An Introduction to Peak Performance

Some people just seem to excel when the situation calls for it. Certain athletes have an uncanny ability to go into “the zone” and get the job done in the clutch; well-prepared students with good study habits tend to do well on tests; and many of us have experienced days when everything unfolds perfectly at work, regardless of our chosen profession or career field.

The one thing these examples have in common is that, to at least some degree, peak performance plays a key role.

In the case of high-performing athletes, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the late twentieth century, or someone today like ballet dancer Misty Copeland, whose art is expressed through the medium of graceful physical motion, relentless dedication to practice and preparation helps propel them to that place of optimal flow, focus, and achievement.

Good students form habits early on in their academic careers that enable them to excel when test time and other critical moments in their educational journeys arrive. 

And whether we are waiting tables, selling insurance, or arguing a case before a jury, we tend to recognize periods of workplace-specific peak performance in our own lives—even if millions of people don’t see us make the game-winning basket or perform a flawless dance routine that leaves them in appreciative awe. 

What is peak performance?

Simply put, peak performance is about reaching a state where doing one’s best flows as naturally as you intend it to, regardless of the task at hand. This applies to athletics, education, business, or just about any other area where personal effort contributes to achievable excellence.

Peak performance is rarely a fluke; those who attain it may spend weeks, months, or even years bringing themselves into alignment with their own best visions of themselves and their abilities. By doing so, they can draw on their training, experience, and preparation to seize the opportunity when it presents itself. Peak performance—or at least the capacity for attaining it on a consistent basis—is the natural result of a commitment to one’s individual goals, values, and unique path for self-development

While peak performance can be a kind of linchpin in an overall approach to daily living, it can be situational, as well: Waiters who are consistently fast and accurate and make good use of communication skills may often find themselves in a state of flow specific to peak performance as it relates to providing great service at a restaurant.

Is “flow” the same as “peak performance”?

“Being in a flow state” and “peak performance” can and often do mean the same thing. In his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the Hungarian American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi wrote about the concept of “flow,” or optimal experience:

We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like. 

Whether one calls that sense of exhilaration and enjoyment “flow” or “peak performance,” it’s something that we tend to want more of—in a healthy way—once we’ve experienced it.

How can I reach, or improve on, peak performance?

In order to put yourself on the path to peak performance or improve on your ability to enter the flow state, it helps to have a healthy interest in self-discovery and a good idea of the accomplishment or goal you want to attain. As Csíkszentmihályi wrote in 1997, “Flow tends to occur when a person faces a clear set of goals that require appropriate responses.”

Csíkszentmihályi went on to write that flow, or peak performance, also occurs “when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable, so it acts as a magnet for learning new skills and increasing challenges.” 

Watching someone function at such a high capacity, be it in competitive athletics or everyday life, can give rise to the illusion that peak performance can be called forth at will. While that may be true for some people at least some of the time, it’s usually only true in any meaningful sense for people who have made a conscious effort to develop abilities and mindsets that encourage and support peak performance and flow states.

Without having prepared oneself, actually entering a state of flow can be elusive and, once there, difficult to sustain. To improve your chances of spending more time in a flow state of peak performance, maintain an orientation toward that goal in your day-to-day life.

Letting go of self-limiting beliefs, cultivating a sense of presence and mindfulness on a path toward self-actualization can help anyone who wants to manifest more peak-performance or flow experiences.

In addition to books by Csíkszentmihályi, other helpful titles related to peak performance and flow include The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler; Courage to Soar: A Body in Motion, a Life in Balance by Simone Biles; The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron; and many, many more.

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