5 Shared Traits Among Elite Performers

Average is over.
— Tyler Cohen

Our society really likes to put labels on those who perform at levels above even the best performers. "Elite" is good but there are those who even blow that standard out of the water in nearly every field. The National Basketball Association had a whole ad campaign asking the question, "Where will you be when amazing happens?" What followed the question was a whole slough of highlights from past seasons. As a big basketball fan and a marketing guy, I watched every highlight from every game from that season because I really didn't want to miss anything amazing happening.

The law of averages tells us that there will always be an "amazing happening" in every category. For whatever reason, a lot of books have come across my desk recently that seek to decode the secrets of elite performance. People have been trying to capture what makes elite performers for decades. The technology, studies, and examples we have now in almost every field are prime for discovering what makes a performer truly great.

Spoiler Alert: Almost everything you've heard about hard work and practice is correct.

If you're looking for a quick way to get better at your chosen field, you won't find that here. But there will be some books referenced in here that you can explore, if you're interested. Also, if you like to complain about how other people catch all the breaks and the thought of people succeeding makes you sick because it's "so easy for them", you'll find some hard truths here.

But before we really get going, we need to lay some groundwork...

Understand that we live in a society that caters to the lowest common denominator. "Fairness" and "equality" are paraded as virtues but have become buzz words in a campaign for a world where those who produce must freely give to those who do not.

The standard pace is for chumps. They have to organize around the lowest common denominator so that no one is left out. Anyone can be smarter than that, if they want to be.
— Derek Sivers

In addition to breaking world records, elite performers can and do find ways to contribute as assets in any field. They produce results. After all, that's how we recognize elite performance in the first place. The following qualities of elite performers deal more with how they do what they do. From what I've been reading recently, they are relatively universal in nature. I'll list those books at the end of each trait - just in case you don't believe me.

Also, keep in mind that there are always exceptions. I'm sure everyone can think of some elite performer in which these qualities don't apply at all. Read some biographies of those people. Get inside their heads. That's the only way to know for sure how they do what they do. The vast majority of their traits and qualities are completely mental. Ironically enough, the first quality on the list has to do with the physical...


Health is Highly Prioritized

Theodore, you have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. I am giving you the tools, but it is up to you to make your body.
— Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (The Father of President Roosevelt)

Elite performers realize that their health and taking care of themselves is a priority in life. They recognize that they live in their bodies and without the support of a healthy body, the mind is unable to reach its full potential.

Using athletes as examples here would really be cheating to prove the point. Here's a quick list of ultra successful people who work to exercise and eat healthy on a regular basis:

  • Barak Obama, President of the United States
  • Tim Cook, CEO of Apple
  • Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook

Recommended Reading: The Four Hour Body by Tim Ferriss


Time is Controlled

See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
— Ephesians 5:15-16

Whether it's in the morning, evenings, during the work day, or otherwise, elite performers manage their time well. In a world where people fill their days with useless tasks and busywork, elite performers are those who find the ways to add real value and contribute to where they are.

If you've ever heard the words, "I'm too busy," know that this is usually a mark of someone who does not manage their time well. If you're spending more time busy than you do actually generating value, something is wrong. Focus on what you produce and what you deliver - that's a great way to get started.

Another trick is to spend a week or two tracking where your time is being spent. You'll be surprised how much time you spend doing things that either you don't want to really do, don't add anything, and really keep you from doing the things that matter. This isn't a post about media consumption but my latest time killer has been checking my smartphone. Jacob has a couple of great posts on that here and here. This isn't to tell you what to do with your time but rather to challenge you to know where it's being spent. Use it for things that matter. Redeem the time.

Recommended Reading: See You At The Top by Zig Ziglar


Fear is Irrelevant

Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.
— John Wayne

The best fighters are the ones who aren't afraid to get hit. Next time you're channel surfing and see a boxing match, watch for a few minutes to see if either competitor flinches. If either does, they will lose the fight.

Our flinch instinct is a natural mechanism to mitigate pain and discomfort. The problem with that is that the path to elite performance is laden with both. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable, to get hurt, and to fail.

Elite performers fight the flinch at every turn. They aren't afraid of failing because they know that, if they're pushing themselves to grow and become better, failure is inevitable. You can't be perfect from the start. They are dauntless because they are comfortable with being uncomfortable. In fact, they practice it regularly.

Recommended Reading: The Flinch by Julien Smith


Down Time is Embraced

Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try.
— Dr. Seuss

We are constantly over stimulated with minute things that don't matter much at all to the value that we bring to the world or to our performance. I personally think this is because we are scared of getting bored. In a world where we can get a dopamine hit from a retweet or a new follower, we constantly check our smartphones for that jolt of excitement.

Focused effort is necessary for quality outcomes. The problem is that we have a very hard time focusing on just one thing because our brains are so used to jumping from one thing to the other. This practice is an incredibly inefficient use of brain power. 

The reason that down time is embraced is that it gives good practice in focusing on only one thing. Try leaving your phone in the car next time you go out to dinner. Feel a little lost without it? Maybe the thought, itself, makes you anxious. Down time is also advantageous because it gives us an opportunity to work through problems with our most valuable tool: our minds. Anyone can perform tasks. Elite performers are ultimately paid to think and to solve problems.

Recommended Reading: So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport, Deep Work by Cal Newport


Practice is Deliberate

They only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.
— Harvey Specter

"Deliberate Practice" is a term that has been around since the early 1990s. Definitions vary but there are a few commonalities between them:

  1. It is repetitive
  2. Immediate and specific feedback is available
  3. Skills are assessed

Pick a random Pinterest recipe. Those are fun and you might end up with something good. Whether you can cook or not doesn't matter. Cooking is a great area to really experience deliberate practice. You can make the same recipe over and over again and almost immediately determine whether you're successful, getting better, or otherwise. 

You can practice adding spices, different cooking techniques, and countless other aspects of the craft. But without practice of that recipe, you'll never know if you're getting better at making that recipe - which is the goal. That's the difference in deliberate practice vs. any other kind of work or practice. Practicing deliberately is essential for elite performance and those performers engage in it regularly.

Recommended Reading: Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin


We are all given the same hours in the day as Michelangelo but different personalities and aptitudes that make us each unique. What are we doing with our time and our skill? Are we honing it and perfecting it? Are we using it to add value to people's lives? The path to high-quality performance isn't easy but it is rewarding. Just as being wealthy empowers you to serve better, being excellent empowers you to serve better as well.

Love what you do, do it well and serve others.

Editor's Note: Andrew is a long-time friend of mine who has both a heart for the Lord as well as a heart for serving others. He's ready and willing to share what he's learned about living well and I know that you'll be blessed by him. You can find more of his writing over at his personal website.