OpinionsPathwaysBeing the best doesn’t always make us better

Being the best doesn’t always make us better


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I have a friend who goes through life trying to do his best at whatever he’s doing. Whether he’s in the workplace, with his family, or with friends, he always tries to be the best at everything. And I admire him for that. He’s a lot older than me so I try to emulate him

But recently, I realized that I wasn’t getting much better at the things I cared most about, whether as a mother, a writer, an aspiring visual artist, a friend, and an emerging public speaker. I wasn’t improving much at those things even though I was spending a lot of time working hard at them.

I had a conversation with someone, a psychologist and a life coach, and from our conversations (plus my research), I’ve realized that this “stagnation,” despite the hard work, turns out to be pretty common in a lot of ‘performance-conscious’ individuals.

I’d like to share here some insights into why this happens and what can be done about it.

Learning zone vs. performance zone

Usually, we go through life deliberately alternating between two zones – the learning zone and the performance zone.

When we are in our performance zone, our goal is to do something as best as we can, execute things to the fullest, and finish the task most efficiently. Thus, we concentrate on what we have already mastered and we try to minimize mistakes. So, for instance, if you’re a good cook, being in this zone means making the dish taste heavenly, putting in the right ingredients, and making it such that the one eating will keep on coming back for more.

On the other hand, when we are in the learning zone, our objective is “to improve.” Using the cooking scenario, this cook will try to reinvent recipes, or explore new spices, or cook a mastered dish differently. In this zone, we do activities designed for improvement, concentrating on what we haven’t mastered yet, which could mean committing mistakes, and knowing that we will learn from them.

The performance zone maximizes our immediate performance, while the learning zone maximizes our growth and our future output. The reason many of us don’t improve much despite our hard work is that we tend to spend almost all of our time in the performance zone. This hinders our growth, and ironically, over the long term, also our performance.

So, what does the learning zone look like?

Let’s take as an example, Demosthenes who was a political leader and the greatest orator and lawyer in ancient Greece. To become great, he didn’t spend all his time just being an orator or a lawyer (his performance zone). Instead, he did activities designed for improvement. Of course, he studied a lot. He studied law and philosophy with guidance from mentors, but he also realized that being a lawyer involved persuading other people, so he studied great speeches and acting. To get rid of an odd habit he had of involuntarily lifting his shoulder, he practiced his speeches in front of a mirror, and he suspended a sword from the ceiling so that if he raised his shoulder, it would hurt.

To speak more clearly despite a lisp, he went through his speeches with stones in his mouth. He built an underground room where he could practice without interruptions and not disturb other people. And since courts at the time were very noisy, he also practiced by the ocean, projecting his voice above the roar of the waves.

Another example is Beyonce. When she’s on a concert tour, naturally, she’s in her performance zone. But every night when she gets back to the hotel room, she goes into her learning zone by watching videos of the show that just culminated. She identifies opportunities for improvement, for herself, her dancers, and her camera staff. And the next morning, everyone receives pages of notes with what to adjust, which they then work on during the day before their next performance.

While it is advisable to be good when in the performance zone, we need to understand that the more time we spend in the learning zone, the more we’ll improve. So how can we spend more time in the learning zone?

First, we must believe and understand that we can improve, this is called the growth mindset. Second, we must want to improve at that particular skill. There has to be a purpose because it takes time and effort. Third, we must have an idea about how to improve, and what we can do to improve.

A word of caution, when in the learning zone, we need to see to it that we are in a “low-stakes situation” because mistakes are expected to happen.

So, if you’re a tightrope walker, never practice new tricks without a net underneath, or if you’re an athlete don’t set out to try a new move during a championship match.


Author’s email: [email protected]



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