Simon Hartley
Simon Hartley

Member Article

What differentiates world class thinking

Simon Hartley, Be World Class founder and author of How to Shrine, on what differentiates world class performers.

What is it that differentiates world class performers, from the rest? It is a question that has intrigued me for many years. As a sport psychologist, I often watched squads of athletes training together. They would train at the same time, in the same place, with the same coach and the same programme. And yet, their results were vastly different. One member of the squad might become a world class athlete, such as double Olympian and Commonwealth champion Chris Cook, whilst many others fell by the wayside.

I have read may articles and books which attempt to describe the ‘DNA’ of successful people. I can remember reading the ‘Billionaire DNA’ by Richard Homburg a while ago, which sought to unlock the secret behind highly successful entrepreneurs and business tycoons. In the same way, sports researchers have searched hard to discover the ‘DNA of Champions’. However, I don’t believe that DNA is the answer.

Is success actually attributable to DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) - a bio-chemical material that’s found in our genes? My experience in elite sport tells me that the athlete with the greatest physical advantage is not always the most successful. Logic suggests that the tall swimmer, with the longest arms, biggest hands and biggest feet would be the fastest. South Shield’s Olympic finalist, Chris Cook, turned that theory on its head. Although he’s less than 6 feet tall, he became the 7th fastest in history in his event.

So what is it that separates the world-class athlete from the rest? What do they have that others don’t? What do they do that others won’t? Through my work with world class athletes and teams, I started to notice some traits, habits and characteristics that consistently set the truly elite apart from the rest. I also asked myself, “Are these characteristics also seen in world class performers outside of sport?”

To help satisfy my curiosity, I began to study a very diverse group of world class performers, such as twice Michelin starred chef, Kenny Atkinson, world-record breaking ultra-distance runner, Andy McMenemy, and Centre for Life CEO, Linda Conlon, to name a few. I was working on a very simple rationale. If there are common characteristics, traits and habits that are exhibited by elite performers from such a wide variety of disciplines, they are likely to apply to most of us.

Interestingly, I found that the differentiators are often very subtle. Sometimes they may be so small that we barely notice them. However, they are incredibly profound. You might imagine that ‘determination’, ‘dedication’ and ‘drive’ were differentiators; however I don’t believe they are. I’ve seen hundreds of people who display those qualities in abundance but have not become world-class, so I don’t see them as differentiators.

Equally, I don’t think the differences can be explained by saying that world class performers are better at goal setting, or visualising their success or even that they practice more. Actually, I didn’t find that those were differentiators either. The squads of athletes I watched were all following the same training programme, with the same coach, so they did very similar amounts of practice. After spending time talking with, working with, and more importantly, listening to world class people, I’ve come to a conclusion. It’s not DNA - its PDA.

What do I mean by that?

PDA stands for Perception, Decision and Action. From my work with world class people, I’ve noticed that their journey to become world class has little to do with their genetics, but a great deal to do with their “thinking”. In fact, the world class people that I’ve met seem to share eight characteristics and traits. Unsurprisingly, these are unrelated to any physical or biological characteristic. Instead, they relate to ways in which world class people perceive the challenges that they face, the way they approach those challenges, the decisions and choices that they subsequently make and ultimately, their actions. To see how this works, let’s start with the ‘P’. Perception, very simply, is how we see the world, the meaning we attach to events and experiences. Our perceptions tend to underpin our decisions, and therefore have a huge bearing on our actions; what we do, what we don’t do, and how we do it. The way in which we see the world therefore influences our response to events, challenges, set-backs, adversity and uncertainty.

If you viewed a challenge as ‘risky’ or even ‘dangerous’, you might decide not to take it on. You might decide that the risk was too great, so back away from the challenge. Sometimes the ‘risk’ that we perceive, is the risk of failure. In fact, fear of failure causes many people to back away from challenges. The world class performers that I’ve met don’t seem to perceive mistakes or failure as a risk. They don’t seem to adopt most people’s definitions of success and failure. Their views are probably closer to Thomas Edison, one of the men who invented the first commercial light bulb. Famously, Edison and his colleagues ‘failed’ around 10,000 times before finding a viable solution.

World record breaking ultra-marathon runner, Andy McMenemy, perceives that physical discomfort and pain is just a temporary inconvenience. Andy completed a record 66 ultra-marathons in 66 days in 2011. He tore his Achilles tendon on day 2 of the challenge, and wound up in A&E on day 27 with a suspected fractured shin. Experiencing severe discomfort is not worrying or threatening to Andy; it’s part and parcel of the challenge. This perception means that he’s able to operate at a level beyond the point at which most of us would give up. In fact, Andy’s perception of the terms ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’ probably influenced his decision to start the challenge in the first place.

Our perceptions of what is ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’ also have a massive impact on how we approach challenges. In fact, if we perceive that a challenge is ‘impossible’, we’re unlikely to even attempt it. We make the decision to take no action. If we perceive that we’re under pressure, we may panic and start making some very strange decisions. If we perceive that we’re failing, we may decide to give up. How many times would you try and fail at something before you gave up? What if that failure was ‘public’? Would this change if you didn’t view ‘failure’ in a negative way? What if you viewed mistakes and failures as an opportunity to learn and improve? Would you be more willing to step way outside of your comfort zone and push yourself?

I have noticed that world class people make decisions that other people don’t tend to make. In fact, some of their decisions and choices are extraordinary. During this year’s Be World Class Conferences, world class performers including Kenny Atkinson, Linda Conlon, Andy McMenemy, world barista champion, James Hoffmann and world number 1 Freestyle Kayaking Champion, Claire O’Hara, will unearth the secrets of ‘world class thinking’. We will put the delegates into the shoes of the world class speakers, present them with questions that our world class speakers have faced, and ask what they would do in that situation. This format presents us with a unique way to help us all understand how the very best in the world think; how they perceive, what they decide, and how that ultimately makes them so successful.

We can learn a great deal from world class performers, by adopting many of the traits, habits and characteristics that have made them successful. It’s tempting to ask what we can learn from people who are in vastly different disciplines to ourselves. However, there are often some fascinating, and valuable, insights.

In today’s tough economic climate, any kind of competitive advantage is valuable. I believe that businesses that can think like champions, and begin to adopt the characteristics that underpin world-class performance, will reap a distinct advantage.

For more information and to register for the Be World Class Conference at Newcastle’s Life Science Centre on Thursday, October 18, please visit:

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Simon Hartley .

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