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Performance Hack: Increasing tenacity

A few months ago I wrote a blog about the importance of tenacity, and it prompted a question from a friend: how do we increase it?

Before answering, I guess we should ask why we would want to.

Well, tenacity is how anything worthwhile is achieved. It’s how my friends have built successful businesses, it’s how I became a fighter pilot and it’s how anyone survives/achieves/accomplishes the seemingly unsurviveable/unachievable/unaccomplishable.

Tenacity is the brute force which we use to overcome obstacles, the motivation to find a way, and after we’ve been knocked down, the strength to get up off the canvas and face our opponents again.

I initially wasn’t sure we could increase tenacity; maybe we were simply either born quitters or non-quitters. But over time, the answer has become clearer, and my research into this question has helped me form a more complete picture of what true high performance is all about.

I’ll begin with the science (or my layman’s knowledge of it).

Dopamine is critical in our ability to increase our level of tenacity. As I’m sure most of you know, it is a molecule released by the brain and causes us to associate positive feelings about a certain event or activity.

Thinking about eating when hungry releases a certain amount of dopamine; actually eating releases around 50% more. Thinking about using cocaine releases dopamine; actually using it releases around 1000% more.

The dopamine helps reinforce the activity by making it feel pleasurable. In the case of eating, it’s why we survive. In the case of illicit drug use, it’s why millions of lives have been ruined.

Our traditional model of motivation is that we should think of a worthwhile goal, and then set about the hard work required to achieve it, rewarding ourselves only on completion.

Unfortunately, this seemingly logical model has problems.

Consider this well known experiment:

Take a group of children who particularly enjoy drawing. Observe them for a period. Now, introduce a gold star on finished drawings. The children display happiness; they like gold stars. Then watch as the children lose interest in drawing. The dopamine is now associated with gold stars, not the previously pleasurable activity of drawing for its own sake.

When we have a monumental goal like climbing a very difficult mountain; we are unlikely to achieve it if we only associate positive feelings about summiting. We will simply quit. We need to actually enjoy the climbing itself. Dopamine needs to be released with the anticipation and act of putting one foot after another.

I recently was fortunate enough to stumble across a podcast in which renowned neuroscientist Dr David Huberman was discussing David Goggins. (For those of you unfamiliar, David Goggins is an exceptional endurance athlete, ex-navy seal and all round physical superman.) Dr Huberman was discussing how David has trained himself to release dopamine whilst exerting effort. Because of this, it’s not crossing the finish line of an ultra marathon which fires the pleasure circuits in Goggins’ brain; it’s the suffering itself.

When watching interviews with David Goggins, it’s remarkable to observe how little time he spends talking about accomplishments. His entire focus is on the process and the effort itself, and how he has conditioned his brain to see suffering not only as the ‘normal’, but as his power.

Bear with me! We don’t need to spend the rest of our life in pain!

What we DO need to do, is spend more time enjoying the PROCESS.

As I have been pondering this change to the traditional model of ‘put in effort, and look forward to the reward at the end’, I couldn’t help noticing the parallels to the stoic’s model for living well: “It’s not whether the arrow hits the target that is important, but how well the archer shoots”.

In this axiom, we are invited to concentrate on the process of an activity; to focus on making the actions perfect. The stoic would offer the following advice to the mountain climber “concentrate on perfecting your climbing technique, not worrying about whether you summit or not”.

The stated purpose of the stoic advice was to alleviate daily stress and worry by ensuring we only focus on what is inside our control, but it is clear to me that concentrating on the process actually helps us achieve our goals more often anyway. What we are doing here is releasing dopamine more often through the duration of an activity, rather than only on its completion. This has the effect of increasing our motivation to continue with the required effort.

Since I claim to always focus on the HOW and not just the WHAT, let’s look at some practical techniques for HOW we can release dopamine during the effort/the process/the pain:

  • Instead of thinking ‘I have to complete this workout’, think ‘the pain I feel is helping my body grow’

  • Instead of hoping the day goes smoothly, hope for opportunities to practice patience and self-control

  • Instead of planning to relax after you finally overcome this workplace hurdle, think ‘overcoming obstacles is how my team gets stronger’

  • Instead of throwing a party when you win the contract, throw a party when your staff innovate

In short, be creative and find ways to think positively about the process. Maybe it will help to write a list of any method you think you might have of releasing dopamine for an outcome; you might include positive feelings, daydreaming, champagne lunches, trophy’s, dinners or the language you use. Now try to think of the process which helps you achieve these outcomes, and consciously assign the same ‘dopamine releasing’ actions to them.

This will seem absurd at first, but over time you will condition yourself to look forward to the effort, the process, and the obstacles.

Not sure if this resonates with you, but pondering this problem of ‘increasing tenacity’ has definitely helped my understanding of the limitations of our traditional motivation models.

Hope to get some more questions and comments!

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