The 3 Mindsets of All High Performers
How thinking separates the best from the rest
Whether you are training, performing, or recovering, elite performers rely on mindsets, or a mental framework, for how to best approach and execute. These mindsets serve different functions in different contexts, but the overarching goal of developing any mindset is simple: to guide behavior.
The concept of mindset has been popularized by Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford who wrote the book of the same name, and popularized the term “growth mindset.” Dr. Dweck is a pioneer in the mindset space, and we will address growth mindset here - but even the most popular of mindset researchers acknowledge that just one mindset can’t work in all circumstances.
Elite performers adopt and adapt several mindsets to help them perform, lead, and innovate. We know that the same mindset a performer uses in practice can undermine their performance, that sometimes combinations of mindsets produce the best overall outcomes, and that no one mindset fits all.
That’s where the 3 mindsets of high performers come in. The combination of these mindsets gives performers a holistic approach for working on their development, achieving goals, performing under pressure, and creating sustainable, optimal performance.
Mindset 1: Growth Mindset, with a dash of Fixed Mindset
Originally coined task- and ego-orientation, and later re-described as performance- and mastery-orientation, fixed and growth mindsets have been positioned as polar opposites, but the research suggests that isn’t quite the right way to look at it.
At their cores, the fixed and growth mindset are about one question: what do people believe contributes to successful task performance?
People who hold a fixed mindset (ego orientation/performance orientation) tend to answer that question with 1 word: talent. That’s a bit of a simplification, but the idea is that natural ability or innate talent is an outsized contributor to performance. What we know is that people who hold a fixed mindset tend to pursue tasks that give them an opportunity to show off and demonstrate what they can do. That means they will often opt for easier tasks that allow for almost guaranteed success. Fixed mindset folks see failure as an indictment of their natural ability, and will do whatever they can to avoid that sense of failure.
People who hold a growth mindset (task orientation/mastery orientation) tend to answer the same question with a slightly more multifaceted approach. Hard work, effort, and persistence are the answer to what lies at the core of successful performance for growth mindset holders. We know that people who have a growth mindset tend to pursue more challenging tasks because they are focused on improving. They use performances as a sort of benchmark to measure themselves against, and then press on in the face of success to harder challengers, or press on in the face of failure with greater effort or more diversified strategies.
You can see two patterns emerge here. Fixed mindset = avoid failure, challenge, and looking bad. Growth mindset = pursue challenge, focus on effort. These patterns explain why people have latched on to growth mindset - it seems more adaptive.
The reality of the data is a bit more complicated.
Though these mindsets have been pitched as opposing, the reality is that the two can coexist and that they are dimensional. In other words, someone can be high or low in both fixed and growth mindsets. And that’s a good thing.
For elite performers, there needs to be a dash of a fixed mindset. We need to believe that we have the talent and ability to compete with the very best in the world. High performers need to believe in their own abilities and to see themselves as capable. They have to hold the belief that they are at or above the baseline level to be good enough to hang.
This dash of fixed mindset can be the difference between maintaining confidence or shrinking in the face of failure. If the performer doesn’t believe that they are good enough, a failure confirms that to be true. If the performer believes they have what it takes, there’s a chance that failure gets explained in a more adaptive way.
Now combine that dash of fixed mindset with two servings of a growth mindset. The best performers understand that failure doesn’t define their true ability. They believe that with hard work, persistence, and a little more effort, they can not only raise their baseline ability, but they can perform at a higher level. With this mindset, failure becomes an opportunity to step back, learn, and identify the next step to get better.
You need both to be great.
Mindset 2: Stress-is-Enhancing
There are a few more realities that we have to confront in the over-indexing on a growth mindset. While there’s value in seeing failure as a learning opportunity at times, there are specific times when that works directly against you. The place where it works against you most nefariously is in the heat of the moment.
Under pressure, thinking that failure can be a learning opportunity gives you permission to ease off. It’s an escape route. It gives us a little bit of a break from coping with the pressure and allows us to more readily accept failure as an option. That works for after the event ends - but at the moment, it can be a disaster.
So how should a high performer handle pressure, exactly?
