The difference between average and elite? One percent

Almost every time I speak or run any sort of leadership development workshop I hear some variation on the same two questions.  The first is “do you know Bear Grylls?” and the second is “what’s the difference between the SAS and the rest of the Army?”

The answer to the first question is “not any more” and the answer to the second is “just one percent”.

The difference, I believe, between average and exceptional in any aspect of life is an improvement of just one percent. Every day.

It doesn't sound like much, does it? But do the math.  If you were to improve just one aspect of your performance by one percent every day, then at the end of just one year you’d be over 37 times better at it!  OK, so it may be a simplistic example but it’s one that makes the point, I think, that the difference between elite and average is that the elite performers are constantly looking for the incremental improvements rather than waiting for the silver bullet cure-all that will catapult them into the big time.

So what does it take to make that one-percent improvement every day?

Identify what you’re good at

The training industry today - in the form of countless RTO’s - would have us believe that we can all be competent at anything given sufficient time (and money) and our post-industrial revolution education system would have us believe that our weaknesses are where we have to focus our attention in order to raise our performance there.

These two notions are fundamentally flawed in my opinion.

Howard Gardner put forward the concept of multiple intelligences - the idea that intelligence in humans takes many forms, known as modalities, such as verbal-linguistic or logical-mathematical.  That explains, in part at least, why my mother can learn a new language in a few weeks but still, despite earning several post-graduate degrees, struggles to operate a laptop computer.

By identifying and acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses, we can find ways to leverage the former for greatest effect and mitigate the effects of the latter.  One of my weaknesses is that my dyslexia means that I can’t extract information well from textbooks and so I’ve had to develop techniques for converting complex written concepts into simple concrete, and visual, examples so I can understand them.  By doing that, I’m able to use a strength - breaking down the complex into the simple - to mitigate a weakness.

Make the big appear small

The number one reason, in my experience, why people get disillusioned when they try to master any new skill is precisely that - they try and master a new skill.  Most skills - whether you’re trying to become an ace sales executive in the workplace or reduce your handicap on the golf course - are actually multiple skills carried out at the same time, and the mistake most people make is to try and work on them all at the same time. Then they experience the fact that the human brain has a limited capacity for changes to its habitual operating pattern - the next thing they experience is, at best, no change and at worse, disillusionment.

The way to get around this is to break it down.  Take the complex skill you want to master and break it down to its fundamental components, then work on just one of them to start with.  A potential sales ninja might decide, for example, that at each of his next ten appointments he’s going to work specifically on his active listening skills and put in place an action plan around consciously practising just that one particular aspect of his performance.  Once he’s got some traction there and is starting to employ the new skill with less conscious effort, he can start to work on another, then another - each time building on an ever-deepening foundation.

Make the small appear big

There’s one simple reason why the high-performers club is so exclusive - the price of entry is so high.

We all like to see progress in return for our effort and yet, on a day to day basis, one percent doesn’t look like much at all.  It’s demoralising to look back at yesterday and see, well, next to no progress - especially if we’re caught up in an “I want it right now” mentality.  And that’s why only a few will ever do it consistently.  Many of us will start doing it, may keep it up for a day or a week even, but few will develop the self-discipline to do it every day - to make it a way of life.  Later, I'll write a post about how to develop the self-discipline to embed new and empowering habits but for now, let's look at progress, or the apparent lack of it.

To make one percent gains every day, we need to find ways to make the small gains obvious.  A distant goal can motivate us to start but it’s the smaller milestones we reach along the way that give us some sense of achievement and keep us motivated to continue. The trick is to set your goal up with enough milestones, or objectives, along the way to keep reinforcing our motivation.

Say your goal is to eliminate verbal fillers - the “umms” and “ahhs” - when you deliver presentations.  One simple way of measuring progress here would be to video yourself or enlist the help of a coach or trusted adviser briefed to give you specific feedback on the number of times you use them - that way we can see, in black and white, our progress towards our goal and feel some sense of achievement.

To expand on a well known wisdom - the road of a thousand miles starts with a single step, and continues with another one, and another one, and another one…

What are you best at and what would it take to be just one percent better at it tomorrow?


Adam O'Donnell1 Comment