Forces that Produce a Significant Performer

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 15, Issue No. 5b
September 15, 2016

By Dan Coughlin


My definition of a significant performer: a person who makes a tremendously positive and lasting impact on a meaningful outcome.

So what are the forces that converge in a person’s life that cause the person to become a significant performer? Finding answers to that question has been the intentional purpose of much of my reading over the past several years. In this article I will share some of what I uncovered.

Lesson #1: Ordinary People Doing Their Best

If you just read the titles and subtitles of books on personal significance, you may think it’s a very macho activity. Titles with words like Hero, Grit, Peak, Drive, Flow, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, Non-Conformist, On Fire, and Maverick all suggest that you have to be a wildly macho person to really matter in the world. These are all great books, which I am going to reference in a moment, but their titles imply that significance is something that it’s not.

If you study the people in these books, including their authors, and you study the lives of the people they reference, you will almost always see the same pattern. An ordinary person found something he or she liked doing and connected it with something that frustrated him or her which created a meaningful purpose that sustained him or her over a long period of time. This was true for the Wright Brothers, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Oprah, and on and on.

My parents were the first two people whom I knew who were significant performers. Neither of them went to a day of college, but they guided their six kids to college degrees. No fanfare. No macho words or labels. Just day after day of focus for about 40 years. An extraordinary person is just an ordinary person who kept on going in a positive and meaningful way.

Lesson #2: Do What Interests You

If you find something that interests you, start to pour your time and energy into it. It’s that simple. Not sexy or expensive, but this is the starting point of significance.

I discovered this enormously powerful idea in the book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. This one is so obvious that we might completely overlook it. Of course, great performers started somewhere. They didn’t start in a history book. They started doing what interested them. If they remained interested in it, they kept doing it. And little by little they got better at it.

Please don’t underestimate the value of your interests. If you like doing something or your intrigued by it, then do it. Don’t say, “Well, who would ever pay me to do this?” or “What would other people think if I did that?” Bag those questions. If it interests you, do it, and then keep doing it as long as it interests you.

Lesson #3: Deliberately Practice in Order to Get Better At It

When you’ve sunk your teeth into something that sustains your interest, then it’s not enough just to keep doing it. That isn’t going to make you a significant performer. The key is to practice in a deliberate manner that improves your performance consistently and continually over a long period of time.

This is where the book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson comes in very handy. In chapters one and four, Ericsson explains in great detail the key steps involved in purposeful practice and deliberate practice. He’s spent his entire adult life learning how certain people became the best in the world at what they did, and then he codified that information into a series of repeatable steps. In essence, he encourages you to practice with a coach who will give you honest and accurate feedback on a regular basis, and then consistently tweak your performance so it gets better and better.

Lesson #4: Early Influences and Dissatisfaction with a Default Position                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

The fuel that supercharges a significant performer is purpose, a reason for sustaining the conscious effort necessary to break through from beginner to significant performer.

Most people know this already, and usually they will ask, “Yes, but how did they find their purpose?”

Having studied dozens of significant performers, I think the answer has two parts: their early influences and being deeply dissatisfied with a default position.

Something happened early in their life between the ages of six and sixteen that was meaningful to them, and later in life they found they were deeply dissatisfied with a default position. Those two forces combine into a meaningful purpose. In his book, Originals, Adam Grant wrote, “The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin’s father was a minister, and I believe that influenced the young Martin to use eloquence as a tool for influencing others. Then he became deeply dissatisfied with the societal default position that African-Americans should always be treated poorly just because of the color of their skin. Those two facts merged into a massive purpose of non-violent resistance to the horrible lack of civil justice in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.

Steve Jobs

I think the most underrated part of the Steve Jobs’ story was the time he spent during his early years with his father at his workbench in the garage. Paul Jobs was meticulous and precise in making things. My hunch is Steve Jobs cherished that experience and that is what drove him to make such precise products with Steve Wozniak, the people at NeXT, and Jony Ive at Apple.

He then saw the problem with the default position in the 1970s where only a few people in rare locations had access to sophisticated electronic technology. He and Wozniak realized that this could be reversed to the point where every person could have great technology.

My Own Situation

Looking back on my life, I had two major influential early experiences, and I discovered one remarkably dissatisfying default position in organizations that greatly affected the purpose of my work.

My first influence was my parents modeling the idea of dedicating their lives to helping other people achieve what they wanted to accomplish. In their case, those “other people” were their six children. I was so impressed by what my parents did that I decided I was going to spend my life focused on working with other people to help them achieve what they wanted to accomplish. By my early 20s, the blueprint for my career had been set.

My second major influence was that I grew up the fourth child in a family of six kids. When I was 9, my siblings were 16, 15, 13, 7, and 2. As a parent, who would you turn to if you wanted input on what to do? Of course, you would go to one of the teenagers. So would I.

When I was 19, my siblings were 26, 25, 23, 17, and 12. As a parent who would you turn to for advice on what decision to make? The folks in their 20s of course. They had jobs. I was in college.

