The hidden secret of outstanding performance: Learn how to think

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What separates the Albert Einsteins of this world from the rest of us? Are they simply born great or does something else explain their exceptional performance?

Read on to discover the art of thinking and how you can learn this essential life-skill.

Great coaches know the importance of thinking

In the summer and autumn of 2012 I travelled around Europe to meet great sports and executive leadership coaches to try to understand what drives performance.

One of the components of performance they all mentioned was thinking. The way most of the coaches defined thinking was related to having strong positive beliefs about yourself and about what you can achieve in the world.

One sports coach, a gentleman from Birmingham in England, put it slightly differently however.

“Remember Bjarte…your habitual thoughts define who you become” (paraphrasing).

Let me say that again.

“Your habitual thoughts define who you become”.

Unfortunately, I didn’t appreciate the deeper meaning of what this coach of UK 400m Olympic runners was telling me until months later.

There are four components to thinking

Right around Christmas last year I was reading a few books about the misconception of talent (a topic for another post). One of the books was explaining how talent is overrated and that one of the key skills to performance is how you think.

This made me remember what Keith had told me: “your habitual thoughts define who you become”.

This time I got my ass in gear and started studying the fascinating topic of thinking.

Let’s pause here for one moment to hear what you think about how you think. Spend 2 minutes thinking about the following three questions:

  • How do you think?
  • What are the different forms of thinking that you do?
  • Are you thinking your way straight into the grave or to the haven of outstanding performance?

I believe thinking is made up of four components:

thinking

But what does this mean and how do these four components of thinking relate to performance?

Asking questions:

We all know that Einstein achieved incredible things. But did you know that he was excellent at asking questions?

You can be excellent at asking questions too.

Isn’t it true that nearly everything we do when we think is asking questions? Aren’t you asking yourself a question right now? You certainly are.

The most important aspect of thinking is what questions we decide to ask ourselves. Why you ask?

Because whenever you ask a questions your brain will work to give you answers. Try for yourself:

  • What’s not right in your life right now?
  • What’s great about being you?
  • What’s the colour of the socks you’re wearing?

think

If you ask bad questions you will get bad answers. If you ask great questions you’ll get great answers. The massive importance of this cannot be overstated.

Let me provide you with a brief example to demonstrate.

Let’s say you have two friends, Johnny and Bob, who’re both currently having some challenges in their lives.

Bob, who haven’t learnt about the power of thinking, habitually asks questions like “Why do I always have problems”? “Why do bad things always happen to me?”. As we’ve learnt, Bob’s brain will provide answers.

“Because I’m too weak”

“Because nobody likes me”

“Because I didn’t go to university and I’m a failure”

“Because I like to smell giraffe poo”

Johnny on the other hand knows the importance of questions. He understands that when you ask your brain will work to find answers. Therefore, Johnny habitually asks himself:

“What’s good about the situation I’m in now and how can I make things better?” Johnny’s brain goes into answering mode:

“Well, I still have great friends”

“I have a loving family”

“I like to smile at sheep”

“Maybe I could share some of my challenges with my friends & family and then we could address them together?”

Imagine how great the life performance difference of Bob and Johnny will be if they continue to ask the same types of questions habitually.

What future do you see for sorry Bob?

The take home message is this:

Outstanding performance demand outstanding questions. Outstanding, repeatedly asked questions will provide outstanding answers.

Answering questions

The differences between Bob and Johnny will over a few years be enormous. The reason for this is that your brain will provide you with answers to the questions you ask it.

These answers will influence what you believe to be true about yourself and the world.

These answers will influence how you feel and how you think.

And, these answers will influence your behaviour.

To achieve outstanding results I recommend asking outstanding questions and hence receiving outstanding answers.

“What’s good about this?”

“How can I make this happen?”

“What are possible resources that can help me achieve this?”

…and so forth.

Making observations

Thinking isn’t all about questions and answers though. We also make observations and great performance demands great observations.

