You’ve been patient for long enough, so let’s get started. First up: what not to do, followed by the surprise ending where we find the proven path to sustainable mastery.
How Not to Attain Sustainable Mastery
The Failed Alternatives
Let’s look at five strategies that are deployed in failed attempts to deal with the costs of excellence once they are experienced. Most people start here. But rather than fix the problem, these only dig the hole deeper and increase costs. Sadly, most people will use one or more of these strategies eventually in an attempt to climb out of the excellence trap. But they are paths to nowhere. See if these look familiar and ring true:
Denial says “tune out.” It ignores the solid reality of the limits, corruptions and costs incurred inside the excellence trap and and seeks merely to tread water. This is the strategy of the weak.
Bravado says “tough it out.” It lives with the problem rather than decisively solving it. Unlike Denial, it accepts the reality of the challenge; it just ignores its real impact. This is the strategy of the brutally foolish.
Resignation sees “no way out.” It accepts defeat and diverts attention away from tangible results to focus instead on future fantasies and exit strategies. This is the strategy of the defeated dreamer.
Escapism wants to “drop out.” It leaves the game rather than working to change it. This is the strategy of the quitter.
Balance is a “cop out.” Balance is the mother of all failed strategies, but it remains very popular. If you are “seeking balance,” stop now; you have been sold a bill of goods. Balance juggles everything and accomplishes nothing. It seeks to manage the situation rather than change the game. This is the strategy of the duped. It is the Excellence Trap’s favorite partner.
There is a way out, but these are not it.
The How-To Paradox
The only way forward is to change the game, to leave behind excellence and all that brought us to it, replacing excellence with mastery and a new set of drivers.
However, getting there requires a paradox. Consider: If we attempt to shift from excellence to mastery using the methods we know, those of excellence, we won’t get there. Because, again, excellence and mastery are different in kind. We’ll fail, grow frustrated, add insult and injury and give up. And we would be perfectly rational to do so.
So not only do we need new drivers to achieve mastery, we need a new way to make the shifts to what drives mastery in the first place.
Not to worry, there is a way, also known to the great masters and top performers outside of business. The paradox is that to make these shifts we must in fact set the shifts themselves aside; we don’t work on them directly. Instead, we work on something else and find that the shifts then occur of their own accord. We find our way to our ultimate destination via an indirect path. This is confusing to excellence, but clear as can be to mastery.
The Indirect Path
Put simply, we experience the five shifts to mastery when we get out of our own way, acting with self-knowledge, spontaneity, confidence, fearlessness and integrity. And by setting aside the depleting drivers of excellence. But how? We do this by identifying and working from our core, or what we call our Dynamic Essence (essence because it is distilled; dynamic because it always wants to be in action). It changes everything, bringing us to sustainable mastery. While it is the topic for a much longer piece, in our work we work to discover and release this dynamic essence through a structured inquiry that applies to leaders, teams, entire cultures and even brands. This inquiry is built around six core drivers that together add up to the whole: the entire person, team, organization, culture or, with some modifications, the brand.
These drivers are:
Reveals the narrative we tell ourselves and others, the interpretive frame we live inside.
Reveals what we give priority and precedence to, what is vitally important to us and at stake for us, both ethically and economically.
Reveals when time stands still and we operate effortlessly and joyfully.
Reveals what has been best and highest for us.
Reveals what our passion, work and attention have all been for.
Reveals how we relate to ourselves, others and the world around us.
With insights into each of these, we identify and release our dynamic essence, our strongest asset. Then we live from it, at first consciously, but increasingly unconsciously; at first with trepidation, but increasingly fearlessly. And when that happens — lo and behold, we leave the depleted drivers of excellence behind, with all their hidden yet painful costs, and make the five shifts to mastery. The good news is that it is not an either-or game; every degree of change yields rewards. We can do it a little at a time, until we can be called masterful.
We have now applied in business, and in our personal lives, what the great masters have always known: how to perform at the heights, consistently, safely and sustainably. This is mastery, reached by the unique mastery path. And it changes everything.
Benefits and Rewards
As we saw, excellence only takes us so far, and eventually turns and bites us. Not so mastery. Masterful people and organizations don’t burn out, they don’t choke, don’t suffer avoidable injury or incur hidden costs, are not the victims of circumstance, they don’t peak, panic or sweat. Instead, they stay in peak performance mode, with joy, integrity and grace. They operate with lower costs. They deliver and keep delivering, and in new ways. They attract the best people, they make their own luck, they have self-sustaining capacity, they read the currents and ride the wave. They are often inexplicable to others, those trapped in excellence. They win deep admiration and trust, becoming the go-to person in a crisis. They never become irrelevant. They smile a lot, as if they know a secret or the joke. They deepen. They lead. They win. They contribute. They leave a legacy. And like a pure vibrating musical note in absence of friction to slow it down, they resonate broadly, they sustain. They neither stop nor are stopped, until they reach their own good end.
And they get there only by leaving excellence behind.
Let’s work to make ourselves, others, our communities, and our organizations truly and deeply sustainable.