hey, even the library. By all means, enjoy graduation you worked hard to reach this point, but don’t get too caught up in the pomp and circumstance – real life is about to hit you in the face – or was that just the pesky tassel on the mortarboard?

I think Steve Jobs called it right when he said if you live each day as if it was your last, some day you’ll most certainly be right. This made a lasting impression on me, and since then I have looked in the mirror every morning, even when not shaving, and asked myself: If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been no, I want to be in a Clash tribute band – I knew I needed to change something.

I think that’s good personal introspection for new graduates too.Of course being a new graduate you feel like a right clever-clogs but in real life never try to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people, or find a different room.

I will hazard a prediction. When you are 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices, so don’t follow where the path may lead.  Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail. The way I’ve observed most undergraduate students live their three years at university they do leave a trail, mainly of wet towels.

Do you need a plan from here on life’s starting grid? Not for me, don’t bother to have a plan, throw that out.  It seems to me that it’s all about opportunity and making your own luck. You study the most successful people, and they work hard and they take advantage of opportunities that come that they don’t know are going to happen to them. You cannot plan innovation, you cannot plan invention. Be curious, live with an open mind, don’t settle for the status quo. All you can do is try very hard to be in the right place at the right time, and be ready to grasp the opportunities presented.

Just as graduation releases you from one world it also catapults you into another. Moving from the security of university life to the insecurity of real life is, I recall, daunting.  Clearly, life isn’t all about your job, but it’s the first step on the ladder to realising your potential. From standing on the shoulders of giants, and a paradoxical lifestyle of intellectual stimulation and alcoholic degradation, what thoughts can you share with a new graduate to guide their first steps, because as Dr. Seuss said You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose; you’re on your own, and you know what you know, and you are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

1. Chose your attitude Regardless of appearances, no one escapes life without enduring tough moments and cul-de-sacs. The truth is, life is messy and unpredictable. The difference between those who overcome challenges and those who succumb to them is largely one of attitude.

2. Believe in yourself Don’t let someone else define your agenda, you decide what is possible or impossible for you. Dare to believe you can be best, and make it happen. Embrace challenges and setbacks as not just refining moments, but also as defining moments. Don’t throw in the towel to defeats, learn from them, use them as springboards

3. Life beyond Xbox Relationships are the biggest asset you have. Your world will be greatly impacted by those whom you choose to include and exclude from your life. Life is about people – not things, the funny thing is, if you do right by people things will never be an issue. Time to embrace face-to-face, and get out into the daylight!

4. Be Unique Our world today is full of ‘me 2’, replicas and imitations, craft a life of originality, novelty and innovation. Conformity to the norm will merely sentence you to mediocrity, who wants to be average, surely that’s just a blank face in the crowd of irrelevance – be the voice that other folks want to listen to.

5. Audacity, with humility Remember the picks in the playground for the football team? Remember being picked for the First XV rugby team? Life is all about progression from good to great, wanting to be with other people, and other people wanting to be with you. Push yourself to be there, at the top table, but never be afraid to wash the pots too.

6. Life is too short to go unnoticed What many folks fail to appreciate is that in order to find an opportunity, you actually have to look for it. Leaning back, or leaning forwards, which do you think is the best stance to take? The first thing you need to do is to get over yourself, and then make others sit up and take notice. Catch their eye, don’t catch a cold stood waiting.

7. Reach beyond your expectations – a Shackleton quote. Success means different things to different people, and that’s okay, but it’s not other’s definitions you should be concerned with, but your own expectations. As you continue your journey of personal and professional growth, it’s my hope your sights will shift from the modest pursuit of success to the passionate pursuit of significance.

8. Graduation isn’t the end of learning, just the start. Learning, and a hunger for learning, defines the person, and is a lifelong endeavour of discovery, improvement and fulfilment. James knows nothing of the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4 (check out my next blog), yet has a head full of History. The minute you stop learning is the minute you cede your future and check out on the race to realise your potential.

9. Be happy Happiness is just a state of mind, temporary and fleeting at best, but it’s a good place to be. Thinking back to Dr Seuss again, Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Don’t take life too seriously, be happy.

10. Live at your Personal Best Second best is a plague, and I’d suggest you avoid it as such. In this Olympic year, look into the minds of Beamon, Owens, Lewis, Fosbury, Redgrave and Liddell. Push yourself at every moment, seize the day. Today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost.

As Mark Twain said, Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.  So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.

And as for that mortarboard, the tassel was worth the hassle!