What are you talking about? Is it possible to observe in more than one way?

Of course.

What observations we decide to make and the words we use to describe them massively impacts our lives. Let’s check out some examples:

“Wow, that chick is HOT, but way too hot for me…” … or if you live in Bergen, Norway:

“Noooooo! It’s raining AGAIN! What’s wrong about this shitty place??!”…. or if you live in Oslo, Norway:

“I can’t  believe it! Another suit is buying a 5 litre champagne bottle? God I hate those show-offs!”

rain

Let me ask you this:

  • Are you going to feel better by telling yourself that a girl is too hot for you?
  • Is your day in lovely Bergen going to get better by you focusing on the fact that it’s raining?
  • Is your evening out in Oslo going to be better by you “hating” anybody?

The answer is no, no and no. You’re not going to feel better. You’re going to feel worse.

In fact, you’re choosing to make observations that are negative and you’re using words that increase the emotional intensity of that negativity.

Well, isn’t that just being dumb? It’s very dumb as feeling bad negatively impacts how you think, behave and act. And, feeling bad leads to worse performance.

To our defence it’s not like we mean to be stupid. We’re simply not aware of how we make observations and the negative impact making poor observations have.

Next time you see that hot girl walking by, why don’t you smile to her and think “Nice!” instead? That’s going to make you feel good!

So, what’s the take home message here?

Great performance demands great observations and great use of your vocabulary.

Therefore, pay attention to what observations you choose to make and the words you use to describe these observations.

Bringing past or imaginary experiences to the mind

imagination

The fourth and final component of human thinking is our ability to bring past or imagined senses to our attention; pictures, feelings, sounds, smells and tastes.

This is another hugely important aspect of performance.

Hans Trygve Kristiansen who coached Johan Olav Koss, the winner of three Olympic gold medals in 1994 speed skating, said it like this (I’m paraphrasing ):

“It was too physically exhausting for Johan Olav to prepare for the Olympics by doing 10 000 meters on skates all the time. Therefore, Johan spent lots and lots of time on the stationary bike, imagining, visualising and feeling how it would be to do all the laps in a 10 000 meter speed skating. He pictured and felt every movement just as it was happening in real life, over and over again. Thinking like this was absolutely key to Johan Olav winning three gold medals in the 1994 winter Olympics”.

This area is too big to cover in this post but the take home message is this:

Bring positive experiences, real or imagined ones, to your conscious mind and feel them with as much emotional intensity as you can. Why?

Because this builds the neurological connections in your brain so that it will be easier for you to carry out the desired behaviour in the real world.

As strange as it seems; your brain can’t tell the difference between you imagining doing something really well or you actually doing the behaviour really well in the real world.

So be smart and think smart!

To conclude: Great performance requires great thinking

There are four components to thinking:

1) Asking questions and 2) Answering questions

Outstanding performance demand outstanding questions. Outstanding, repeatedly asked questions will provide outstanding answers.

3) Making observations

Great performance demands great observations and great use of vocabulary. Pay attention to what observations you choose to make and what words you use.

4) Bringing past or imaginary experiences to the mind

Bring positive experiences, real or imagined ones, to your conscious mind and really feel them.

What to do next to improve your thinking

You now understand that how you think is massively important. Great people like Albert Einstein not only understood the this though, they became masters of thinking.

How can you start mastering thinking too?

I recommend that you start becoming aware of the questions you ask by following this simple two-step method:

  1. Add an evening-reminder to your phone that says “what questions did I ask today?” and answer that question every evening before you go to bed. When doing this I recommend bringing two specific situations to your mind that were of particular importance to you.
  2. Then ask yourself: How can I ask even better questions tomorrow?

Those two questions will significantly increase your awareness of the questions you ask. Once you’re aware of how you’re thinking it’s easy to start asking better questions!

The process of learning how to think effectively is a very fulfilling and interesting one. Enjoy it!