Research with Navy SEALs suggests that the best approach is to look at pressure and stress as a performance enhancer. What they’ve found is that people who believe stress elevates their performance tend to actually get that performance boost. Believing stress is enhancing predicts persistence, task success, and overall performance. These high performers do better than their growth mindset counterparts, plus their counterparts who hold some other common mindsets about stress.
One other mindset that they found isn’t so helpful, but that we might assume is an advantage, is the belief that we have unlimited willpower and can simply “push through” under pressure. What research shows is that this belief doesn’t help performance (though it doesn’t necessarily hurt either) AND that it leads to strained social relationships. People with this mindset don’t tend to understand other performers and their struggles. As a result, these performers can be seen as outcasts… not great for the high performer.
The last common mindset we find under stress is the stress-is-debilitating mindset. Simply put, this is the belief that stress hurts performance. This mindset comes up a lot in discussion of failures and is the foundation for choking, or failing to perform under pressure. Elite performers would do well to avoid this mindset and, if they encounter it within themselves, reframe their relationship with stress.
The relationship with stress in the stress-is-enhancing mindset is facilitative of performance. But for that mindset to pay off over the long term, elite performers need one more set of attitudes that allows them to sustain excellence over time.
Mindset 3: Wellness is an Investment
One of the hardest problems for high performers to shake is the inaccurate belief that “while you sleep, the enemy is working.” Expanded slightly beyond sleep, this faulty mindset has to do with our inaccurate beliefs about productivity, work, human capabilities, time, and our own self-esteem.
To begin very practically, you need sleep or you’ll die. The faulty belief that you somehow perform well on 2-4 hours of sleep because you’re “outworking” or “out-hustling” your competition is in part perpetuated by your sleep-deprived brain’s inaccurate perception of its own capabilities. Consensus statements from international experts working with elite athletes all agree: sleep is the number one performance enhancer.
Again, let’s take it a step beyond sleep. Imagine trying to bench press every single day for a year. What would happen? Eventually, you’d plateau, or worse, you’d tear a muscle and be unable to perform for several weeks. Your quest to push and push leads to the very thing you fear: a shutdown.
The same thing happens to us mentally. Perhaps the hardest work a high performer has to do is change their relationship with themselves as a performer - to learn to see themselves more fully, multidimensionally, and importantly, as a human with real human needs that will help them be their best.
The best performers come to see their wellness - sleep, diet, exercise, mental health, social relationships, and more - as foundational to their performance. These things don’t compete with or take away from productivity. They are an investment in future productivity.
To make the most of our performance over time, we have to approach our performance with some flexibility and balance. The best performers know when to push. They understand the value of giving extra effort at the end of the game or in practice when they are trying to master a new skill. They also understand how to rest hard.
LeBron James has publicly spoken about how important his rest and sleep routine is. Tom Brady has written about the benefits of nutrition and plyometric training to support elite performance. What’s clear here? These two GOATs aren’t just pushing themselves to the limits EVERY SINGLE DAY without INVESTING in other things.
This shift in mindset is hard but necessary. Seeing your work capacity and mind as limitless is not only inaccurate, it can be debilitating. Instead, you can choose to see your time with your family - real, present time - as an investment in your future performance.
Rather than getting home late tonight, missing your kids’ bedtime, and then showing up to work tomorrow kicking yourself for doing that, distracting you from the work you should be doing… go home. Put your kids to bed. Enjoy it. Then, you don’t have to kick yourself tomorrow!
There will be times to decide whether to persist or pause. Importantly, understanding when to do each can separate the good from the great. Investing in your wellness is key to maintaining your performance over time.
Though not exhaustive, the mindsets above can lay the foundation for you to quickly elevate your performance. Start by examining the beliefs you hold about failure, stress, and wellness. Are you someone that fears failure? What is your relationship with stress? Do you take care of yourself?
Coaches and elite performers are leaders and have a responsibility to demonstrate these mindsets to their followers and raise the game of those around them. The best performers think of their teammates’ mindsets as well as their own and appreciate how their approach can rub off on the people around them. Take care of yourself, take care of those around you, make stress your friend, believe in what you have to offer, and know that effort can make you better.
Where can you invest more in your wellness?
Which of these 3 mindsets can you work on developing?