David Krueger MD
As I have collaborated with performing professionals – actors and professional athletes – I have learned increasingly about elite performance, and the factors that distinguish from average performance. Colleagues who have also studied this area such as Geoffrey Colvin in his book Talent Is Overrated, inform this conversation.
Professional athletes have specific challenges to regulate states of mind at transition times, such as the beginning of their pro career with the stimulation of fame and new wealth, and at retirement to deal with successful transitions of career, income, and status. Actors especially have middle career challenges dealing with fame, wealth and regulation of mind states to sustain success, as well as wellness of mind, body and spirit.
1. Attention to state of mind. Elite performers know that state of mind and immersion in an ideal state creates “flow.” Flow is the state of automatic performance within procedural memory – not observing, not thinking about how you perform. Regulation of state of mind is best done by physiology and focus. See The Neuroscience of Change: 3 Steps to Rewire Your Brain for a way to combine physiology and focus to ensure an ideal state of mind.
2. The best performers observe themselves very closely. They monitor their performance and their state of mind. This subjective awareness becomes systematic for top performers. Am I staying true to purpose? Is this the best strategy? Am I making a balanced decision of reason and emotion? Am I grounded/centered?
One of the consensus top three professional golfers of all time, when asked about his method, said, “I can see myself very well. I can visualize myself from all angles, and see my ideal swing and stroke. I can also see when I’m a bit off the mark to self-correct.” This awareness and self-visualization is not about video replay and analysis, but a unique development of body intelligence and objectivity to recognize both state of mind, and the automatic procedural body memory within the flow of that state of mind.
3. Elite performers are more specific as they judge themselves, set more specific goals and strategies. For example, average performers are content to say that they did good or bad, but the best performers have a specific standard that they strive to achieve.
4. Elite performers and average performers spend the same amount of time learning and practicing, but the difference is how they spend this time. Elite performers spend three times more hours than average performers on deliberate practice – the methodical, sometimes boring and uncomfortable work to stretch fundamental ability. Larry Bird shot 1000 baskets a day, seven days a week.
5. When and how elite performers practice is also different. While average performers spread their work through the day, elite performers consolidate their work into two well-defined periods. They correspond their work to their unique effectiveness, and pay attention to their natural biorhythms.
6. Elite performers do not believe their errors are caused by factors outside their control, but look to themselves to critically self-evaluate what they can do differently. They believe they are responsible for their errors.
7. Elite performers have a growth mindset. Average performers tend to believe that innate talent, like intelligence, is fixed. See Fixed vs. Growth Mindset.
David Krueger MD
Three groups of marketing researchers have a common finding and conclusion: once someone purchases an item, they are far more likely to continue to purchase other items. Shopping leads to more shopping.
This shopping momentum is a two-stage process. Initially a shopper decides whether to purchase the first item, takes time, weighs pros and cons. After this initial deliberation phase, once the shopper has made the decision to buy, significantly less effort is put into evaluating subsequent purchases on the same trip. The initial purchase – actually the anticipation of the purchase – creates a change of the state of mind of the shopper. Both making and spending money triggers the pleasure center of the brain to produce dopamine. This has a singular impact of shifting the state of mind. Once the state of mind is in the “buy” mode, other purchases simply sustain this state of mind.
When I previously practiced Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis, I worked with some executives who had addictions to various substances. One very wealthy shipbuilder described his reliance on cocaine. “I have always chased that initial high. The first time I ever used cocaine, I experienced an incredible rush. Every subsequent use has been less than that experience, but I am always chasing it, hoping to recapture it. It was incredible. It has led me to some very bad decisions and compromises in my life and business.”
Same with shopping. So how to strategize?
Minimize shopper’s momentum with a plan. A list. A conviction not to get swept up by sales, impulsive purchase, and to not stray in any way from the list.
Pause between the pick and the purchase. Since the anticipation of the purchase and acquiring a new bling object releases dopamine to change a state of mind, disrupt the flow of that state with a contemplative pause. Never mind if the “bling” doesn’t have glitter, such as a backpack from REI, it still leads to a greater likelihood of additional purchases. Such as a sleeping bag. And hiking boots. (I know these things).
Monitor your energy. When you become depleted from a task, you succumb more quickly to the urge to respond according to emotion and impulse. Various activities that impose high demands of self-controlling concentration become depleting and have an impact by withdrawing energy from an emotional bank account. Some of the expressions:
- Overspending on impulse purchases
- Abandoning a healthy diet
- Lowered threshold for annoyance or impulsivity
- Performing less well on cognitive tasks and logical decision-making
- Persisting for less time in challenging tasks
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David Krueger MD
Victor Frankel was a Jewish psychiatrist in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. While death was certain, he observed that about 1 out of 25 of his fellow prisoners somehow managed to survive. He set about studying the characteristics of those who survived.
He found that it was what the survivors associated to that made the difference in their survival. While 24 out of every 25 focused on their pain and inevitable death, those who survived created meaning – a purpose – for their suffering, rather than accepting their fate and wondering why God was allowing them to die. For example, they constructed a reason to survive so that they could tell their story to their children, to make certain that this kind of atrocity would never happen again. It changed the meaning of their suffering to something that would make a difference – a purpose that provided a will to live. (Man's Search For Meaning).
