The Case of the Itchy Amygdala, Part I


synapsesImagine sitting alone in silent utter darkness, trying to make sense of the world when the only clues you receive are bursts of electrical and chemical signals. Was that latest burst a good message or a dangerous one? You fire back a response, and evaluate the results. Did that make you safer? Happier? Or did that make things worse? Slowly, bit by bit, you tease out which signals mean what, and which responses give you desirable results.

That, in a nutshell, is what happens in the baby brain—actually, in all brains. This formidable-yet-fragile organ is cloistered in the cranium for its own protection, unable to have direct contact with the world.
Tofu(Just imagine being a blob of tofu on the loose, and suddenly, being locked up snugly in a skull doesn’t sound so bad.) Everything your brain knows about life it learned from the stimuli intercepted by the rest of the body and routed up through various neural pathways.

Your brain’s earliest responses to those stimuli are initially programmed by basic biology (genetics), and are pretty quickly shaped by the environment, as well (epigenetics)—even in utero. Because infants are non-verbal, there’s no point in asking them directly to report on their emotional state or describe how they are feeling. At this stage, the baby brain’s repertoire of responses is limited to physical actions; it can tell the arms to wave, or the eyes and voice to cry. It can direct the eyes to look at a particular spot, and hold attention for a short time or a longer time.

Scientists have learned to track and measure these outward behaviors as visible signs of what’s going on inside the depths of the brain. Psychologist and researcher Dr. Jerome Kagan stands at the forefront of investigation into the biological roots of Jerome Kaganpersonality, and is considered one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century.

Kagan has spent decades exploring the nature and source of individual temperament. The Oxford Dictionary defines temperament as “a person’s or animal’s nature, especially as it permanently affects their behavior.” Similarly, Merriam-Webster explains it as “characteristic or habitual inclination or mode of emotional response.”

In his book, The Temperamental Thread (2010), Kagan explains that he and numerous other researchers are working to determine how babies’ brain anatomy and biological conditions shape their life-long emotional responses, self-development, and approach to life. To do this, they began by observing, categorizing, and labeling infants’ physical behavior in response to various stimuli.

ice cubeImagine a researcher coming at Baby You with a piece of ice. When that nasty cold cube comes into contact with your chubby cheek, you will typically have one of the following four reactions to this minor discomfort:

  • Cry lustily, and keep on crying even when cuddled
  • Cry lustily, but calm down quickly with a little cuddling
  • Cry softly, and keep on crying even when cuddled
  • Cry softly, but calm down quickly with a little cuddling

In addition to the above four types of response to discomfort, Kagan found another four patterns in infant reactions to stimuli that are startling, but not actually painful or frustrating (aka novel events). Baby You would do one of the following, upon seeing
assorted unfamiliar objects being gently waggled before your eyes:

  • Move energetically and cry frequently—called the high-reactive response
  • Move energetically and cry rarely
  • Stay still and cry frequently
  • Stay still and cry rarely—called the low-reactive response

Still other patterns of behavior are revealed by responses to frustration, and by spontaneous babbling, smiling, and waving when there are no visible stimuli. Kagan posits that infants probably have somewhere between 15 and 23 fundamental patterns that form the basis for temperament.

So far, this all sounds like Basic Research 101: make observations and categorize results.  Ho-hum. But here’s where Kagan’s work gets really sexy!

He hypothesized that he could look at an individual infant’s response to a novel event and make accurate predictions about the personality of that individual as an adult.

Let’s say that Baby You consistently exhibited a high-reactive Stuffed toyresponse to a novel event. Whenever an investigator gently moved a new stuffed animal above your crib or gave you a whiff of rubbing alcohol on a swab, you wriggled around vigorously and howled loudly to express your feelings about these unfamiliar experiences. Based on these observations, Kagan could predict with statistically significant reliability whether the Adult You would be an introvert or an extrovert.

Place your bets—which result would you imagine to be true:       High-Reactive = Extrovert   —OR—   High-Reactive = Introvert?

For now, I will leave Adult You in suspense. But be patient. All will be revealed in the next post!


Awww–a Bouncing Baby Brain!

