Breaking through to New Levels of Performance

One of my favourite films has to be the biographical epic Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole. In the first act there is a great scene in which Lawrence puts out a match with his fingers. When another soldier copies him he is surprised that it hurts and asks what’s the trick. Lawrence’s replies that the ‘trick’ is not minding that it hurts. Watch it here:  The scene is important because it’s meant to tell us something of this man’s character. His ability to accept pain and extreme difficulty will be seen again and again in his later feats, especially his desert crossings which are shown as being instrumental to the his military success over the Ottomans.

Screen shot from the extended (12 minute) Colu...Last night I was doing one of my regular rides, a short but tough 20km circuit of hills in northern Melbourne (Mount Pleasant Rd.), and I came across a group of older riders. I normally just like to ride at my own speed so I don’t always push myself to match faster riders. This time though for some reason I went for it and tried to stay with them. I reached the end of the first half about 5 seconds after the last of the group, but when I looked at my speedometer I had pulled off a personal best by a significant margin. I’d increased my average speed from 21 to 23.5 km for the first 10km. By the time I reached home I had improved my total time by about 5 minutes and increased my total average from 22 to 26km. To do this I had pushed myself to my limit for virtually the whole ride. I left nothing in the tank. Normally when the legs start to burn I’ll back off a bit, but this time I just kept pushing and as I did I realised that I still had power so I kept on pushing.

I’ve blogged about Cadel Evan’s a few times last year. As a young rider and in the off-season he used to train on some of the hills I ride now. He’s now especially famous for his Tour de France victory last year but he’s also known and respected as an incredibly tough rider, a rider who can ride through huge amounts of pain. Just look at the grimace on his face as he races up the alpine finishes and you’ll know what they mean. It’s an image of performance that isn’t that popular for the simple fact that it’s incredibly tough.

Now I’ve known this about Cadel for a while but this is the first time that I’ve pushed into the pain in quite this way. Before yesterday I was always cautious, always pacing myself just a bit to make sure I could I finish. So this was the first time that I discovered that I could sustain this level of effort and pain for the whole ride. Rather than backing away from it, I went into it. In the style of Lawrence, it hurt but I didn’t mind that it hurt.

I really think that this is an essential element to achievement. It’s about being prepared to work hard, and accepting this as the price to be paid if we want real results. Better still, it’s about embracing this degree of discomfort, going into the levels of experience that most are unwilling to explore. This doesn’t have to be physical discomfort. Maybe your job requires doing something that you find challenging, something that is not easy and which makes you feel uncomfortable. Maybe it’s something like public speaking or cold calling, or even working through the intense discomfort that can arise in the creative process. No matter what you do, there will be some part of it which brings up pain and discomfort at some level and our ability to push through this will determine our success.

The trick then, is creating this association between discomfort and success. Ironically, this makes the discomfort feel better because it becomes charged with positive associations like excitement, power, and achievement rather than the negative, energy-sapping emotions which we normally bring up as defences whenever things get challenging.

My invitation to you then, is to embrace something you find really challenging in your life, work etc. Embrace the fact that this will take effort to master, lots of effort and lots and lots of discomfort. Remind yourself, somehow that the more you are prepared to do, consistently, the sooner you make significant progress. As you commit to this change, and take the necessary and tough action I also invite you to share your story here – share what you learned about yourself and what you’re really capable of. I know you’ll be very pleasantly surprised if you stick with it and see the effort and the pain as an ingredient of success.

Post Script:  Tonight I wanted to see if I could equal or even improve on last night’s time. I really wanted to break 50 minutes. As last night’s performance was a surprise I was keen to see what I could do if I pushed it the whole way, even more. The result, another 1.3 minutes off.


11 thoughts on “Breaking through to New Levels of Performance

  1. today i have been in a state of total discomfort.. many times i wonder why it happens to me so often and what i should do in order to change it.. reading this blog suprised me not only for the timing, it felt as if the universe was sending me a message, but also for the content which i find very inspirational.. i mut say that i agree with you and i will start looking at my discomfort in a different way.. thanks James.. it is always nice reading you

    • If you’re listening (as you are) the universe speaks very clearly when you need it to and you’ll only hear the messages you’re reading to receive. I’m deeply happy to be the messenger on this occasion. Thank you also for your kind words.

  2. Cute Pic! You know what, giving birth can be a case of pushing through the pain! Of course it doesn’t have to be painful – there are plenty of people who allow themselves to have a perfectly natural and pain-free birth. For those of us that end up experiencing a degree of discomfort though, its a great metaphor for life. It’s well know amongst midwives that there will come a certain point in the labor where the mother to be has ‘had enough’ and just wants to go home. Apparently some women even attempt to get up and go! They just want to get out. And then just when you think you cant handle it any more – pop! Out comes the baby. They say that you give birth like you live, and live how you give birth … so for men and women alike I think it’s important to remember that sometimes your greatest triumph is scored when you push yourself past what you thought was your limit!

    • This is a brilliant example Rivka. Indeed I wrote about this also after the birth of our son back in September last year. I was truly in awe of my wife’s focus and determination. In the end, the pain was almost irrelevant it seemed, in the sense that she was prepared to do whatever it took.

  3. As a mother who has (gratefully) birthed three children I can say with experience … when push comes to shove you don’t exactly have a choice!!! Your body’s reflexes take over. It’s almost like you’re just watching and saying ‘yes, I agree to this’. And maybe that’s a lesson too … sometimes you just have to let life in. Sometimes you initiate something good that’s so big it’s more powerful than you. Once you’ve set it in motion and it’s gathered speed all you can do is sit there and say ‘yes, I agree to this’ and let it be.

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