Athletes push the limits every day. We push ourselves to run faster and farther. We lift more weights. We spin longer and harder. We hold new poses. We run, hike, and bike as hard and as far as we can, often on the same day. We try new things, always striving beyond our limits.
As athletes we know we have to push past our limits to grow and develop. We do not improve if we do not do so. We know that to develop our muscles, our hearts, and our bodies we have to push past our limits. But do we push past our limits professionally and personally to achieve the same excellent results?
In my work with leaders, I often use the image of a donut to help describe the way we live and learn. I know, you’d never eat a donut, but just picture one for the sake of this article.
Life inside the donut hole is our comfort zone. That’s where life is safe, familiar, comfortable, and potentially a little boring. For example, think about your commute. You might remember leaving home and arriving at work but not much about the journey in between. That’s life inside the donut hole—it’s our comfort zone. For many of people, life inside the donut hole is just right. But for many, many others, it feels like a slow death, and that is not where the athlete lives.
Conversely, life on the donut is our learning zone. This is where we grow, stretch, and experiment. This is where we feel alive, inspired, and awake. This is where most of us are.
Now, life on the edge of the donut is the outer edge of the learning zone. Too much time on the outer edge and we feel stress, potential burn out, and analysis paralysis. This is the edge of our limits, where our worst fears reside. This is terror’s edge, and most people—even elite athletes—never get past it.
For most people, living in and expanding the learning zone is enough. But for the elite athlete and the high-flying CEO alike, it’s on terror’s edge—pushing past all our limits and fears—where real inspiration and growth emerge.
The people who take on the biggest challenges and fly the highest (often without safety nets) seem to reap the greatest rewards. This is true at work, at home, in our athletic endeavors, and in our commitments within our community. They are the people who leave their comfort zone, leave their learning zone, and push past terror’s edge. As executive athletes, we know that is the only real way to grow. We must push past terror’s edge to awaken ourselves to incredible new endeavors and opportunities.
Getting past terror’s edge requires an almost free-fall leap of faith that you can do it. These five strategies will to help you push past terror’s edge into real success personally and professionally:
1. Listen inward
In our quest for clarity about the path forward, it is very easy to collect and collate data and hear what everyone else thinks we should be doing, and be overwhelmed in the process. Add to this the challenges with living in our “overwired” world. Amid the buzz, many of us struggle to find clear space and silence to think deeply. The massive volume of incoming data has drowned out our inner voice.
The first step to pushing past terror’s edge is to slow down and find the space and time to be alone, unplugged, and think clearly. Meditation is great for this, and I highly recommend it, but if that isn’t your cup of tea simply block out 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning and/or end of each day, ask not to be interrupted, close your door, silence your phone, step away from all screens, and be still and silent. Give yourself room and time to just think. You schedule your workouts, so schedule your quiet time. It is just as important.
2. Ask yourself the powerful questions
One you have created space for yourself you can really focus on asking—and answering—the big questions:
- What is your terror’s edge personally? Professionally?
- What is it you want more than anything?
- What is it that makes you most happy? Most satisfied? Most fulfilled?
- Where do you experience joy?
- What does success—professionally, personally, fiscally, etc.— look like to you?
With quiet time you can ask these questions and really listen to yourself. You can mull them over, think them through, and arrive at some big decisions about some very big ideas.
2. Get it on paper
Get the thoughts and answers out of your head and on paper. Write them down. When our minds are full, it is hard to think straight and move forward. Capturing our thoughts makes them actionable and creates space for new ideas. Use whatever means you are most comfortable with—put pen to paper, keep a journal, a spreadsheet, whatever method you prefer. Just write it out.
3. Develop your game plan
Once you know what you want you have to develop the game plan to get there. Want to be CEO? Walk it backward—what are the steps it will take to get there? Want to write a book? How and when will you work on it? Think like an athlete. If you want to run a marathon, how might you lay the groundwork for that? Think about the actual steps involved in reaching your goal and write them down.
4. Build some fences
In order to reach your goals you have to add some structure and build some fences to guard and protect your game plan and goal. This means discriminating between the things that help you get there and the things that don’t. Learn to say no to the people, situations, and commitments that do not move you toward your goal. Learn to focus on your goal by limiting distractions. Make the choices that lead you to your goal, not away from it. Be purposeful in your actions.
5. Be agile
My motto is, “Clear on the outcome, flexible on their approach.” I call this leadership agility, and it means to be flexible and agile about how you get to your goal. The best leaders live what thought leader Chris Argyris called “double loop learning”—they are able to assess situations, adapt their strategy, and adjust actions to consistently target their outcomes. Things rarely work out the way we plan. This ability will see you through the many stumbles and obstacles that will crop up. Be agile, and you will succeed.
Not everyone can push past terror’s edge into revelatory success. But the executive athlete isn’t just anyone. We are already conditioned to push ourselves to the limits and beyond, and we can harness that strength to achieve great success professionally and personally, too.