A Model of Performance

Upgrading performance1, as in the successful accomplishment of something, can be elusive. In some cases, it can seem downright impossible to meaningfully shift what people do, and in the case of teams, it can be head-scratching or hair-pulling levels of frustration to get changes to stick.

“We all agreed, why now are we slipping back into the old way of doing things?”

Often, we spend a tremendous amount of energy pushing, bribing, or giving pep talks, but still not really making a permanent change in what we’re doing. Somehow, it just makes more sense to do something in the old way.

All this pushing and self-cajoling can lead to burnout, and a lot of beating yourself up: “I’m not good enough, I am a procrastinator, I’m lazy, it’s no wonder this is hard for me.”

And all of that is besides the point when it comes to the only question that matters:

Did I or did I not take the necessary action?

When you do not, you seek an explanation, and you assess.

But how do you get access to change, to transforming the way you act?

What is Performance?

Performance, for the purpose of this consideration, is simply the completion of the necessary actions that lead to a result.

If something is performed (or you performed) it means that you did what’s needed to get the result you wanted.

Action is what matters.

Why then do some people seem to do the same actions as others, but get different results?

This is where things get more nuanced.

The Doer is in the Deed

Action has the effect. But the action has something of who’s doing it in the action.

The way that Michael Jordan plays basketball comes from being Michael Jordan. If someone else could be exactly like Michael Jordan, he would play basketball like the same way.

What exactly does it mean to be Michael Jordan? Outside of the physical, it would be to be present in the game in the way he is present, it would mean that the games present themselves in the same way to his perception, and the same options therefore present themselves, and are similarly chosen.

One kind of readily intelligible example of this is intention. My intention changes something about how I do what I do, and the nature of the action itself.

Throwing a ball to someone as a playful gesture in good fun is different from throwing it in a playful gesture meant to embarrass someone. It is simply not the same action.

We intuitively sense this when working with an honest versus dishonest salesperson. When working with the honest one, we answer their questions to give them information to serve our needs and help us find what we want. In the latter, we avoid answering the same questions because we do not trust they’ll use them in the same way. The intention comes through.

A lever you can press

Why do actions happen?

Actions happen because a person wants something to happen. Therefore, they map out what they think will get them there, and take those actions.

The key to knowing what a person will do is to know what they want and what their map to that outcome looks like.

If you can give a person a new map, they will have a new way of getting to their destination, and thus entirely new actions at their disposal.

If you want to change the actions, you have to do one of three things. Change the goal, change the map to the goal, or change the doer.

It turns out that all three of these are accessible through language.

Our goals are things we choose with words. Learning a distinction that helps us clarify what we want often opens up slightly different goals (and thus paths) to us.

The situation is also described with words. Our description of it helps filter what shows up for us, and when we play around with other descriptions, sometimes new possibilities for action emerge.

And the same is true of ourselves. We have perceptual filters, which can be thought of as embodied stories, which we think about ourselves, but these are the things that live in our subconscious, and in ourselves physically as habits of perceiving and feeling. When you start to become aware of these stories, you start to get access to changing them with language.

What’s in a word?

It turns out that how things occur to us happens in language. It happens in the way we talk about things, and then the talking ends up in our subconscious in ways that are surprising. Language alters perception. Reevaluating experiences can alter patterns in our brain to change responses.

Lera Boroditsky (also discovered from the above talk) set out to prove that language does not affect our perception. She found the opposite. One powerful example is a tribe that uses ordinal directions exclusively to denote their orientation and the orientation of objects (i.e. not right and left, but North, South, East, West). They always knew where they were (in a way previously thought not possible) and they also interestingly arranged imagined sequences of time not right to left or left to right, but East to West (regardless of what direction they were facing).

The habits of describing changed the way that their situations occurred to them, and also changed the way their mind perceived more abstract things.

The words used to describe things affect our patterns of seeing. You pay attention to different things based on the words you use to describe them. The language you habitually use changes how things show up to you and how you show up to yourself, because your filters shift.

If this is true, then the question that next shows up is “How do I access that?” which I will cover in my next post.

  1. A lot of the thoughts in this article about performance come from ideas taken from this talk by Werner Erhard: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwQr_BJrHJ8. I do not believe his model is a complete or appropriate anthropology, and has some particular psychological and moral dangers of applying radically, but it is certainly powerful and useful and appears to be true on some level. ↩︎

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