Babies intimidate face

Other than having been one a loooong time ago, I have no experience with babies. And I’m morally certain that even if I didn’t drop it, I would not be able to keep up with what goes in one end and out the other. Of course, nurturing that bouncing baby’s brain is probably the most daunting challenge/thrilling opportunity when it comes to bringing up baby.

Intimidating though babies may be, every Self starts out as one. Remember Axiom #1, Self-Awareness: you experience and explain the universe from your own unique perspective.  To understand how that unique perspective is formed, you need to be conversant with the fundamental processes that shaped your baby brain into the YOU of today that you know and love.

As asserted in an earlier post, my simplistic model for human personality development inevitably starts with biology. Over time and through direct experience, you construct beliefs about how the Layers of Selfhood V01world works and your place in it. Eventually, the Self matures enough to further develop through indirect experience; that is, by “borrowing” knowledge by interacting with other humans—either live or via other means of communication, including experience captured in books. Hence my 3B Model for brain-building: Biology→Beliefs→Book-Learning. Let’s see what this process actually looks like, from the perspectives of neuroscience and psychological research.

Your to journey to Selfhood began when the collision of sperm and ova sparked an explosion of developmental activity. His genes plus her genes plus the surrounding environment ultimately delievered You, a unique being, full of potential. And the essence of the real You resides squarely in your brain.

Brain development MRIsAt birth, a baby’s brain is about one-third the size of an adult’s brain. In a mere 90 days, the organ expands to nearly 55 percent of its final size, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Authors Aamodt and Wang, in Welcome to Your Child’s Brain  (2011), liken the brain-building process to that of building a house and putting in the wiring: “getting the signaling cells, called neurons, into their correct positions is the (relatively) easy part, and it’s done before [you are] born. In contrast, wiring up all the connections is so complicated that the job won’t be entirely finished until [you are] in college.”

That initial brain-building unfolds in an orderly fashion, prescribed by eons of evolution, encoded in the genetic materials (aka genome) contributed by your parents. Indeed, part of what makes You unique is this specific pairing of parental DNA, genes, and chromosomes. But if you have biological siblings, you and they presumably start out with the same parental genetic inputs, and yet still end up with different personalities and physical features. Even the most identical of “identical” twins are unique individuals. How can this be?

Gregor MendelWhen the monk in the pea patch, Gregor Mendel, laid the groundwork for the science of genetics, he saw the patterns of inheritance as deterministic. The dance steps of development initially seemed totally predictable. Cross pollinate a pea plant that always yields yellow seeds (dominant) with one that always yields green seeds (recessive). The first generation will be all yellow, but you can rely on the second and subsequent generations to produce a 3:1 ratio of yellow to green. Wash, rinse, repeat. The reliability of this cycle formed the initial basis for understanding heritability.

Subsequent researchers, starting primarily with Conrad H. Waddington in the 1930s and 1940s, have pushed beyond this simple model to see that nature choreographs an elegant, endless interplay of interactions between genes and their environment. The presence or absence of specific elements in the environment at any point in your life affects how the dance will flow.

Dancing feetMetaphorically, your genes have specified that you will have two feet, but it’s the ballroom and music surrounding you that determine whether you are doing the tango or the Texas two-step at the moment. Research into this constant conversation between genes and environment is formally called epigenetics.

Our growing understanding of epigenetics has finally put to rest the old argument about nature vs. nurture: it’s both/and, not either/or. Instead of your DNA functioning as a static blueprint for building the DNA strandsedifice known as You, it dynamically responds to external conditions that turn off or turn on various genes. This happens at any point—at many points, actually—throughout your life. In fact, environmental factors in your parents’ lives before you were born affected which of their genes were active, and that, in turn, affected the genes you inherited.

In summary, while you do inherit your genome (i.e., all your combined genetic material), the genome alone does not determine exactly what kind of person you become; however, it does define the range of possible developmental outcomes open to you (Aamodt & Wang, 2011).

In the next post, we’ll explore further this tie between anatomy and attitudes, and try to understand how biology blooms into personality. Stay tuned!


A Lizard, a Rat, and a Logician Walk into a Bar…


Lizard-Koala-Logician V02You don’t have to be a zombie to be fascinated by human brains. We humans have been contemplating our cranial contents for centuries, and new theories are lofted constantly. Happily for us, emerging techniques in neuroscience reveal staggering new insights with stunning regularity. And as usually happens in research, new evidence debunks old “truths.”