This one’s for Eric Liddell

Chariots of Fire, the Oscar-winning drama about two British sprinters competing in the 1924 Paris Olympics is to be re-released on 13 July to celebrate London 2012. The Olympic torch relay’s journey around Scotland travelled to St Andrew’s West Sands, where the iconic beach scene in the film was recorded.

I avoided watching it for a long time because it beat Raiders of the Lost Ark (one of my all-time favourites) for a number of Oscars.  Besides, I’m not a runner, and the movie takes place in the 1920’s.  How interesting could it be?  Very interesting, in fact, and filled with a number of coaching lessons, not just for runners, but for business leaders as well.

Starring Ben Cross and the late Ian Charleson as British sprinters competing in the Paris Olympics of 1924, the film won four Oscars at the 1981 Academy Awards, including best original music for Vangelis’s stirring synth-fuelled score – don’t tell me you haven’t run along to the music in slow motion at some time in your life?

Chariots of Fire is about guts, determination and belief. At the heart of the film is the quest for Olympic glory, with personal challenge resonating throughout. The film depicts the struggles of two British Olympic runners – one Jewish, one a deeply religious Christian – to reconcile their love of running with their respective faiths. Discretion, loyalty and self-sacrifice, questions of faith and refusal to compromise, standing for one’s beliefs, achieving something for the sake of it, with passion and not just for fame or financial gain, are even more vital and relevant today.

After initial indifference, it’s now in my all time top-ten favourites and the very first film as an adult that literally moved me to tears (I cried as a little boy when Bambi’s mum was killed by the hunter, and don’t get me going on Babe) in the scene at the film’s climax of Liddell winning the 400m in record time, and then is held on his teammate’s shoulders as his coach, colleagues and future king applaud him.

The film’s title was inspired by the line, Bring me my chariot of fire, from the William Blake poem adapted into the popular British hymn Jerusalem (the hymn is heard at the end of the film).

The ruthlessly determined Harold Abrahams is the son of a Lithuanian Jew, driven partly by a desire to overcome the anti-Semitic prejudice that he encounters, not least among the dons when he goes up to Cambridge in 1919. He becomes the first person to complete the Trinity Great Court Run, running around the college courtyard in the time it takes for the clock to strike 12. Abrahams achieves an undefeated string of victories in various national running competitions.

Eric Liddell, as the son of a China-based Scottish missionary, is powered by his unremitting Christian faith, something that causes consternation when he pulls out of a 100m Olympics heat because it is to be run on a Sunday. Different in some ways, the two men are markedly similar in others: both show a self-punishing dedication and both jeopardise their emotional relationships with others, to achieve success on the track.

When Eric Liddell accidentally misses a church prayer meeting because of his running, his sister Jennie upbraids him and accuses him of no longer caring about God. Eric tells her that though he intends to eventually return to the China mission, he feels divinely inspired when running, and that not to run would be to dishonour God: I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.

Liddell’s faith is a problem at the Olympics as the 100m final is slated for a Sunday, but he switches events to the 400m thanks to team-mate Lord Andrew Lindsay, who having already won a silver medal in the 400m hurdles, yields his place in the 400m race on the following Thursday to Liddell, who gratefully agrees. His religious convictions in the face of national athletic pride make headlines around the world.

Abrahams is badly beaten by the heavily favoured United States runners in the 200m race. He knows his last chance for a medal will be the 100m. He competes in the race, and wins. His coach Sam Mussabini is overcome that the years of dedication and training have paid off with an Olympic gold medal. After Abrahams’ victory, the camera cuts away to Mussabini in his hotel room. He looks across to the stadium, and all he sees is the Union flag being raised, and the distant sound of the anthem. And he removes his hat, and punches it. Very few more beautiful scenes in all of cinema.

Before Liddell’s race, the American coach remarks dismissively to his runners that Liddell has little chance of doing well in his now far longer 400m race. But one of the American runners, Jackson Scholz, hands Liddell a note of support for his convictions. Liddell defeats the American favourites and wins the gold medal.

The British team returns home triumphant. As the film ends, onscreen text explains that Abrahams married Sybil, and became the elder statesman of British athletics. Eric Liddell went on to missionary work in China. All of Scotland mourned his death in 1945 in Japanese-occupied China. Liddell’s own story after 1924 could have spawned it’s own film and ironically, this Guardian story on Liddell ran ironically on the anniversary of Charleson’s death in 1991- both strange and wonderful:

Besides a great, evocative and poignant story, there are several relevant insights to stimulate our current day business thinking:

Look forward, not backwards over your shoulder. Harold, the 100m runner, hires a trainer because he falls short at the finish and doesn’t know why.  His trainer shows him a videotape of the race, where Harold right near the finish looks back at his competition costing him few precious fractions of time.