If you’re interesting in reading about more important life stuff check out the two most read blog posts at RethinkingTruth.com:

Bjarte

Notes

The lovely brain picture is borrowed from here, the Einstein photo is borrowed from here and the rain in Bergen photo is borrowed from here.

33 thoughts on “The hidden secret of outstanding performance: Learn how to think

  1. Rachael Hunter

    I love this article! Thank you so much for writing it! I am going to read it every day until it sinks in…
    Rachael

    Reply
  2. barbara parker

    Bjarte,
    I have just discovered your posts, and really find them to be the perfect amount of education and information. Really appreciated your list of inspiring authors. I have two sons, 24 and 19, deep thinkers, and big readers eager to explore and always questioning meaningful connections. Have you ever read Henry Miller’s, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch? This tells about 15 years of his life on the Big Sur in California. Both my boys have read this and loved it. It is quoted as being “a testament of a free spirit who broke through restraints and cliches on modern life to find within himself his own kind of paradise”. I sometimes feel concerned for my older son that he will find the connection he is searching for, but then I think back on his life and how structured it has been, and I respect his independence and curiosity, and resistance to conform. I sent my four children your posts on the most important things on life and learning how to think. My younger son immediately sent me a three paragraph response:
    “Hey mom, I read through the article and really liked it. It’s really nice to be presented with things like this that force you to reflect. That’s the main thing for me: being aware of my decisions and why I do everything I do.
    ‘LIFE IS THE ABILITY AND TIME WE HAVE TO INTERACT WITH THE WORLD’ I love the way that is put. It captures that desire to want to get out there and meet people and experience things.”

    I have a dear old Norwegian friend, Toril, who lives near me north of Boston with her husband. Her son and my daughter are actually living in Boulder and dating now. Hoping to someday travel with her to Norway.

    Thank-you Bjarte for sharing all your inspiring thoughts and experiences. I will sending my kids the TED talk on the 20’s.
    Barb

    Reply
    1. Bjarte Bakke

      Barbara, thank you for your kind message. I really enjoyed reading it. I’m glad to hear your boys enjoy reflection and I’m sure they are good guys :)

      Looking forward to hear more from you and your family!

      Reply
  3. Sridhar Murthy

    Bjarte, read your article with interest. I am rereading it again. I have asked my children to read it. Thanks for the excellent article.

    Reply
  4. Shubham Thakur

    @Sir Bjarte Bakke…This article is superb.!!…i really loved it!!…but there is one problem with me that i find difficult controlling my addiction towards computer….mom goes out of home and i sit on net checking my email,facebook and other stuffs such as games….but later i get a guilty feeling why ddn’t i study instead of sitting on pc….i read motivational quotes and books and i too have a dream but such things i really find it difficult to control…i have a very bad habit of overindulging in things except studies….i am desperate to overindulge in studies but how should i do it???…..plz help as me my teacher.

    Reply
    1. Bjarte Bakke

      Shubham,

      It seems like you are a human being, just like me and everyone else! We humans are easily distracted, especially if what we’re studying doesn’t interest us a lot.

      How much do you enjoy your studies?
      How important are these studies for you and are they the right ones?
      If they are important and the right ones for you, how can you start to enjoy learning about these things?

      To overcome the habits you mention I’d consider doing 3 things:
      1. Find someone who love what you study, spend time with them and learn why they find it so exciting
      2. Look at Coursera and Edx for courses similar to what you study and check them out. Many of the teachers there make the content so interesting that you’d rather learn than play video games!
      3. Improve your health as this will significantly improve your self-control, focus and learning capability http://rethinkingtruth.com/2013/05/09/health-is-the-most-important-thing-in-life-heres-how-to-achieve-it/

      I don’t know if that’s what you were looking for but feel free to ask more questions if there’s something I can do to help :-)

      Regards,
      Bjarte.

      Reply
  5. Shubham Thakur

    Thank you sir….but i have lots of question to ask regarding these topic and about Coursera too…can i have your email id sir?