Here’s a good example of how our understanding evolves as research marches on. For years, well-meaning authors, speakers, and journalists have described the brain as comprising three distinct layers that serve different functions and represent evolutionary bursts of development. These descriptions are usually drawn from the work of Paul D. MacLean (1913 – 2007), neuroscientist and author of The Triune Brain in Evolution (1990). He identified and characterized the three strata as:

  • Protoreptilian formation (basal ganglia, midbrain, brainstem)—aka lizard brain
  • Paleomammalian formation (limbic system, composed of the amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampal complex, etc.)—aka early mammal brain
  • Neomammalian formation (cerebral neocortex)—aka modern primate brain

[FYI, this is the source of my titular joke for this post: A lizard, a rat, and a logician walk into a bar… and they’re all actually the same guy! Okay, it’s not a great joke. But it made you look!]

In this Triune Brain model—especially as deployed by non-scientists and motivational speakers—the layers are presented as being clearly separate from each other, operating semi-autonomously.

Triune brain cartoonThe Lizard Brain concept in particular caught the attention of the aforementioned thinkers and writers in the 1990s, and is still cited as a driving force behind much less-than-desirable human behavior. It’s lovely to blame some inner ancient anatomical structure for (as one author puts it) our “fight, flight, feeding, fear, freezing-up, and fornication.”

Fast-forward a couple of decades, though, and you’ll find that poor ol’ McLean’s theories have been largely left in the dust. (Although he deservedly gets credit for his 1952 publication that recognized for the first time that the limbic system is a major functional system in the brain.) As further research has consistently shown, all of the brain’s components are very tightly coupled, and interactions are far more complex than early investigators could discern. While brain functions are often concentrated in one area or another, you won’t typically find isolated layers acting completely alone.

doblogo2Of course, those decades we so cavalierly fast-forwarded through just happen to be pretty spectacular decades for brain research. As a matter of fact, 1990 through 2000 was actually proclaimed to be The Decade of the Brain by then-President George H. W. Bush. It was also in the 1990s that neuroscience enjoyed a flurry of breakthroughs in finding non-invasive tools and techniques for watching the brain while it is working—a nifty trick when you consider just how formidable a barrier our skulls provide.
The star of the new technology show is generally perceived to be the
functional MRI
 (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) device, along with other cool toys, such as positron emission tomography (PET) scans  and near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). All of these techniques rely on tracking blood flow and oxygen use as indicators of brain activity.

Why then, you may ask, did we just invest valuable time in pondering a theory that has already been debunked?

Motion--ballet dancerBecause it happens all the time, and I want arm you with this understanding before we plunge forward any further in our quest together to unify current thinking in psychometrics, neuroscience, and positive psychology: “current thinking” is always a moving target.

In this blog, I pledge to use the most up-to-date, reliable information I can find. But even as each post is posted, dedicated scientists somewhere are striving to challenge and build on the ideas it contains. That’s how humankind expands our body of knowledge. And it’s also how we so easily get left behind, working with stale data.

Therefore, Gentle Reader, be alert whatever you read or hear “the latest research shows…” or “scientists have just discovered that…” or “experts say…” and so on. Writers operating from the best of intentions can overstate, understate, use an obsolete source, take out of context, and/or completely mangle research findings, especially preliminary data with sexy implications. Even here. Especially here, given that I am merely a humble business writer, and not a credentialed scientist.

With that clearly understood and agreed between us, then, let’s finally start feasting on the scintillating science available—so far today, anyway—about how brain biology becomes the basis of the unique Self that you are!

P.S.   Even for our 50,000-foot view of brain science, you may find it helpful to know a little something about the structures of the brain and their various functions. Check out this 14-minute video to help you master the basics: The Brain, from


U B U, but Who B Me?

SelfieGood grief. The Oxford Dictionary named selfie as the word of the year for 2013. As irritating as selfies may be, at least they are now clearly defined: “A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media.”