You can’t press ahead at your goals while at the same time watching what everyone else is doing.  Yes, you need an understanding of the market landscape, just like a runner can’t just wander into other people’s lanes, but other than that keep the focus straight ahead at the goal. It’s very hard to take an objective view and see what you’re doing wrong – that’s why athletes hire coaches.

Stick to your personal values. Eric actually beats out Harold for the Olympic spot and then refuses to run because the race is on a Sunday.  The British government pressures him, and he still won’t run.  As it turns out, a 400m runner gives up his spot so Eric can still represent at the Olympics and maintain the Sabbath.

There will be times when you will feel like you need to do things a certain way in order to move ahead.  Some things may be negotiable but your values are not.  You don’t need to give up who you are to be successful.

Be true to yourself. At the start of the 400m, Eric shakes hands with each of the competitors and introduces himself.  It’s natural for him but in the world of competitive sports it’s completely unexpected.  Then he leaves them in the dust with his superior running ability.

You don’t have to be aggressive or show a killer instinct, if your natural predisposition is to be sunny and warm.  Sure, some work environments will be competitive and will want to hire people in that mould, so you may miss out on these spots. But other environments will prefer warm and welcoming, and if you try to show off a competitive streak, you’ll miss out here. Better to be who you are, and run the race your own way.

Set realistic personal objectives. Harold is driven to be the fastest runner in the world. After watching Abrahams in a 100m race, and – for the first time ever – Abrahams loses, nosed out by Liddell, Mussabini approaches him and says simply:  Mr Abrahams, I can find you another two yards.

What he meant was:  If you train with me and follow my instructions, over the same elapsed time, you can be two yards farther ahead. Why did Mussabini use those exact words?  Why didn’t he say I can make you a winner?  Because Mussabini knew that gaining two yards is absolute, but winning a race is relative.  He could predictably ensure the former, but the latter was beyond his control, because winning a race depends on the other runners, too.

Target improvements in several aspects of your performance Over the next days and weeks, Mussabini improved specific parts of Abrahams’s mechanics and running technique. He shortened Abraham’s stride and lowered his arm action.  He found ways to get more power at the start, and improved the dip at the finish.  All of those things are absolute—they don’t depend on anyone else.

Mussabini also emphasised mental preparation, familiarising Abrahams with the tendencies of his major rivals, not just Liddell but the two leading Americans, Charles Paddock and Jackson Scholz.  It was important to learn their times, their habits, their strengths.  Winning a race would call for every possible advantage. As a result, Abrahams became a faster runner, and he improved his chances of success.

But Mussabini knew better than to guarantee a win.  Why?  Because at the same moment, Abrahams’s rivals were also working on their technique, their conditioning, their mental preparation.  They were all committed to improving themselves, as well.  If Abrahams found those two yards but his rivals improved by two yards and half, he wouldn’t win.  A race is a relative contest, and absolute improvement guarantees nothing.

Company performance is better understood as relative, not absolute.  Following a formula cannot ensure success because if our rivals are doing the same things, we’ll be no better off.  In business, there is a need to do things differently than rivals, which necessarily entails risks.  That’s not a comforting notion – far more pleasant is the idea that managers can follow a simple set of steps to achieve greatness. But of course, that doesn’t work.

For a man whose athletics career was so brief and is now so distant, Liddell continues to cast a lengthy shadow. It took until the 1980 Games for another Scot to win a gold medal, and until 2004 for another China-born athlete to win a gold medal on the track. After the 1980 100m final race, Allan Wells having won the 100m title that Liddell was denied by an accident of scheduling, the victor simply said: That one’s for Eric Liddell

Take the Olympian spirit of Jesse Owens into your business

Not everyone is a competitive or sporting person, however there are lessons which we can take from Olympic athletes and apply them to our business ambitions, behaviours and efforts. Each Olympic athlete strives for peak performance and achieving a personal best, they have the determination and mind set of a winner, choosing to move forward even when it is uncomfortable – how can we emulate that in business?

Olympians are not like ordinary people. Let’s face it, most of us are not motivated enough to get up at 4am and practice our hearts out for six hours a day, seven days a week. Most of us couldn’t handle the pressure of having ‘the world’ watch us, carefully scrutinising our every move. But for the Olympic athlete, this is what drives them – competition, challenge, defeat and victory – and they come alive, living for that moment of opportunity to win.