When I was 29, my siblings were 36, 35, 33, 27, and 22, and by then the family habits were fixed in concrete. I think you see the pattern. It’s no one’s fault, but family patterns are established over years, not months.

Consequently, I felt my ideas were either ignored or never asked for, my decisions were controlled by others, and I was criticized if I didn’t follow the decisions other people made. This feeling became an enormous source of frustration and irritation for me.

An Unsatisfactory Default Position in Many Organizations

Then several years later I saw a default position in many organizations that I found incredibly dissatisfying for the people who worked there. I saw that the ideas of many people were being ignored and that the decision-makers were only going to a small group of people for input on what to do. Over a period of time they had fallen into the trap of only looking to certain people for ideas and input.

I learned about the 80/20 Rule where most projects were turned over to the top 20% of the employees and the other 80% were supposed to just follow orders.

I realized that my family dynamic of being the fourth child was replicated in large, medium, and small businesses. Without realizing it, these companies were losing out on a mountain of value.

The other 80% of the employees were feeling frustrated, disengaged, controlled, ignored, and criticized. Employee engagement scores began to plummet. Many people started working only for the paycheck, and lost hope that their ideas could ever really matter. This was robbing most organizations of the ideas and passions and leadership capacities of the other 80% of the people who worked there.

The Any Person Mindset Management Approach is Born

Understanding how this default position of turning to a few people and ignoring the vast majority affected organizational performance and results evolved into a meaningful purpose in my life. I wanted to make sure that any person could become a valuable contributor regardless of his or her tenure with the company, title, income, age, gender, height, race, size, or any other label.

This became the driving force underlying all of my life’s work: to help people see that they had value to offer and they could make a significant difference, and help the people in charge realize that they needed to bring out the best in all their employees and not just their selected top 20% if they wanted to optimize performances and results throughout their organization.

This intense focus became what I call The Any Person Mindset Management Approach, which simply says, “Any person in an organization can make a significant difference. No one is born with the necessary traits. These are learned thinking traits.” With this mindset, it becomes the focus of the manager to help develop the thinking traits in all employees that are necessary for improving results.

What early experiences in your life do you what to replicate or avoid today?

What default position for people do you want to correct?

Your answers to those two questions can help you define a meaningful purpose in your life.

Lesson #5: Keep Having Fun

In his book, Flow, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi talks about the state of mind when you are immersed in an activity you love doing. It’s almost pure joy. The more you can immerse yourself in that experience, the more you can sustain your performance over the long term. It’s somewhere in those thousands of hours of effort that your impact moves into the significant realm. The joy is not in the intense practicing. The joy is in the doing of the thing you’ve practiced so hard to do.

Lesson #6: Maintain Personal Dignity

Operate at the intersection of Doing and Being. This powerful concept was explained by Robert Johnson in his autobiography, Balancing Heaven and Earth. In order to make a meaningful impact, you do have to do something. For it to be meaningful, you do have to hang on to your sense of purpose.

Here’s a simple visual:

being-doingThe key is to stay at the intersection. When your work becomes just doing without meaning, or just purpose without action, then you are no longer in a position to be a significant performer.

One really good book that will help keep you focused on clarifying your purpose is Start with Why by Simon Sinek. Another is On Fire by John O’Leary. These authors keep you coming back to focusing on your purpose over and over again.

In his book, Maslow on Management, Abraham Maslow wrote, “Ultimately, real self-esteem rests upon a feeling of dignity, of controlling one’s own life, and of being one’s own boss.” This is one of my all-time favorite quotes. It’s not about necessarily owning your own business. It’s about being in charge of your choices, your decisions, and not allowing yourself to become a robot in life. I have referred to that quote for 18 years both for myself and with my clients.

Lesson #7: Be Okay With Your Results

Allow yourself to be vulnerable in trying to make a significant difference, and then be okay with the results. The great trap of significance is sometimes people assume that significance equals fame and fortune. Then when they don’t get the labels they desire, they feel shame or insignificance. They feel shame for not having achieved the lofty status they aspired for or insignificant because they did not receive acknowledgment of greatness from their parents, family members, friends, or community members.

I encourage you to read Daring Greatly and Rising Strong by Brene Brown. She is the absolute best writer I’ve found on the importance of acting with vulnerability and safeguarding yourself from irrational shame. Another really good book on these topics is Million Dollar Maverick, which I think should be renamed, The Mindset Necessary for Success in Business and in Life, by Alan Weiss.

Homework Assignment

Obviously this is a big topic, and this article is just my attempt at the essential tip of the iceberg.

I do encourage you to read the books below on the topic of being a significant performer. If you completely read any three of them, feel free to send me an email and I’ll be glad to set up a time to discuss them with you.

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Million Dollar Maverick: Forge Your Own Path to Think Differently, Act Decisively and Succeed Quickly by Alan Weiss

Maslow on Management by Abraham Maslow

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown

Rising Strong: The Reckoning, The Rumble, and The Revolution by Brene Brown

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant

On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life by John O’Leary

Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experiences by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi

Balancing Heaven and Earth: A Memoir of Visions, Dreams, and Realizations by Robert Johnson

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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