The One Thing Successful People Do (That Most of Us Don’t)

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Most athletes have the occasional ritual but this one was bizarre. The NBC broadcasters were visibly baffled. It grated against the grit, grind, and guts of high performance. How could an Olympic athlete be so lazy?  How could she commit heresy at such high levels of her sport?

Her sin?  Napping.

As the NBC broadcasters continued their special at the 2018 PyeongChang games on downhill skier Mikaela Shiffrin, their faces were slightly amused but mostly confused. As for her teammates’ opinions?  They unceremoniously coronated her, “Sir Naps A Lot.”

But it turns out that Mikaela Shiffrin is not alone. High performers have always had strange habits. Winston Churchill famously took 90-minute afternoon naps at the height of World War II. Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, takes 30 – 90 minute breaks multiple times a day just to gather his thoughts. Charles Dickens, in order to garner inspiration for his writing, took a three-hour walk every afternoon. And Leonardo Da Vinci, when reprimanded by his “employer,” who hired him to paint The Last Supper, said, “The greatest geniuses sometimes accomplish more when they work less.” 

What’s going on here?  Why do the most successful people work so differently than the rest of us?  And, perhaps more importantly, do they know something we don’t?

The Golden Mean (Isn’t So Golden Anymore)

When Aristotle declared the “golden mean” to be the ideal of moral virtue, civilization took note and took it to heart. We collectively over-applied it to almost every domain, including how we define success. Success, we said, looks like “balance.”  It’s the middle road – the one that doesn’t rock any boats. You’re successful if you do many things…decently well. But as modern life has sped up and expectations have risen too, we now believe that success is doing many things…exceptionally well. The sheer pace of modern life has our minds trapped in a state of what science and tech writer Linda Stone aptly calls, “continuous partial attention.”  We’re only half here, half there, or half anywhere. This semi-distracted, semi-brain-fogged, semi-did-I-get-anything-done-today state is where most of us find ourselves at 4:55 PM on an average workday. What used to pass for balance has morphed into a blur of busyness.  

Do successful people work the same?  Not if you look closely.

The Golden Switch

What successful people do time and again is thread the needle of the success paradox. They work smarter, not harder. They’re definitely not lazy, but they’re also not workaholics.  Most of us have been taught an either/or logic. We think of work and rest as a binary choice – a tradeoff where one robs the other. We can either stay late at the office or not finish our to-do list. Successful people, on the other hand, have shunned the word either and embraced the word and. They work fewer (but more productive) hours and unplug from the office when they go home. They work hard and play hard, go and recharge, deliberately focus and deliberately rest. As opposed to doing less of more, they do more of less – and do it better. Instead of turning up the volume on productivity at the expense of rest, they turn up the volume on both productivity and rest. What they’ve mastered isn’t the “golden mean,” it’s the “golden switch.” They’ve given themselves permission to switch back and forth: go, recharge, go, recharge, go, recharge.  They’re simply not afraid to rest.

Olympic Gold

Winning gold isn’t for the faint of heart and if anyone knows that, it’s Joe Jacobi.  Joe is a good friend who won gold in two-man whitewater canoeing in the 1992 Barcelona games.  When I asked him what differentiates those who win gold from those who aren’t on the podium he shared this story:

“When I made it to my second and final Olympics Games as an athlete, I discovered something while watching two of the greatest canoeists in the history of our sport prepare for their Olympic race. Everybody was doing the work at the highest level. But these two athletes, where they separated themselves from their competitors was their ability to rest – to do nothing, to just sit still and combat boredom. No running around the Olympic Village meeting new people, playing video games, or searching for escapes. They were just better at rest and recovery than everyone else. This Olympic Games would be the second of three times these two athletes finished in first and second positions on the Olympic podium together.”

Touché.

Quality, Not Quantity

Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr have brilliantly argued that peak performers of every kind – those who edge out the competition – have made the switch from managing time to managing energy. While the rest of us race against the clock trying to get one more thing done before 5 PM, peak performers are masters of listening to their bodies and doing the hardest things when they have their highest energy (and doing menial tasks, or recharging, when they’re spent). In Stanford professor BJ Fogg’s words, they’re good at riding motivation waves.  Instead of eking out more quantity from their workday, they focus instead on quality.  And the only way to get more quality is to give yourself permission—as hard as it is—to regularly recharge. 

So while most of us get stuck in the success trap – thinking the only choice is to run harder or fall hopelessly behind – the most successful people in the world think about success like an athlete. They use what Alex Pang calls deliberate rest to maximize their performance.  They treat rest like fuel – and when they stop, they only buy the highest octane.

So how did that nap work out for Mikaela Shiffrin before she hit the slopes of PyeongChang? 

Let’s just say it was golden.

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James Garrett