As it turns out, defining self is a lot trickier. As noted earlier, French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher, Rene Descartes, grappled with this question. He ultimately found only one truth about his existence as a separate and unique entity that he felt was inarguable: “I think, therefore, I am.”

Descartes, who did his best work in the early to middle 1600s, was certainly not the first thinker to try to get his arms around what makes the self—the “I” distinct from all those “Others.” In fact, Plato, working between 427 and 348 BCE, is often credited with being the first Western writer and thinker to think on this thorny thing.

And apparently, the issue is still in dispute. The August/September 2015 edition of Philosophy Now magazine devotes quite a few column inches to continuing this discussion, up to and including some who believe that there actually is no such thing as the self.


With all this controversy, how can I possibly begin to achieve Self-Awareness and understand the first axiom of exponential performance: I experience and explain the universe from my own unique perspective?

For purposes of our explorations, let’s default, with a sigh of relief, to the non-scholarly (but useful) understanding that when you look in the mirror, you recognize the face reflected as being you—a unique individual with your own distinct memories, point of view, attitudes, and potential.

But that just leads us to another Big Question: how did you become you?

To help us find our way through this particular maze of scientific research and philosophical speculation, I’ve created myLayers of Selfhood V01 own simplistic model of how the brain in your body was shaped into the you that you are today. And because I have a wretched
weakness for awkward alliteration, I think of this as my 3B Model: Biology→Beliefs→Book-Learning.

When a little human—you, for example—first pops out into the universe, you initially respond to it as a purely biological being. The basics of your biology are dictated by the genetic material inherited from the egg and sperm that united to form you. Even before being officially activated by that archetypal smack on the bottom from the delivery man (or woman), your body has been receiving and processing inputs from the universe that surrounds you.

As your brain continually receives all manner of stimuli, filtered through your various senses, you unconsciously begin constructing your set of beliefs about how the world works. Neurons fire, and patterns emerge. “When I do this, I get that. I like that, so I’ll do this some more! Oooh, but when I do this other thing, I don’t like what I get. So I won’t do that so much.”

Experiences to this effect happen zillions of times as you interact with your world…mostly Mom and Dad at first, possibly a sibling or two. Maybe a pet. With each observation, your busy brain builds its belief syBrain--side viewstem. Right or wrong, your belief constructs are your own.

As you gain maturity and the ability to handle abstraction, you eventually ease into what I’m calling book-learning…or perhaps borrowed experience is an equally apt term. Either way, the idea is that as a child’s cerebral cortex grows, that brain develops vast new capabilities for making sense of the sensory inputs.

Critical skills emerge, such as understanding language, solving problems, establishing social connections, and consciously making choices. With the ability to understand language comes the ability to possibly accept or adapt beliefs, based on the experience of others.
Three Bears Cover

Why do you think children’s storybooks are chock full of tales that have a moral at the end? You do not personally have to have invaded the home of the Three Bears to learn a lesson about not messing with somebody else’s stuff without permission. In essence, you borrow experience from Goldilocks’ misadventure, and learn something from the book without living through it yourself—hence, book-learning.

As you are probably already sensing, we are teetering perilously on the brink of dealing with some real science here. So having given you the bird’s-eye view version of my 3B model, I’ll pause here and prepare to dazzle you in the coming posts with some fascinating findings from the world of neuroscience when it comes to the Biology of the brain and what it means for one seeking to achieve exponential performance as a self-energizing leader.

Is your brain buzzing with comments or questions? Please post them–let’s get the conversational ball rolling!


The 6 Axioms of Exponential Performance

Lucy SplainingWe’ve already agreed that I’m no Einstein, nor am I Euclid. However, I do have a fair amount of chutzpah, so I’m going to lay out for you my own set of six axioms for becoming a self-energizing high performer in work and in life. Then, in the immortal words of Dezi, speaking to Lucy, I’ll have “a lot of ‘splainin’ to do!!” 


First things first. What the heck is an axiom?

As my favorite elementary school teacher, Mrs. Bourg, used to say, “If you don’t know what it means, look it up!” Thanks to the miracle of the modern internet and our friends at Merriam-Webster, definitions are only a click away! So here goes: an axiom is “(1) a maxim widely accepted on its intrinsic merit, (2) a statement accepted as true as the basis for argument or inference, and (3) an established rule or principle of a self-evident truth.”

