This Is the Secret Force Behind All High Performers
Adapted from Brendon Burchard's forthcoming book High Performance Habits: How Extraordinary People Become That Way
“What else could I do?”
Three Marines sitting around Isaac nod as a server refills their coffee.
“You didn’t have a choice?” I ask.
Isaac laughs. “Well, there’s always choice. I had three choices then: mess my pants, run away or be a Marine.”
I laugh and then ask him, “What did you say to yourself as you ran toward the explosion?”
Isaac was on foot patrol when one of his platoon’s vehicles hit an improvised explosive device. The blast knocked him out. When he regained consciousness, he saw the vehicle smoldering, engulfed in a spiral of smoke and taking enemy fire. That’s when he started running toward it.
“You just think you don’t want any of your guys to die. That’s all you really think about: the guys.”
Isaac stares out the café window. “Sometimes everything you are comes into play in a moment,” he says. “It was just a few minutes, but I can remember it like it was a two-hour movie. It’s like your whole life and all you stand for meets the needs of a single moment.”
He looks down at his wheelchair. “It just didn’t end like I thought it would. I’m useless now. It’s over.”
Isaac might never walk again. He’s a hero for providing the cover and action that helped evacuate one of the survivors of the blast. He was shot just as they got the injured survivor, one of his close friends, to safety.
One of the other Marines at the table scoffs. “It’s not over, man. You’ll recover. You’re going to be just fine.”
Isaac huffs back. “Do you even see me? I can’t help myself. I can’t serve my country. What’s the point?”
“You’re right,” I say. “There is no point. Unless you choose to make one. Either the point of your pain is to say to the world, ‘This is how I’ve chosen to deal with this: By giving up.’ Or the point is to show yourself, your fellow Marines and the world that nothing will stop you or the spirit of service in you.”
My words land flat. Isaac just crosses his arms. “I still don’t see the point.”
One of his friends leans in. “And you never will. If you don’t have a reason to live, you’re done. But the deal is, you choose the reason. You don’t have to get better. Or you choose that you must get better. It’s up to you. One choice sucks and makes your life miserable forever. The other gets you out of bed.”
Isaac murmurs, “Why try?” then remains quiet. It’s that silence no one wants to be a part of, watching someone on the edge, unsure whether to give up or live. After a while, it becomes clear he doesn’t feel the need to make a choice at this moment. I can tell it’s frustrating his friends. Indecision is not something Marines do well. Finally, one puts his face just inches from Isaac’s and looks at him intensely.
“Because, dammit, Isaac, you don’t have any other choice. Because you’re going to obsess about your recovery the same way you trained for infantry: like a Marine. Because your family is counting on you. Because we’re here for you, but we won’t accept excuses.”
I share this story to illustrate a rather uninspiring truth: You don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to show up for life, for work, for your family. You don’t have to climb out of bed on a tough day. You don’t have to care about being the best you can be. You don’t have to strive to live an extraordinary life. And yet some people feel they have to. Why?
The answer is a concept that explains one of the most powerful drivers of human motivation and excellence: performance necessity. Will Isaac get better physically? In many ways, it’s up to him. Doctors have said he might walk again if he works hard. There are no promises, they tell him, but there is a possibility.
Will he get better emotionally? It’s up to him. He has plenty of support around him. But many people are offered support and they don’t take it. The only difference lies in whether someone decides it is necessary to get better.
Necessity is the emotional drive that makes great performance a must instead of a preference. Unlike weaker desires that make you want to do something, necessity demands you take action.
When you feel necessity, you don’t sit around hoping for success. You get things done. Because you have to. There’s not much choice; your heart, soul and the needs of the moment are telling you to act. And if you didn’t take action, you’d feel as though you weren’t living up to your standards, meeting your obligations or fulfilling your duties or your destiny. Necessity inspires a higher sense of motivation than desire because personal identity is engaged, creating a sense of urgency to act.
Necessity is the emotional drive that makes great performance a must instead of a preference.
