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The Neurological Premise For High Performance

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High performance is a concept that holds various definitions, of which “a performance that exceeds an expected norm” is one. However, at Albright Partners we prefer to define high performance as “a sustainable series of performances at a level that exceeds what most people consider normal or average and that elevates the average or mean performance level”. 

Since such definitions often cause debate and confusion, let us start out by dismantling a couple of myths. Many people intuitively believe that high performers or talents possess God given and special abilities that differentiate them from the average person. Such perception is quite simply false and carries no evidence and nor does the common belief that geniuses possess particular cell types different from the rest of us. What really differentiates these high performers or talents however, is their innate desire to improve and enhance through what is later explained as deliberate practice.

Only few people are aware, that high performance is closely related to a complex neurological process. In the same way that rubber insulation is designed to wrap a cobber wire to make the signal stronger and faster, by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking away, so is the chain of (impulse carrying) nerve fibres in the brain wrapped with neural/cellular insulation called myelin. The more myelin we can produce, the more insulation is provided to our circuit of electrical impulses and the faster and more accurate will our thoughts and movements be. Every time we practice a skill in a targeted and intelligent way, we fire our circuits, build myelin and improve our skill, accuracy and speed.

The good news is that everyone can produce myelin. Myelin however, has to be earned, which can only be done by putting more time and energy into what is called deliberate practice – a concept originally introduced by the Swedish professor Anders Ericsson.

Deliberate practice is about making progress through small failures by stopping and returning to the beginning of a given failure in order to constantly seek critical feedback and to focus persistently on shoring up weaknesses in relation to that given failure. The incentive for performing deliberate practice stems from the neurological observation that every time a person does or practices something, electrical impulses are sent along billions of neurons, connected to each other by synapses, which gradually improves that persons skills - eventually storing such skills in the unconscious mind. 
When you for instance practice a presentation for a management meeting or practice a symposium speech, you should return to the part in the presentation that doesn’t seem to work optimally, slow down and employ deliberate/targeted practice. By persistently and passionately employing targeted, mistake-focused practice over and over again, you automatically fire your circuit and attend to your mistakes until you get it right. In such a process, myelin is produced and wrapped around the circuit, which enables an improvement of your skill, while integrating the learning in your brain. The best part of the process is that once a skill circuit is insulated with myelin, it can’t be “un-insulated” - except through sickness or age – which explains why habits for instance are so hard to break.

When we talk to executives across industries, they often seem particularly impressed with the concepts of intelligence and memory. Often, the two are linked and believed to be something, which is handed out to the aforementioned lucky ones by nature. This is not the case, since memory in particular can in fact be improved through training and creation of meaningful structures. Several grandmasters of chess have neither tested more intelligent than the average person nor do they possess some special memory capacity by nature. Through deliberate practice professional chess players have created meaningful structures that allow them to memorize thousands of plays where the untrained person struggle with memorizing only a few. This is because the professional chess player has trained him/herself to understand and recall plays by obsessively practicing numerous important elements of chess, chunking and grouping them into meaningful frameworks. Another example is trying to memorize two sentences containing the same characters e.g.:

We are going to watch a documentary about Danish Prime Ministers.
Agiwe rinogt gotwcah ucadoymentry Duatbo ihsna mePir Msterniira.

Research shows that the average person is significantly more inclined to remember the first sentence as opposed to the second sentence – in spite of both sentences containing the exact same characters. The reason why we are better able to recall and understand the first sentence is that, like the professional chess players, we have acquired the cognitive game of reading through many hours of deliberate practicing. We have learned to chunk letters from left to right into words. 

It is our experience, that talents or high performers in corporate contexts are no different. They have not become talents or high performers by nature, but because they have demonstrated an innate desire to improve themselves, incited by a high level of energy, commitment and passion. 

This implies that all people can in fact become high performers or talents – and this is in fact also the case. However, in the corporate world it takes more than deliberate practice to become a high performer or a talent, but deliberate practice is a fundamental necessity that all high performers must be willing to employ as a prerequisite for delivering sustainable above average performance within a given context.

Until then, remember – we can all become high performers.

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