Euclids ElementsOur old friend Euclid is known to have lived and taught mathematics in Alexandria, Eqypt, during the reign of Ptolemy the First. He is typically credited with being the “Father of Geometry,” largely due to having written what has been called “the most enduring mathematical work of all time, the Stoicheia or Elements.” This breezy best-seller (a mere 13 volumes) was in common usage for more than 2 millennia.

All of those 13 volumes of real mathematics (in contrast to my cheesy faux formulas) grew out of a short set of assertions that Euclid and his fellow thinkers believed to be intuitively obvious, even to the casual observer—that is, his 5 axioms.

According to geometer and Professor Emeritus at Brown University, Thomas F. Banchoff, “The great advantage of expressing geometry as an axiomatic system was that it no longer was necessary to memorize long lists of independent facts about the nature of the universe—one only had to know a small set of axioms, and by applying to them the rules of inference, one could reconstruct the entire collection of geometric truths” (from Beyond the Third Dimension).

upward spiralIt is in this spirit of simplicity that I offer my own six axioms of exponential performance. They encapsulate for me the bedrock elements of how to approach work and life in a way that is beneficial to all concerned. Starting from these principles, you can construct a vast array of techniques for discovering and designing the Congruent Opportunities that you need if you’re going to maximize your Career Fit and Well-Being, create a powerful virtuous cycle of performance, and become self-energizing.

To provide some grounding for the six axioms, I’d like to share a little story about my strategic partner and friend, Trisha Craven…also known as YaYa (because, you see, she is waaaay too cool and fun to be called something as prosaic as “Grandmother”).

First, a little background…the “begats,” if you will. Trisha and her husband, Bruce, have two very impressive sons: Travis and Patrick. Patrick and his wife, Katie, have a precious and precocious daughter, named Madden. As the first grandchild in a close and very loving Southern family, little Miss Madden has quite a bit of attention lavished on her. You might say she’s the poster child for that good old-timey phrase, dote on—“to bestow or express excessive love or fondness habitually.”

Center of the universeFortunately for Madden—and for everyone with whom she eventually interacts—YaYa makes a regular point of gently reminding this much-beloved little girl, “You are not the center of the universe.”

Indeed, each of us needs to always be mindful that every person has value. That those others with whom we interact can have vastly-different-yet-perfectly-valid viewpoints. That all humans deserve to be treated ethically, with dignity and respect.

Even so, each of us—Madden, YaYa, you, me—is unique. Which has its good points and its bad points, as the 6 axioms demonstrate.  So, at last, here are:

6 Axioms for Achieving Exponential Performance

You are not the center of the universe, but…

A.1: Self-Awareness. You experience and explain the universe from your own unique perspective.

A.2: Self-Control. You are the only person in the universe that you can control, and you are the only person who can control you.

A.3: Choice. You always have the power to choose.

A.4: Collaboration. You are more likely to achieve your goals (and enjoy the process) when you work with others in a way that maximizes their strengths as well as yours.

A.5: Congruence. You are more likely to consistently make good choices and collaborate effectively in an environment that aligns with your strengths and your driving purpose.

A.6: Accountability. You are accountable for your impact on the universe.

I sincerely hope that as you read these, you thought, “Well, DUH—that seems pretty obvious. In fact, it sounds a lot like the stuff that my YaYa told me when I was growing up!”

Great! “DUH” is the modern equivalent of “a maxim widely accepted on its intrinsic merit… and an established rule or principle of a self-evident truth.” An axiom.

If you look closely, you’ll see that the first three axioms focus on the self—who “I” am. Our journey toward achieving exponential performance begins with the self, and how you personally maximize your own performance and become self-energizing. I refer to this as the “I”-Axis.

But the self rarely, if ever, functions in total isolation. You know yourself, control yourself, and make your choices in the context of a universe filled with people who are not you—the “Others.”  I refer to this as the “O”-Axis. Therefore, this journey incorporates tools for understanding and maximizing performance for yourself while also maximizing those Others who inhabit your universe.

When you achieve true alignment of the “I”-Axis with all of the     “O”-Axes in your sphere (O1, O2, etc.) everyone’s career fit and their well-being are elevated to the ultimate power: Performance to the nth degree!

