There are two forces at play that determine the degree to which a person will perform to their potential. The first lever is what we think we can achieve. Scott Peltin, an excellent coach and co-author of Sink, Float or Swim recently shared in a conversation his view that “a person cannot perform above the estimation of themselves.” There may be some discreet exceptions to that idea (e.g. a mother lifting a car off a child), but in general this is true. A person’s belief about who they are and what they are capable of to a large extent drives performance. Self-estimation (or self-concept) is the root of self-confidence. If a person’s self-estimation is “I am bad at math” then that person is not likely to try hard or persevere in studying. An engineer might call self-estimation the upper control limit (UCL) of a person’s performance.

The second force at work in performance is training. This also includes knowledge and experience. The Navy SEALS have an expression: “Under pressure, people do not rise to the occasion, they sink to their level of training.”

A runner will run a disciplined marathon if they have done the miles. A speaker will capture an audience through hours of rehearsal. Legal counsel will give good advice through extensive study of the law. When the stakes are high people are more likely to underperform if they “wing it.” This phenomenon can be observed in underwhelming speeches, bonking at mile 16 of a marathon, or failure to perform in a leadership role that was attained too soon based on charisma. An engineer might call training the lower control limit (LCL) of performance.

Add the two ideas together, and you get a variation of the Navy SEALS quote: “Under pressure a person will not rise to the occasion, but will sink to the lower of 1) their self-estimation or 2) their training.” A person can improve performance by working on both forces and using them as levers to higher levels of performance.

Putting the Levers into Action:

Mind the gaps. Notice if there is a large gap between self-estimation and training. People with huge gaps where self-estimation is larger than training are either beginners or delusional. People with huge gaps where training and experience dwarf their self-estimation are self-limiting. Think about people you may know with an alphabet soup of degrees and certifications that stay in under-sized jobs.

Raise your vision for yourself. Raise awareness of strengths. Get feedback from others about things in which you excel. Recall times of peak performance. What are the similarities and themes from those moments? Who do you admire? What do you have in common with those you admire? What gets you fired up and excited about achieving?

Raise your training. Invest in yourself every year. Practice your craft. Dedicate yourself to being better at what matters to you. Set goals to practice, refine and improve in a dimension that would impact your life. Higher levels of training are acquired through practice and exposure to opportunities to try new things and learn new concepts.

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