This heart, soul and destiny talk might sound idealistic, but it’s how high performers describe the motivation behind many of their actions. I have spent the past 20 years studying people to figure out why some people succeed more quickly than others, why some successful people are happier than others, and what types of habits, training and support help people strive for higher levels of success in the first place. I have interviewed, coached and trained some of the world’s most successful and happiest people, from Oprah and Usher to 1.6 million students from 195 countries who have taken my online courses or video series.
I often ask high performers why they work so hard and how they stay so focused and committed. Their responses often sound something like this:
- It’s just who I am.
- I can’t imagine doing anything else.
- This is what I was made to do.
There’s also a sense of obligation and urgency:
- People need me now.
- I can’t miss this opportunity.
- If I don’t do this now, I’ll regret it forever.
People who feel deep necessity strongly agree with this statement: “I feel a deep emotional drive and commitment to succeeding, and it consistently forces me to work hard, stay disciplined and push myself.” These people also report greater confidence, happiness and success over longer periods than their peers.
If I’ve learned anything from my research and a decade of interventions developing high performers, it’s that you cannot become extraordinary without a sense that it’s absolutely necessary to excel.
You must be emotionally committed to what you are doing, and reach the point where success is not just a preference but a deep necessity.
Have you ever noticed you feel guilty when you’re not living your values or being the best version of yourself? Conversely, have you noticed how good you feel when you’re being a good person and following through on what you say and desire? Those feelings of being frustrated or happy with your performance are internal forces at play.
Many internal forces shape our behavior: values, expectations, dreams, goals and growth, to name a few. Think of these as an internal guidance system that urges you to stay who you are and grow into your best self. They are forces that continuously shape and reshape your identity and behaviors throughout your life.
We’ve found that two specific internal forces tied to necessity—personal standard for excellence and obsession with a topic—are particularly powerful in determining your ability to succeed over the long term.
Personal Standard for Excellence
It goes without saying that high performers hold themselves to a high standard. They care deeply about whether they perform well at any task they see as important to their identity.
This is true whether they choose the task. It’s also true whether they enjoy the task. It’s their identity—not always the choice or enjoyment of the task—that drives them to do well.
For example, an NBA player might not enjoy a particular workout his coach has given him, but he does it because he sees himself as an elite athlete willing to do anything to improve.
Organizational researchers have also found that people don’t perform well just because they’re doing tasks they’re satisfied with, but rather because they’re setting challenging goals that mean something to them. Satisfaction is not the cause of great performance; it’s the result. When people do what aligns with their future identity, they are more driven and likely to do a great job. High performers care deeply about excellence and thus put more effort into their activities than others do.
How can we know they care more? Because they report self-monitoring their behavior and performance goals more often. High performers don’t just know they have high standards and want to excel; they check in several times throughout the day to see whether they are living up to those standards. It’s this self-monitoring that helps them get ahead. In conducting hundreds of performance reviews, I’ve found that underperformers, on the other hand, are often less self-aware and sometimes oblivious to their behavior and results.
Research shows people who set goals and regularly self-monitor are almost 2½ times more likely to attain their goals. They also develop more accurate plans and feel more motivated to follow through on them. In one review of 138 studies spanning more than 19,000 participants, researchers found that monitoring progress is just as important to goal attainment as setting a clear goal in the first place.
This means those striving for high performance need some sort of practice for checking in on whether they are living up to their own personal standards. This can be as easy as journaling every night and considering this line of questioning: Did I perform with excellence today? Did I live up to my values and expectations for giving my best and doing a good job?
Tie your identity to doing a good job. And remember to set challenging goals. Decades of research have shown people who set difficult and specific goals outperform people who set vague and non-challenging ones.
See yourself as a person who loves challenges and goes for the big dreams. You are stronger than you think, and the future holds good things for you. Sure, you might fail. Sure, it might be uncomfortable.
But what’s the alternative? Holding back? Landing at the tail end of life and feeling as though you didn’t give it your all? Trudging through life safely inside your little bubble, bored or complacent? Don’t let that be your fate.
High performers have to succeed over the long term because they have the guts to expect something great from themselves. They repeatedly tell themselves they must do something and do it well because that action or achievement would be congruent with their ideal identity.
