Daniel Goleman on What it Takes to Reach Genius Level Excellence

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

Psychological research has pointed to “grit” as a better predictor of success than IQ. But there is more.

Grit is a combination of passion and perseverance, a belief that failure can be overcome. It’s a willingness to conquer challenges, instead of avoid them.

Dr. Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, is the best-known researcher of grit, and she defines Grit as: “working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failures, adversity, and plateaus in progress.”

In Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, celebrated psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman, best-known for his influential book Emotional Intelligence, explains what it takes to achieve long-term success and genius level excellence.

The secret to continued improvement and peak performance isn’t the amount of time invest in your craft but the quality of that time.

Think beyond autopilot habits

If you’re going for genius level improvement, you need to continually shift away from autopilot and pursue active, corrective attention to the one thing you want to master.

Autopilot performers get stuck at good and keep repeating the same processes instead of improvement on their routines, shifting gears, and challenging their comfort zones.

“Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself,” William James wrote in his influential meditation on habit, ”so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances.”

Autopilot habits stand in the way of genius level performance.

It’s an endless loop.

In Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career, science writer Joshua Foer explores the mechanisms that keep us from improving and the strategies we can use to disarm them. He writes:

In the 1960s, psychologists identified three stages that we pass through in the acquisition of new skills. We start in the “cognitive phase,” during which we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing. Then we enter the “associative stage,” when we’re making fewer errors, and gradually getting better. Finally, we arrive at the “autonomous stage,” when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying it conscious attention.

The challenge, of course, is that we can’t get better on autopilot. The way to get better at a skill is to force yourself to practice just beyond your limits.

You have to tweak your your habits by pushing, allowing for more errors as you increase your limits. Daniel Goleman explains:

Amateurs are content at some point to let their efforts become bottom-up operations. After about fifty hours of training — whether in skiing or driving — people get to that “good-enough” performance level, where they can go through the motions more or less effortlessly. They no longer feel the need for concentrated practice, but are content to coast on what they’ve learned. No matter how much more they practice in this bottom-up mode, their improvement will be negligible.
The experts, in contrast, keep paying attention top-down, intentionally counteracting the brain’s urge to automatize routines. They concentrate actively on those moves they have yet to perfect, on correcting what’s not working in their game, and on refining their mental models of how to play the game, or focusing on the particulars of feedback from a seasoned coach. Those at the top never stop learning: if at any point they start coasting and stop such smart practice, too much of their game becomes bottom-up and their skills plateau.

Direct attention and energy to where it needs to be

Additionally, the optimal kind of attention requires top-down focus. Focus doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

Focus involves the ability to pay attention to things that will help and avoid distractions that will hurt your work efforts.

If you can take control of your ability to focus and block out distractions, you will give yourself a powerful tool that will enable you to perform at consistently high level. Goleman argues in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence:

Paying full attention seems to boost the mind’s processing speed, strengthen synaptic connections, and expand or create neural networks for what we are practicing. At least at first. But as you master how to execute the new routine, repeated practice transfers control of that skill from the top-down system for intentional focus to bottom-up circuits that eventually make its execution effortless.

Most athletes have discovered from experience that concentration or the ability to focus effectively on the task at hand while ignoring distractions is one of the keys to effective performance.

In the rest of Focus, Goleman explores and explains how concepts like attention-chunking, emotional empathy, and system blindness influence the pursuit of excellence.

Before you go…

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