Olympians start out as ordinary people who learn to take on traits that are extraordinary. These characteristics are the key to their power and ability to conquer fears, insecurities, physical and mental barriers, and bounce back in the face of adversity when things don’t go their way. Olympians have a drive to meet their goals, overcoming barriers with a commitment to themselves, a purpose where success becomes the focus. The clarity of what has to be achieved to win gets them out of the comfort zone, determined to do whatever was necessary to make it happen. We can learn how to take these traits and apply them to our business and become more successful.

There have been many great Olympians, but few can compare to Jesse Owens. This was a tough man who knew what he wanted to accomplish and set out to do just that.

The seventh child of Henry and Emma Alexander Owens was named James Cleveland when he was born in Alabama on September 12, 1913. A teacher was told “J.C.” when she asked his name to enter in her roll book, but she thought he said Jesse. The name stuck and he would be known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life.

As a child he was boisterous, and used to go wild in the school playground, always getting into trouble. Then one day, the greatest of his life he said, the junior high track coach plucked him out of a playground scuffle and set him to work training for track meets. Owens attributes all of his future Olympic successes to that coach, Irishman Charles Riley

His promising athletic career began in 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio where he set Junior High School records in the high jump and long jump, set a new high school world record by running the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds and created a new high school world record in the 220-yard dash by running the distance in 20.7 seconds.

At the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935, he set three world records and tied a fourth, all in a span of about 45 minutes. Jesse was uncertain as to whether he would be able to participate at all, as he was suffering from a sore back as a result from a fall down a flight of stairs. He convinced his coach to allow him to run the 100-yard dash as a test for his back, and amazingly Jesse recorded an official time of 9.4 seconds, once again tying the world record.

Despite the pain, he then went on to participate in three other events, setting a world record in each event. In a span of 45 minutes, he accomplished what many experts still feel is the greatest athletic feat in history.

His 100-yard dash run equalled the world record of 9.4 seconds. Ten minutes later he made one long jump and cleared 26ft 8.25in, breaking the world record by more than half-a-foot. It was 25 years before anyone broke that record. Nine minutes later he slashed three-tenths of a second from the world 220-yards record and 26 minutes later he ran the 220-yard hurdles for his fourth world record of the day.

In the summer of 1936 Jesse owns arrived at the summer Olympics in Berlin. Jesse Owens, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, achieved what no Olympian before him had accomplished – he became the first track & field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad. This remarkable achievement stood unequaled until the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, when American Carl Lewis matched Jesse’s feat.

Although others have gone on to win more gold medals, he remains the best remembered Olympic athlete because he achieved what no Olympian before or since has accomplished – during a time of deep-rooted segregation and Hitler’s master race theory, he affirmed that individual excellence, rather than race or national origin, distinguishes one man from another.

Athletes didn’t return from the Olympics to lucrative advertising and product endorsement campaigns in those days, and Owens supported his young family with a variety of jobs. One was of special significance – playground director in Cleveland. It was his first step into a lifetime of working with underprivileged youth, which gave him his greatest satisfaction. After relocating to Chicago, he devoted much of his time to underprivileged youth as a board member and former director of the Chicago Boys’ Club. Jesse Owens died from complications due to lung cancer on March 31, 1980 in Tucson, Arizona.

There are many quotes attributed to Owens, here are a few which I think resonate into what we can take into our business lives, from his sporting life and achievements:

We all have dreams. In order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline and effort.

I always loved running – it was something you could do by yourself and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.

If you don’t try to win you might as well hold the Olympics in somebody’s back yard. The thrill of competing carries with it the thrill of a gold medal. One wants to win to prove himself the best.

One chance is all you need, a lifetime of training for just 10 seconds. It all goes so fast, and character makes the difference when it’s close. The purpose of the Olympics is to do your best. As I’d learned long ago from Charles Riley, the only victory that counts is the one over yourself.

To a sprinter, the hundred-yard dash is over in three seconds, not nine or ten. The first ‘second’ is when you come out of the blocks. The next is when you look up and take your first few strides to attain gain position. By that time the race is actually about half over. The final ‘second’ – the longest slice of time in the world for an athlete – is that last half of the race, when you really bear down and see what you’re made of. It seems to take an eternity, yet is all over before you can think what’s happening.

