Everyone wants to be a peak performer. It’s one of the things that I get asked about most often. Individuals, teams, and businesses all want to figure out ways to perform at their absolute best all the time. That’s an honorable goal—and completely unrealistic. The better goal is optimal performance.
To understand the distinction, let’s consider NASCAR, a sport that epitomizes peak performance. Your standard, run of the mill NASCAR vehicle carries about 750 horsepower, runs at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour, and can complete a 500-mile race in about two and a half hours. That’s like driving from Raleigh, North Carolina, to New York City. It’s distance that would take the average minivan roughly eight hours; and a flight would only get you there an hour faster. A race car on the track after the green flag waves is the very definition of peak performance—a precision machine operated by a professional driver in ideal conditions.
But NASCAR drivers don’t use those same cars to run errands around town. Danica Patrick, for example, drives a Ford Expedition for her day-to-day routine. Kyle Petty runs around in a Prius, and Kyle Busch drives a Toyota Camry. The reasons for this are obvious and logical. A car optimized for the track is not an appropriate vehicle for a trip to the grocery store. The power and potential speed are ridiculous overkill on a city street and climbing through the window to get in and out—there are no doors on NASCAR cars—is awkward enough at the track let alone in a parking lot. (There is, however, a surprising amount of trunk space.) Kyle Busch’s M&Ms Toyota is perfect for the track, but his regular old Camry is a much better choice for his off-track endeavors. So, when people ask me about how to achieve and maintain peak performance, they’re really asking “How do I run at NASCAR speeds all the time?” And the honest answer is, you can’t, and you don’t really want to, either.
We’re often sold a bill of goods that says to be successful, we must perform at our peak, through every situation and as often as possible. Be like a pro athlete, we’re told—trained, conditioned, and practiced to be peak performers...
That’s true: professional athletes are the ultimate peak performers—but only when they’re actually playing their particular sport. That’s key. It’s important to remember that peak performance is just that—a peak, an apex from which there is nowhere to go but down. A pro football player will design his entire week so that he can peak for three hours on Sunday, but the rest of the time, he’s nowhere near his peak. What would that even look like? How does the hall of fame quarterback peak when he’s microwaving leftovers or stuck in traffic?
That’s the other part about peak performance: it’s usually context-specific and conditional. It typically requires a predictable and familiar environment—a flat, dry track with every car going in the same direction, for instance, or a hundred yards of marked and lined turf with wide receivers to throw to and an offensive line to keep you from getting crushed. Peak performance is about training, preparation, discipline, and everything going right.
That’s not, of course, how most of life works. Life is messy, unpredictable. Much of it is routine enough, and with stakes low enough, that there’s no need to be at your peak anyway.
Which brings us to something different. When I was working with some of the most high-performing people on the planet, none of us defined ourselves as peak performers. We were all optimal performers. Optimal performance is about doing the very best that you can in the moment—whatever that moment might be and whatever “best” looks like.
When I was laying in the frigid surf during my own SEAL Hell Week—an exercise called “surf torture” for a reason—there definitely wasn’t anything “peak” about my performance. I was doing the best I could, which was to not quit. It was dirty, cold, uncertain, and dark. None of us shivering in the waves knew how long we would be there or what was coming next. None of us had trained in any specific skills to get us through surf torture, and I’m not sure there are any that would have helped.
The details might be unique, but the surf-torture situation isn’t fundamentally different from countless others that we all have to face. Adversity comes at all of us to varying degrees. Maybe you’re a student trying to stay above water in that advanced calculus class, or a cancer patient grinding through another round of chemo, or a business executive just trying to make a deadline—success in any of those moments is just about being able to take steps, however small and with whatever appropriate means at your disposal, in the direction of success.
That is optimal performance, the ability to do the best you can in any environment. Sometimes the best is your peak, and sometimes your best is just surviving.
Most of us are unable to plan our days, our weeks, our lives, in order to “peak” at a specific time. Life, both business and personal will always be rife with unpredictability. It’s how you respond to that unpredictability that matters. We all show up to the table with attributes, innate qualities that inform the way that we are going to behave through whatever is hitting us in the moment. When I was lying in that surf, for instance, one of the main attributes I relied on was perseverance. That is part of who I am at my core. Most days, it’s not crucial; you don’t need a substantial amount of perseverance when everything is going according to plan. But with a frigid ocean washing over me for what seemed like hours, choking on saltwater, shivering until my joints ached? Yeah, perseverance came in pretty handy.
That struggling calculus student might draw on a high level of learnability and discipline; the cancer patient perhaps relies on her self-efficacy, adaptability, and courage. For individuals, teams, and organizations, optimal performance means understanding what those attributes are, how much we have of each, and how to harness them most efficiently.
Don’t demand peak performance from yourself or anyone else. It will inevitably end in frustration. Strive instead for optimal performance. At times it will feel great, and at times it will feel slow and painful. But it will always be your best.