“So, what does it take to excel at what you do?” That’s the question I asked a senior partner at one of the top corporate advisory firms in the world. His answer surprised me.

I had been sitting on the 11:12pm train waiting for it to leave Waterloo station after an evening at the ballet, when two people came on board and sat opposite me. It turned out to be a neighbor and one of her colleagues, Ken (not his real name). They were also commuting back to their respective homes after a business dinner.

About halfway through the journey when the train was about to pull into the next station, a man greeted Ken and had a quick chat before getting off the train. Ken explained that Doug was a former member of his team who had parted ways with the company a year ago.

Through our conversation, I learned that Doug previously was seen as a solid citizen rather than a high performer, and Ken was pleased to hear Doug was doing well in his new job.

That’s when I became curious about what it takes to be a high performer and asked Ken “what does it take to excel at what you do?”

The keys to high performance

Ken looked at me, laughed and said, “that’s simple” and confidently rattled off the following three points.

1. Self-awareness

In Ken’s view, this is the first and most important key to high performance. This is about knowing not just what you’re good at, but especially figuring out what you are bad at. Then, having the maturity to accept that you’re bad at those things, and getting to work to improve.

2. Self-discipline

This one is about work ethic. Doing the work necessary to become a high performer. And Ken added that self-discipline extends to your attitude as well. “There’s no room for whinge-ing (the British word for whining). You cannot be a ‘whinger’ and be successful. Instead, you have to come up with strategies to cope.”

3. Liking yourself

Ken explained that when you like yourself, you treat yourself well physically and mentally, you invest in yourself, and you trust yourself. This is the basis for the self-confidence and self-belief that is a foundation for high performance.

Another commuter who overheard our conversation interjected that it’s about loving yourself. To which Ken said, “no, you must like yourself and not love yourself.”

What Ken meant was not falling in love with yourself, getting carried away, and losing the ability to recognize your own weaknesses. When you fall in love with yourself, it leads to what is termed “hubris” in Greek tragedies: excessive pride or confidence that leads to your own downfall.

Two things that surprised me

Listening to Ken, I was surprised by two things.

It’s all about you

First, that all three of his keys to high performance were about one’s self. On the one hand, it makes it easier to become a high performer because all three of those are within your own control. On the other hand, there’s nowhere to hide and no one else to blame.

Nowhere did he talk about job-related skills or relationships with others. He acknowledged that those are important, but it all begins and ends with how you understand and manage your self.

It pays to address your weaknesses

Second, I was surprised that he talked about focusing on weaknesses rather than strengths.

As a proponent of focusing on your strengths rather than shoring up your weaknesses, I challenged Ken on this point. He then explained that he takes a sports approach to focusing on weaknesses that others might otherwise exploit. A tennis player can only excel if she can hit both forehand and backhand shots. In basketball, a player who can only dribble with his right hand will be at a disadvantage. And so forth.

He then gave the example of his son, who was up late studying his entire chemistry book for the upcoming exam. Ken told his son to stop wasting time, saying instead, “pull out your answers to the prior week’s mock exam, identify the answers you got wrong, and study that. Focusing on the mistakes – your weak areas – will help you more than going over the things you’re already good at.”

Fair enough.

Then, it was my train stop and Ken and I parted ways.

Whatever field you’re in, it comes down to this…

In the days since that chance meeting, I’ve concluded that Ken is really onto something. And I’m so glad I asked him the question.

No matter what field you choose, his points are relevant to being excellent at what you do. Not only that, they will help you to remain excellent as the stakes get higher and the expectations of your performance rise as well.

What it comes down to is this:

  • Be open to looking at yourself dispassionately and in the cold hard light of day. Yes, including those proverbial “warts and all”.
  • Learn to accept feedback without getting defensive. Otherwise, you’ll stop getting the really useful information needed to keep learning and growing.
  • Don’t take things personally. This requires maturity and indeed, this is where liking yourself is key.
  • Stay grounded. Work on not letting your achievements and successes get to your head. Stay humble.

“Yoda moments”

In life, you never know when you might come across wise people who provide special opportunities to share ideas and reflect.

With the renaissance of Star Wars, I’ve come to think of these as “Yoda moments”.

So in addition to practicing these keys to high performance, I hope you will engage with people and ask questions. You never know when you might happen upon a valuable Yoda moment!

I’d love to hear how you’ve been working on yourself to improve your performance, so scroll down and leave a comment to let me know.

If you’re interested in more on Self-Awareness, take a look at Chapter 7 of my book, ACCELERATE: 9 Capabilities to Achieve Success at Any Career Stage, available on Amazon.