Humans naturally think about their own behaviors in terms of peak and trough performance levels, rather than means or medians. Without any performance tracking, we know our limits in a variety of domains. Each time we attempt a performance episode in any skilled domain, these limits change, yielding a learning curve. It has a characteristic tempo, depending on the episodic performance quality, as well as a tempo across episodes, that is correlated with quality. I prefer this model of a learning curve that I made up to the usual smooth, S-shaped one with a plateau at the end. I’ll explain why in a bit. This picture is related to what I called the Freytag Staircase in the book, but is not quite the same.
The fastest I’ve ever run is an 8-minute mile. On my worst days, if I can get off the couch at all, I struggle to finish a 15-minute mile. In terms of endurance, the most I’ve ever run is 9 miles. On my worst drays I can barely run half a mile.
On my best days, I can write thousands of words of near-flawless prose (by my standards that is: stuff I am happy to post without further revision). On my worst days, I can barely squeeze out a couple of hundred words. And they tend not to be very good. I often endlessly revise the words and still end up throwing them away in disgust.
These two regimes: peak performance and trough performance, are very different psychologically. The former is about an effortless, stable tempo; what positive psychologists call flow. It is about letting go and maintaining a light and gentle control on exuberant energy. The latter is about an unstable, high-effort tempo that never seems to settle. It is the opposite of flow. It is about grit, pain and endurance, and consciously willing yourself to keep going. Since the intrinsic rhythms are unstable, you may need extrinsic ones: like music, a book or just telling yourself, “just another minute, just another tenth of a mile, and I’ll stop…. how about another 10 strides…”
Discipline and Daemons
I used to think discipline was about machine-like predictable performance. Now I believe discipline seems to be about showing up like clockwork, and accepting whatever happens: peak performance, trough performance or anything in-between. And then showing up again. Elizabeth Gilbert made this point very neatly by conceptualizing the actual performance level as the effect of whether or not a creative “daemon” visits you on that particular day. I prefer Gilbert’s model to Woody Allen’s more cryptic line, “90% of success is just showing up,” because it clarifies the link between show-up discipline and actual outcomes.
For us mere mortals, there will always be a gap between peak performance and trough performance. So it is easy to fall into the trap of only focusing on one or the other.
Those who focus only on the peak get addicted to the highs that peaks bring. They abandon discipline and only attempt performance episodes when they feel the “flow” coming on. Unfortunately, without disciplined and regular “showing up,” these events become increasingly rare. Gilbert’s daemon is not predictable but it expects you to be.
Those who focus only on showing up, gritting their teeth, and pushing through, fail in a different way. They are so exhausted by the trough days that on days when things seem a little easier — a sign that the daemon is on its way – they cannot let go and hit a new peak. Instead, they either lose the flow through too much control, or worse, treat the relative ease of the flow state as an opportunity to relax; a break from the unending series of trough episodes. In other words, they either strangle or ignore the daemon, leading to the same result: the daemon visits get increasingly rare.
I prefer to play it by the ear. If it seems like the daemon is present, I relinquish control and let it take me to whatever peak it can that day. If the daemon appears to be absent, I view it as a training exercise in grit and resilience.
This isn’t a deterministic decision. Sometimes I make Type I errors: trying to relinquish control when there is no daemon around to take over. Other days I make Type II errors: misreading the signs of a daemon on its way, and doing the grit thing instead.
When you manage to hit this mindset, both peaks and troughs start to rise. That’s at the heart of it.
Of course, there is more going on. You become more mindful in the activity, there is deliberate practice going on, increasing both conscious and unconscious skill levels. You are becoming aware of dimensions of the activity you were not aware of before. In short, you are learning.
But at the heart of this is simply this management of the tempo of performance evolution through its peaks and troughs.
This is a pretty difficult meta-cognition skill to acquire.
In fact it is as hard as another activity it resembles: managing the growth rate and income inequality in an economy. This connection should not surprise you. Both growing a country’s wealth and learning a skill are creative-destruction processes. Societies start to crumble if income inequality (the Gini coefficient) increases too much. But on the other hand, artificially forcing gaps to zero (idealized communism) kills growth. Good governance is about letting the daemon — capitalism — take control sometimes, and keeping things going via regulation at other times, and knowing when to invoke which governance behavior.