From the remarkable achievements of Jesse Owen, here some key Olympian traits to take into your business, and push to achieve that personal best.

  • Vision: Athletes have a clear vision of where they’re going, they are purposeful about it as a clear goal, and avoid distraction which saves time and energy.
  • Run Through: Olympians run through their events mentally before they even do them – this gets them in the ‘zone’ and gives them an edge; visualise your business success, and get this energy.
  • Discipline: Olympians may not love getting up at 5am but they know they have to put in the time – so must you be strongly disciplined.
  • Personal Growth: Athletes know they need to ‘push’ them when they want to quit. The key is clarity on seeking personal growth.
  • Never Quit Attitude: Olympians feel like quitting at times – just like us – but they push through and know they won’t win without tenacity.
  • They Lose a Lot: Olympians often lose more than they win, but it’s their strong, determined spirit that keeps them moving forward when others would quit. This makes them winners
  • Block out Negativity: Olympians may feel stress, frustration and anxiety, but they blocking these out with positive mind sets

When you run a business dealing with the Monday to Friday stops-and-starts, having the blue sky thinking of what you want to achieve and equally the washing the pots of some low level tasks filling your head, it can sometimes overwhelm you. However, it’s the people who persevere with determination and a plan and vision that will succeed.

As business professionals we must choose to meet each day with the knowledge that our path holds both obstacles and opportunity. The competition will be tough and the conditions unpredictable and unforgiving, but that’s what it takes to turn a vision into a reality.  So dig deep and unleash what drives you – not for money or fame, but for the pure joy of doing what you do best, and doing it to a new standard – aspire to be a Jesse Owens and achieve a lifetime personal best every day.

Thinking Outloud: Audacity, not Austerity

As a ten-year old boy, I was inspired after watching the legendary swimmer Mark Spitz win a record-breaking haul of gold medals at the Munich Olympics in 1972, and as we countdown to London 2012, the concept of Personal Best is in my mind, a peak level of performance achieved when it really matters.

Carl Lewis – 20 Olympic and World Championship medals (18 gold) – is one of those outstanding individuals I think about with regard to Personal Best. He competed at the pinnacle of world standards for nearly 20 years. How do you sustain high performance and not rest on your laurels? He’s one athlete I have long admired, but in the context of achieving something remarkable, there are two other top performers I’ve always admired.

Bob Beamon achieved a distance of 29ft 2 in in the Olympics long jump final in Mexico in 1968. Take a look at some of the photographs that capture him being catapulted through the air. It was a feat, a legend that Beamon would never repeat again, one of those elusive split seconds when it all comes together. In this case, his run-up (he was a sprinter by trade) was fantastically fast, the take-off perfect to a millimetre, the height prodigious and the flight just seemed to go on forever. When he eventually came back down to earth it was as the record breaking Olympic champion. He landed with such a thud that he bounced out of the pit all together.

The world record was jointly held by Ralph Boston of the USA and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan of Russia, at 27ft 4 in. What always made me smile was that the officials had to search out an old fashioned steel tape measure because the leap had surpassed their electronic marker’s capabilities. So overwhelmed was Beamon that his legs gave way and he sank to the floor with a cataleptic seizure brought on by emotional shock.

Beamon, aged 22 from New York, was a good athlete. He had won 22 of his last 23 meetings but was somewhat hit-or-miss down the runway, prone to foul jumping. He had been without a coach for four months leading up to the Olympics because he’d been suspended for refusing to compete at a university event in the US as a protest against racial policies. So he wasn’t the favourite for the event, and he confesses, if it wasn’t for some advice from Ralph Boston giving him a hint on how to handle his errant jumping, he may not have survived the qualifying rounds.

Having qualified, Beamon then waited for his first jump. At the time, Beamon’s jump was hailed as the greatest athletic achievement of all time. Look at the figures. Since Jesse Owens record-breaking jump of 26ft 8 in in 1935, the world record had progressed 8in. in 33 years. At Mexico, Beamon added another 21in – nearly two feet. Beamon’s record stood for 23 years until Mike Powell edged it in 1991 by 2 inches, leaping 29ft 4½ in. This world record still stands, the fourth person since 1900 to hold the record for over 20 years. But Beamon’s colossal jump was his personal best, after this monumental moment in his life he never jumped farther than 26ft 11in.