    Reply
  6. Stacy Clark

    The BEST questions I’ve ever learned came from Byron Katie, author of “Loving What Is,” and worldwide seminar leader. Her site says something about how Katie doesn’t have the answers, but she does have the questions.

    We start with a stressful thought, usually about someone we are irritated with, etc. The 4 Questions are:

    1. Is it true? (We are instructed to let the answer arise, more like a meditation than a problem-solving focus.)
    2. Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
    3. How do I react or how do I live my life when I believe this thought?
    4. Who would I be without this thought?

    Last, we Turn it Around, which means finding several opposites of the original thought and checking to see if those are at least as true as the original thought.

    The results are often viscerally mind-blowing. Eventually, untrue thinking just slides off. http://www.thework.com is her site if you are interested.

    Enjoy!

    Reply
      1. Stacy Clark

        My pleasure. I look forward to reading more of your blog. You’re definitely onto something (truth) here.

        There is a more business oriented adaptation by Andrew Bernstein. The Myth of Stress: Where stress really comes from and how to live a happier and healthier life (2010). Bernstein calls his method “ActivInsight™.

        For a different kind of fun with truth, Spider Robinson wrote a short story called “Satan’s Children” appearing in his book “By Any Other Name” and on his web site, read by the author, It is a story of what would happen if everybody got “truth,” a fictional drug.

        Have fun!

        Reply
  7. Shubham Thakur

    Respected Sir,
    I wanted to know if it is possible for a normal human being to think like Jacob Barnett??
    Sometimes i tell myself “No” to which suddenly my mind calls me an ‘idiot’ and tells me to ‘reconsider my decisions’.
    Few lines have made a deep impact on my mind ever since i read it…
    1)”Genius is 1% talent and 99% hardwork”-Albert Einstein
    2)Mother nature is never partial with anyone in this world
    3)”Faith moves mountains” from Holy Bible
    And one thing that i wanted to ask too is that “HOW THINKING POSITIVE,DREAMING BIG AND IMAGINING THINGS MAKE A DEEP IMPACT ON OUR MIND???”
    How our thoughts turn into action???
    Regards;
    Shubham Thakur

    Reply
    1. Bjarte Bakke Post author

      Shubham,

      Thank you for asking such important questions.

      Do I think it’s possible to think like Jacob Barnett? Yes, I think so. I also think that he has a genetic advantage over most of us in terms of his analytical thinking. However, having that initial advantage doesn’t mean people with less of an advantage can’t become better than Jacob.

      I agree with the three points you’ve listed above. Personally, I think what we choose to believe about ourselves and the world is unimaginable significant.

      Shubham, I recommend that you read this post: http://rethinkingtruth.com/2013/06/22/the-hidden-secret-of-outstanding-performance-learn-how-to-think/
      Practice asking the right questions. It might do you the world of good :)

      Reply
  8. Lara

    Thank you for another inspiring article.

    Your brain is a powerful tool. If used rightly, it can work miracles. But if used wrongly it can be very destructive.

    Nobody every wants to feel bad or sad. But strangely, a lot of people do so! You probably gave the answer why it is so… And how to change that.

    Everything you experience, feel or do has an impact on your mind. So you better use it right.

    Reply
    1. Bjarte Bakke Post author

      Thanks again for your interesting perspective Lara. I do believe that learning to think is one of the absolute core life-skills we should all acquire. The difference between for example asking the right questions instead of the wrong ones over a life-time is immense.

      Reply
  9. Padraic

    Just sending you a thank you and some love. You have completely changed my mood today, and given me a pointer in the direction to getting an amazing life back on track. Thanks for sharing this gift Bjarte :-)

    Padraic

    Reply
    1. Bjarte Bakke Post author

      Padraic,

      Thank you for putting a smile on my face this morning! I’m very glad the article was valuable to you.

      Let me know how things go with your thinking.

      Bjarte

      Reply
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