There is something like an economy of performers in your life. Every day you are a different person. Some days you are wealthy with flow, other days you are impoverished.
Many people are good at managing episodic tempo on either end of the spectrum. They might be good at peak performance or trough performance, or even both, but are bad at choosing the right tempo management behavior at the right time, and switching frictionlessly. It’s a mental trick — being able to swap out a peak game-mind for a trough game-mind very quickly.
There is a tempting alternative way of looking at this dynamic, which I found in John Eliot’s interesting, but deeply flawed book, Overachievement. Here you distinguish between “training” and “performance” mindsets and different external behaviors. One is practice with critical review, the other is flow performance with no meta-cognition.
I have concluded that this is a fatally flawed framing. Eliot considers professional sports and professions like neurosurgery. While there definitely is a practice/performance distinction, I have found personally that in most domains, you cannot separate things out that way. You are learning and performing all the time. You’re just learning different things. The peak/trough distinction is more intrinsic and robust.
Traditional Learning Curves
Traditional learning curves are typically smooth and S-shaped.
They are smooth because they typically track only peak or trough performance.
They plateau for a different reason: they use the same performance metric for all levels of performance. This may work at the Olympics, but is deeply misguided in most real-world domains. Performance quality is something you measure differently as skill levels increase.
In cricket for example, fast bowlers value raw pace early in their careers, controlled swing later in their careers, and guile and variation in their mature phase.
If you measure a bowler based purely on raw pace throughout his career, you’ll naturally get a plateau, because you’re not aware of the new levels of the game he has opened up for himself. In a way, he has abandoned diminishing marginal returns on one front for higher returns on another.
But that’s only a rough external view of what’s happening. Performance is not something you measure in terms of effects and external reference points, but in terms of the quality of your unconscious, internalized understanding of what you are doing: unconscious competence.
Growth involves internalizing the natural essence of what you are doing, rather than viewing it in instrumental ways, as a means to an end. You become a better runner as opposed to having a better 100m time.
Instrumentality must be considered here. Sure, in cricket, bowling is merely a means to an end: getting the batsmen out, preventing them from making runs, and winning the game.
But there is also an internal essence of the art of bowling. Good bowlers try to achieve the goals of bowling as an instrumental behavior. Great bowlers start to manifest the essence of bowling.
Closer to my life, far from the demands of high-end professional sports, there is exercise as a means to lost weight and better looks, and exercise as a lifelong journey to manifest the essence of your body and understanding what “healthy” really means. There is writing as a means to books and income, and there is writing as a lifelong journey to become a flow of words.
There is one valid critique of such intrinsic definitions of learning and performance. What about competitive situations. Do mindful bowlers get more wickets? Yield fewer runs? Win more games? Do mindful batsmen make more runs, win more games?
Cricket fans agonize endlessly about such questions. Often, a statistically-minded fan will attempt a Gotcha! argument: “You think player X is great, but if you actually look at the win/loss record, you’ll notice that he’s scored most of his centuries in games we’d have won anyway, it’s player Y who actually delivers to win games.”
At the level of growing the game, you can partially resolve such questions by simply applying the peak/trough performance/learning curve to the team as a whole. You could view great bowlers as innovators and pioneers, and good ones as execution types. Good bowlers win games. Great bowlers advance the game, even if they don’t win as often (though they often do both).
But in a way that’s besides the point. No human-invented game is a good representation of open performance environments with no artificial rules.
What is an open performance environment? It is one where Darwin rules. Where the only measure of success is survival, and there are no rules.
Does mindful performance make you more likely to survive a little longer?
I am not sure. It is one of the questions I am pondering for future editions of the book. There are tricky issues concerning entropy, knowledge and the nature of risk that I haven’t yet worked through.
But I think it is what makes survival worthwhile. Ten years of mindful living is worth twenty years of half-dead living.