What you link inside your head – the meaning that you give – determines your behavior. You can change your behavior when you change the meaning. You can reprogram your associations and rewire your brain.
How do you condition yourself to make changes that last?
When you change the meaning of an association (neural conditioning), you change your behavior. There are three key principles of neural conditioning to make lasting change.
1. Recognize what to change.
You must get to the point where you feel you must change something, change it now, and that you can change it. Believe that change will ultimately bring pleasure. Recognize that not changing would be ultimately more painful than the immediate pain of the change process.
Questions to Ask:
- If you don't change your pattern, what will be the consequences?
- What is the pain associated to the current choice?
- What will be the pleasure with changing?
2. Identify the cues/triggers for the behavior.
The meaning you attach to a trigger determines your behavior. Observe the cues (usually emotional) that trigger an automatic behavior pattern. For example, if you want to accumulate wealth, yet do not, you immediately associate money to some pain or negative meaning.
- I'll have to work too hard and won't have time for my family
- Money will keep me from being spiritual
- I'd feel guilty about having a lot of money when so many others don't
Questions to Ask:
- What are the cues or triggers for the automatic behavior pattern?
- How can you interrupt your own pattern once you have identified it?
3. Create a new association that empowers you.
Condition a new, empowering association to the same cue. For example, if you have limited yourself or feel stuck in making more money, link making money with strength, power, and possibility.
Questions to Ask:
- What is the new association to the familiar cue?
- What is the change you want to bring about?
- What, specifically, will you gain and enjoy with the change?
The science of success is the neuroscience of neural conditioning – of reprogramming your mind to attach meanings to what you see that will generate success.
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David Krueger MD
With 64 seconds remaining in the Giants – Patriots Super Bowl Game, the Giants were trailing the Patriots 17-15, and were within striking distance to score. With an immediate Giants score, the Patriots would get the ball back, and have time to attempt a scoring drive. So the Giants wanted to score, but first use up most of the time remaining on the clock. The Patriots needed the Giants to score immediately, so they would have enough time remaining to mount a drive to keep hope alive for winning the game.
The Giant’s Ahmad Bradshaw was handed the ball, instructed to ground himself a yard away from the goal rather than scoring the touchdown. The Patriots cleared the path for an immediate touchdown.
Bradshaw tried to stop himself at the one-yard line. It was not only counterintuitive, but it opposed well-grooved superhighways in his brain traveled for many years. His trained instincts and brain wiring was to take the ball and run across the goal line. The Giants’ season-long mantra, Finish, provided further context. His brain wouldn’t let him do it. He instinctively kept going even though he clearly heard quarterback Eli Manning say, “Don’t score.” Bradshaw later told reporters, “I tried, but I couldn’t do it.”
If this accomplished professional athlete could not outsmart his brain with a world championship on the line, how can we hope to make rational decisions while browsing at Macy’s or making an online stock purchase?
Many high stakes decisions are made at stressful times. Mentor coaching with pro athletes and executives has repeatedly shown me how decision-makers are often under emotional stress, skewing their potential to evaluate options, leading to a greater reliance on emotional decisions and default options. At times of stress, we do two things:
- Our minds reduce decisions to rely on heuristics – rules of thumb. Heuristics work well on a daily basis for simple decisions. They are generally right, and the cost of errors is small. Yet in high-stakes decisions, simple rules of thumb (heuristics) tend to be a poor method of forecasting and decision making.
The neuroscience of high-stakes decisions becomes prominent at crucial times. The paradox is that when time is pressured, the state of mind is charged, so that deep thought, reflection on principles, and contemplative pause all become elusive. Bradshaw simply couldn’t suddenly override years of training and tens of thousands of practice behaviors that etched default pathways in his brain.
- Our brains rely on default programming that has been conditioned by numerous repetitions of stimulus – response. This neural conditioning is simple: the meaning we attach to a stimulus determines our behavior.
A state of mind is vulnerable to emotional contagion, greed, and peer pressure to each trump logic. When you see friends making significant profits trading stocks or flipping real estate, the natural inclination is to want in on the action. As more join the movement, prices rise for a while and it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. But then some event reverses the momentum – bursts the bubble – and turns optimism into panic. Herd mentality then pushes people to join the momentum to buy, or to flee, the market. A hot stock tip, a business deal gone sour, or a family tragedy may create an alarm response with an emotional state of mind geared for survival rather than use of logic.
Habits are difficult to change because of the way the brain functions. Many patterns of thinking and behaving are engrained in circuits deep within the brain. Information processed in the amygdala (the center of strong emotion) and the hippocampus (where meanings are attached) are both in the midbrain and processing in these parts of the brain are not brought to conscious attention.
An instant way of grounding and centering yourself to restore a balanced state of mind to access logic and reason may be to use a mantra. See: Mantras And Self-Regulation
Next blog: The Neuroscience of Change: 3 Steps to Rewire Your Brain