What Is the Performance Paradox, and How Does It Stifle Our Ability to Improve?

UPDATED: October 26, 2023
PUBLISHED: September 29, 2023
Young Asian woman leaning over desk surrounded by books late at night stuck in the performance paradox

To get good at something, we often think it’s just about putting in the reps. Keep showing up consistently and you’ll get better. And it’s true, at least at first. But once we’ve reached a certain level of proficiency, effort and consistency alone are no longer enough for improvement. This is what Eduardo Briceño, keynote speaker and author, dubs the performance paradox in his upcoming book of the same name, The Performance Paradox: Turning the Power of Mindset into Action

The performance paradox: the illusion of effort-based improvement

When it comes to performance and increasing our efficiency and output, Briceño explains that it’s less about the type of performance people engage in and more about the expectations of improvement without change. 

“It’s OK sometimes to focus on performance to maximize short-term results. But if we’re doing that every week, then we’re not going to get better, and as a result of that, our results are going to suffer in the medium term and longer term.”

Often, high achievers get stuck in this illusion of effort-based improvement. With enough effort and determination, we expect our growth to continue. However, Briceño points out, “If we are just trying to do what we know works all the time, trying to minimize mistakes, then we get stuck and we don’t improve.” 

He uses the analogy of someone learning to play tennis. In the beginning, because the tennis player is so bad, he won’t need great learning strategies to improve. But once he’s reached a certain level of excellence, doing the activity alone won’t improve his game. 

“We all have learned from experience that just doing stuff and working hard leads to improvement, but it’s the wrong lesson because it just stops working once we become proficient,” Briceño says. 

Eduardo Briceño recommends leaning into the learning zone

Instead of simply charging full force with nothing but grit, Briceño recommends leaning into what he calls “the Learning Zone.” 

“The Learning Zone is when we go beyond what we know; we’re trying different strategies,” Briceño explains. “We’re doing research, we’re experimenting, we’re soliciting feedback.”

The thing about the Learning Zone is that it requires change, something that can be terrifying if you’re used to operating in a certain way. Dr. Mary Anderson, a clinical psychologist who works with high achievers, says the focus on perfectionism is often what keeps us stuck. 

Perfectionism, which is fundamentally about gaining approval—something high achievers often chase—feeds on our fear of failure, of not measuring up, and breeds feelings of inadequacy and even shame,” Anderson says. “As a result, it often prevents us from taking necessary risks, advancing, learning and excelling.”

Briceño says to create low-stakes islands in high-stakes seas

Taking risks, making mistakes and learning from them is a key component of the Learning Zone. The ability to take risks doesn’t come naturally for everyone, and the fear of making mistakes can be crippling. 

“We’re terrified of making mistakes, but that’s just going to limit us,” Anderson says. “So when we take those limits off by not fearing appearing flawed and making mistakes—because we’re human—that’s where we can really accelerate our growth and innovate and be creative. We’re not limiting ourselves for that fear of making mistakes.”

A practical way to put it into practice is Briceño’s suggestion to create low-stakes islands

“‘Low-stakes islands’ is what I call the time and spaces where we can take risks without a lot of consequences. If you’re preparing a presentation or a keynote, think about one little thing you can change and run it by somebody.”

With more practice, we become better at taking risks that can help improve our performance. An example from Briceño’s professional life is how he tries to find new approaches during his public speaking engagements. “I’m always tweaking something and trying something different for a particular group that I think might help them,” he says.

Once we start taking risks and making mistakes, how we process the results is equally important when it comes to improving in the future. 

“If we make a mistake and get flooded because we don’t like it or even if we say mistakes are fine, we just brush it under the rug and we keep going, we’re not really extracting the lessons from the mistakes,” Briceño says. “So we want to think about what led to this mistake and what could I change in my system or my habits in order to prevent that mistake from happening in the future. What enables you to avoid the mistake in the future is doing something differently, but you need to identify what it is that you’re going to be doing differently.”

Creating attainable habits: learning zone vs. performance zone

Knowing what to do is the first step, but implementing and building in those learning habits is just as important. 

“It’s about doing things that are easy,” Briceño says. He recommends finding small habits that can be done frequently and building them in often. One habit he implements is to remind himself every morning of one thing he’s working to improve. This primes his brain for a growth mindset as he approaches the day.

Anderson supports this, highlighting the importance of keeping things doable to build momentum and progress. “We want to set the big goals, but it’s the small ‘I can do that’ goals that actually move us forward for our lofty goals,” she explains.

As that momentum builds, Briceño says those habits will pay off by allowing for more time for the Learning Zone and the Performance Zone. This creates what he calls “the Flywheel of Competence.”

“The more competent we become at learning, the easier it becomes, and then we can become better and better, faster,” Briceño adds. 

Break free of the performance paradox through the learning zone

Breaking out of the chronic performance cycle improves our performance. However, there’s another reason that Briceño advocates for the Learning Zone and the continual pursuit of it. 

“[The] Learning Zone makes us better able to achieve more, but it also makes the process more joyful. Learning is energizing; it adds life,” he says. “If we’re exploring and discovering and experiencing, that adds a dimension to our life and emotions that give us energy. It also makes us connect with other people better because we are asking more questions. We’re listening better. We’re understanding where other people are coming from.”

Photo by PBXStudio/Shutterstock.com

Iona Brannon is a freelance journalist based in the U.S. You can read more of her work at ionabrannon.com.