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“Can you recommend a book for…?”
“What are you reading right now?”
“What are your favorite books?”
I get asked those types of questions a lot and, as an avid reader and all-around bibliophile, I’m always happy to oblige.
I also like to encourage people to read as much as possible because knowledge benefits you much like compound interest. The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunities you have to succeed.
On the flip side, I also believe there’s little hope for people who aren’t perpetual learners. Life is overwhelmingly complex and chaotic, and it slowly suffocates and devours the lazy and ignorant.
So, if you’re a bookworm on the lookout for good reads, or if you’d like to get into the habit of reading, this book club for you.
The idea here is simple: Every week, I’ll share a book that I’ve particularly liked, why I liked it, and several of my key takeaways from it.
I’ll also keep things short and sweet so you can quickly decide whether the book is likely to be up your alley or not.
If you’ve already read a book that I recommend or have a recommendation of your own to share, don’t be shy! Drop a comment down below and let me–and the rest of us “book clubbers”–know!
Lastly, if you want to be notified when new recommendations go live, hop on my email list and you’ll get each new installment delivered directly to your inbox.
Alright. Let’s get to this week’s book: Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness.
If you want a detailed and practical overview of the science of optimizing your mental and physical performance, then you’re going to like this book.
It explores three primary topics–how to use stress and recovery to stimulate progress and growth, how to prime and prepare yourself for optimal performance, and how to tap into the power of purpose–and is packed full of insights and practical takeaways.
I’ve read quite a bit in this space already and so didn’t find much in Peak Performance that I hadn’t come across elsewhere, but I did enjoy it nonetheless. It’s a well-organized and well-presented review of the performance literature, and is written in a breezy, conversational style that makes for effortless reading.
I particularly liked the procedure for finding and formulating a purpose, whether for an individual project or your entire life. It emphasizes transcending yourself and identifying core values and fundamental beliefs, which I believe is spot on, because while they may be worshipped in today’s culture, self-interest and acquisitiveness are, in the end, incredibly unfulfilling and demotivating. You can only spend so much living for yourself and accumulating money and things before your soul yearns for something deeper and more meaningful. And you can only ignore this for so long before it hollows you out.
The right path, the authors argue, is in the opposite direction–the dedication of yourself to a course greater than you, and in focusing on becoming the person that you want to be as opposed to having the things that you want to have.
This isn’t news, of course–high-achievers and thinkers of all stripes have been saying it for millennia–but it will always bear repeating because sometimes you have to hear something multiple times or at the right time before you really take it to heart.
My 5 Key Takeaways from Peak Performance
If you are interested in really improving as a performer, I would suggest incorporating the rhythm of stress and recovery into all aspects of your life.
Many people’s lives are horribly imbalanced when viewed through the lense of stress and recovery.
The majority strive to minimize stress of any kind and maximize relaxation and recovery, which makes for “easy living” but also personal stagnation and dissatisfaction, and then there’s the minority that refuse to take a break from stressful activities and make time for recovery, which makes for burnout syndrome and general malaise.
I’ve been on both sides of this equation at different times in my life–lazy and listless and frenetic and uneasy–and can say that while they have their silver linings (comfort and accomplishment), they both suck, just in different ways.
The challenge, then, is finding your Goldilocks zone, the sweet spot where you’re exposing yourself to enough stress in enough areas of your life to continue growing and improving, but not so much that the costs outweigh the benefits.
Some individuals learn to assess stressors as challenges rather than threats. This outlook, which researchers call a “challenge response,” is characterized by viewing stress as something productive, and, much like we’ve written, as a stimulus for growth. In the midst of stress, those who demonstrate a challenge response proactively focus on what they can control. With this outlook, negative emotions like fear and anxiety decrease. This response better enables these individuals to manage and even thrive under stress.
Reframing stress as constructive rather than destructive is more powerful than you might think. It not only positive influences how you view and feel about the situation, it also impacts your physiology.
Studies show that people who react to stress with a “challenge response” release more DHEA than those that don’t, which counteracts the negative effects of cortisol and can even confer health benefits. For example, research shows that people that view stress positively have a 43% lower chance of premature death that those that view it negatively.
The best performers are not consistently great, but they are great at being consistent. They show up every day and they do the work.
Stephen King wrote about this in his memoir On Writing. “Don’t wait for the muse,” he said. “Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you are going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’till three. If he knows, I assure you he’ll start showing up.”
This is the unsexy reality of success. A lot of it just comes down to doing things that most people don’t want to do, each and every day. You often don’t want to do them yourself, either, but you have to find the will to act anyway (more on that in a minute).
Regardless of what you are doing— whether you are using your body, mind, or soul— repeating a purpose-driven mantra during times of fear, pain, or apprehension can yield big benefits. Doing so grounds us, attenuates negative emotions, and quiets our ego.
It’s well established that self-talk can boost performance, and especially when our bodies and minds are telling us to quit.
For example, according to one of the co-authors (who’s the cross-country coach at the University of Houston), when elite runners start feeling pain and discomfort in their workouts (which they all do), they respond differently than most people. Instead of thinking about how painful it is and how much worse it’s going to get or trying to force their way through or fight against it, they have a calm conversation with themselves that goes something like this:
“This is starting to hurt now. It should. I’m running hard. But I am separate from this pain. It’s going to be okay.”
In other words, they decide how to respond to the stress of the workout, and it makes all the difference in their mindset (they relax) and performance (they put up better times).
…students who were forced to struggle on complex problems before receiving help from teachers outperformed students who received immediate assistance. The authors of these studies summarized their findings in a simple yet elegant statement: Skills come from struggle.
“Skills come from struggle.”
This is a powerful statement to include in your self-talk whenever you’re struggling through a situation or activity. As us weightlifting folk know, growth occurs at the point of resistance, and often is preceded by failure, which allows for productive reflection and analysis toward the final solution.
Remember that the next time that you’re facing a challenge that feels barely manageable or a little out of control. These are the situations that grow your skills.