From the long jump, to the high jump. Harold Osborn won the Olympic high jump in 1924 with success at the record height of 6ft 6in – that’s jumping over me, which is quite ridiculous – but when you look at the black and white photographs of the old technique it looks really old fashioned. That’s not to say that Dick Fosbury’s way, unveiled 44 years later was any safer, the minor disadvantage of the high-jump technique that we have come to know as the Fosbury Flop was that you landed on the back of your neck.

Fosbury’s personal best was a eureka moment of innovation that changed the high-jump event forever. As a student in physics and engineering, he had concluded that the customary ‘straddle’ or ‘western roll’ – when the whole body was more or less horizontal above the bar – was not the most efficient ergonomic way of getting over the bar.

He deduced that it was better to clear the bar backwards, rolling in an arc, with the head and feet vertically below the hips at the peak of the arc on opposite sides of the bar. Don’t ask me how he thought of that, let alone envisage himself doing it, but it was good enough that Fosbury understood what he was doing. He worked out that by operating along the rolling arc, it was possible for the jumper to keep the body’s centre of gravity below, rather than above the height of the bar. Even I can see that’s a good thing, but I’ll just stand and watch thank you. Incidentally, the technique got its label from a journalist who observed Fosbury was like a fish flopping in a boat.

All of this, like Beamon, came together in the Mexico games of 1968. In the Olympic final, competing against Ed Caruthers from the US and Valentin Gavrilov of Russia, the height of the bar was raised to 7ft 4in, a new Olympic record. Caruthers and Gavrilov failed three times, Fosbury twice, but at the third and final attempt he pulled off a personal – and world – best.

Another person who evidences the focus of personal best is Steve Jobs, and I’ve recently finished reading his biography by Walter Isaacson. It’s a well-written book and I enjoyed reading it. I learned many interesting things from the book, but here I’d like to focus on just one trait of Steve Jobs that pretty much describes his life: intensity. Time and again, the book describes how intense Jobs was in whatever he did. When he thought that something was worth doing, he would throw his entire being into it. He would take it further than what other people would. In the words of one person who knew him, he would carry it to the extreme.

One example was his approach to product development, where his intensity took the form of perfectionism. He simply didn’t tolerate any flaw. He would insist that everything must be done perfectly. For instance, when developing the first Mac he asked the on-off button to be redesigned again and again. The designers protested, but Jobs said that it’s important to do things right. Intensity is good; it can help you achieve things that are impossible otherwise, so it is an important factor in seeking that personal best. Here are a few things I learn about intensity from Steve Jobs:

Belief You can’t be intense on something you don’t believe in. Jobs focused on building great products above everything else, he always worked on something he believed in, that’s why he was able to do it intensely. You need to believe in yourself that you can achieve it, and your path to that success. Once you’re convinced you can do it, nothing is impossible. Belief is the ‘think and feel’ part of personal best, once you find something you believe in, throw your heart and soul into it.

Action Nothing moves until you do something. Believing alone is not going to achieve anything, it must be followed up with concrete action. Jobs shows time and again that when you act upon what you believe, there is focus, and there is energy. That energy propels you to greater heights. Action is the ‘hands and legs’ part of the critical success factors to personal best, it is the ‘do’ part of it.

Focus Avoid distractions, your energy is limited, you can’t do too many things. Don’t spread yourself too thin. Jobs repeatedly talked about the importance of focus. When he became CEO he dropped many projects that he thought were distracting, he focused the company’s energy on just a handful of key products. That turned out to be the right decision. Focus is the ‘get ready, get set, go’ step in attaining your personal best.

Keep it balanced Being intense is good, but being too intense is bad. Jobs tended to fall on the extreme side of it and as a result he hurt some people and his reputation as an innovator is edged with an autocratic and sometime blunt, unfeeling communication style. I don’t think that’s good. While you need to be intense, you should also keep it balanced. Don’t be too intense on something that you sacrifice the other areas of your life (for example, your relationships). Keep it balanced is the ‘reflect, adjust, refine’ element to your personal best activity.

Intensity is the driver behind the extraordinary achievements of Beamon, Fosbury and Jobs. Intensity sharpens our focus and when you are focused, you don’t see distractions (even though they exist) and get job done effectively. Aligned to this, their mental toughness and persistence kept them going, and I’m minded by this quote from Calvin Coolidge:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

Belief, Action, Focus, Balance – and Persistence. Try to make everyday your Olympics final, and you’ll leap long, jump high and with inherent intensity, achieve that personal best. My philosophy is that not only are you responsible for your life, but doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment. One personal best is just the stepping-stone to the next one, and in these current times of maudlin and mawkish thinking, it’s time for audacity, not austerity.