High performers’ dreams of living extraordinary lives aren’t mere wishes and hopes. They make their dreams a necessity. Their future identities are tied to it, and they expect themselves to make it happen.
So they do.
Obsession with a Topic
If an internal standard for excellence makes solid performance necessary, then the internal force of curiosity makes it enjoyable.
As you would expect, high performers are deeply curious people. In fact, their curiosity for understanding and mastering their primary field of interest is one of the hallmarks of their success. It’s truly a universal observation across all high performers. They feel a high internal drive to focus on their field of interest over the long term and build deep competence.
Psychologists would say they have high intrinsic motivation—they do things because they find them interesting, enjoyable and personally satisfying. High performers don’t need a reward or prod from others to do something because they find it inherently rewarding.
This deep, long-term passion for a particular topic or discipline has been noted in almost all modern success research. When people speak of grit, they’re talking about passion combined with perseverance. If you’ve heard of deliberate practice, you know that it matters how long you focus on and train for something.
The findings are straightforward. People who become world-class at anything focus longer and harder on their craft. But I’ve found that high performers must have something more than just passion: obsession.
If you can stay highly emotionally engaged and laser-focused over the long term, even when motivation and passion inevitably rise and ebb in waves of interest, even when others are criticizing you, even when you fail, even when you are forced to stretch well beyond your comfort zone, even when everyone else would have given up or moved on—that’s a leap beyond grit into the territory of what many might call an irresponsible, reckless obsession.
Our challenge is that we have been conditioned to believe that bold action or swift progress is somehow dangerous or reckless. But a certain degree of insanity and recklessness is necessary to advance or innovate anything, to make any new, remarkable or meaningful contribution. What great thing was ever accomplished without a little recklessness? So-called recklessness has always been required for the extraordinary to happen: crossing the oceans, rocketing man into space, building skyscrapers.
It is reckless to try something that has never been done, to move against convention, to begin before all conditions are good and preparations are perfected. But the bold know that to win, one must first begin. They also deeply understand that a degree of risk is inevitable and necessary should there be any real reward. Any plunge into the unknown is reckless—but that’s where the treasure lies.
It is this borderline reckless obsession for mastering something that makes us feel the imperative to perform at higher levels.
In any field, those lacking obsession are often easy to spot: the half-interested browsers, the half-hearted lovers, the half-engaged leaders. They might lack intense interest, passion or desire in general. But not necessarily. Sometimes, they have many interests, passions and desires.
But what they lack is that one thing, that abiding and unquenchable obsession. You know within minutes of meeting people whether they have an obsession. If they have it, they’re curious, engaged, excited to learn and talk about something specific and deeply important to them. They say things like, “I love doing what I do so much, I’m sort of obsessed.” Or, “I live, eat and breathe this; I can’t imagine doing something else. This is who I am.” They speak enthusiastically and articulately about a quest for excellence or mastery in their field, and they log the hours of study, practice and preparation to achieve those ends.
The moment you know something has transcended being a passion and has become an obsession is when that something gets tied to your identity. It changes from a desire to feel a particular state of emotion—passion—to a quest to being a particular kind of person. It becomes part of you, something you value more deeply than other things. It becomes necessary for you.
Unlike weaker desires that make you want to do something, necessity demands you take action.
Just as some people fear setting high standards for themselves, many fear becoming obsessed. They prefer casual interests and passing flames. It’s easier to live with passions that have no stake in who you are.
But it’s worth the reminder: High performers can handle this sort of internal pressure. They don’t mind diving into the deep end of their passions. Obsession is not something to fear. Quite the contrary.
It’s almost a badge of honor. When people are obsessed with something, they enjoy doing it so much that they don’t feel the need to apologize to others for it. They lose hours working at a task or improving a skill. And they love it.
I encourage people to keep experimenting in life until they find something that sparks unusual interest. Then if it aligns with your personal values and identity, jump in. Get curious. Let the part of you that wants to obsess about and master something come alive.
When high personal standards meet high obsessions, then deep necessity emerges. So, too, does high performance.
Adapted from High Performance Habits: How Extraordinary People Become That Way; Hay House; September 2017.