Pnth formula in red

If it’s any comfort to you, that’s the end of the funky fake formulas. But it’s only the beginning of our exploration of the 6 axioms and the supporting psychometrics, psychology, and neuroscience that inform them. I hope it won’t take 13 volumes, a la Euclid. But it’ll probably take more than 13 blog posts. Please hang in there with me, and please, please share your thoughts and questions by leaving a comment! I promise I’ll respond.


Well-Being is in the “I” of the Beholder

Sam CookeSam Cooke achieved a bunch of fame and fortune singing boldly about his ignorance of history, biology, and other subjects (“Don’t Know Much About History”). I doubt I’ll get any of those aforementioned benefits, but let me boldly confess yet again that I don’t know much about mathematics.

But I am pretty sure that when you are multiplying a string of numbers (without guidance Commutative Propertyfrom parentheses), the relative position of the values really doesn’t matter—the result is the same.

As you recall, Martin Seligman’s Theory of Well-Being asserts that to flourish as a fully realized human being, you need each of these five elements in your life: Positive Emotion, EngagementWB equation, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment, which I’ve notated as a multiplication equation. (Don’t blame Dr. Seligman—the equation notation is my own elaboration.)

It’s really important that each and every one of the five elements is PERMA times Zeropresent to some degree. After all, if you replace any factor with 0, you get 0. Nada. Nothing. Zilch.

On the other hand, Seligman‘s Well-Being Theory does not specify how much of each factor must be present to create the optimal balance for any individual. Defining exactly what constitutes the perfect balance among the elements is deeply personal.

To enjoy a sense of well-being, one individual may value Positive Emotion much more highly than he values Engagement. Another individual may feel a stronger need for Accomplishment than she does for Relationships. And frankly, you may find that the balance across the factors changes over time, as you are shaped by your choices and your life experiences. The balance changes, but the ultimate result—that sense of well-being—is the same.

When you are seeking to find or create a Congruent Opportunity, so that you can achieve exponential performance, this question of relative value for the factors of well-being becomes incredibly significant. To illustrate this, let’s return to the thought experiment of visualizing congruence on a graph.

We know that 1 x 2 x 2 x 5 x 5=100. So let’s use those five values in a couple of “thought experiment” graphic examples of how the relative importance of the five elements of well-being define the “shape” to look for when you are considering competing opportunities to determine if they are a good “fit” for you—that is, provide an environment where you have the best theoretical probability of achieving well-being 100% of the time.

PERMA balance example 1In this first example (left), Positive Emotion and Relationships are the top priorities. Meaning and Engagement are somewhat less important. And Accomplishment is present, but not a primary driver for this individual.

The second example (right) represents someone who is profoundly driven to achieve Accomplishments that have deep personal PERMA balance example 2Meaning, even at the cost of sacrificing Relationships and short-term Positive Emotion.

As you contrast these two profiles, you can readily see that an opportunity that would satisfy the first person would not be at all conducive to well-being for the second. To show that this isn’t just a theoretical construct, let me introduce you to my husband, Steve. (Yes, I have his permission, and yes, he reads this blog. Yes, I am very blessed to be his wife.)

Steve--smiling squareSomewhere around age 9, as Steve was growing up in Indianapolis, he realized that he is a scientist. He experienced his greatest sense of fulfillment when he was exploring ideas, formulating and testing hypotheses, and understanding at a deep level how living organisms actually work. His childhood exploits, such as growing slime mold in the basement, became the basis for his eventual work as a Ph.D. microbiologist investigating the pathogen that causes Whooping Cough (Bordetella pertussis).

After 30+ years of marriage, I’ll go out on a limb and chart for you how he would likely balance the five factors of well-being (as shown in the figure on the right). He is driven to deliver significant results in his WB Shape--SAKprimary research interest (Accomplishment, Meaning), and loves nothing better than to become completely immersed in a challenging series of experiments at the bench (Engagement). Even the somewhat tedious aspects of research (such as streaking plates, counting colonies, recording data) bring joy to him (Positive Emotion), because it’s all part and parcel of doing good science. Being alone in the lab for hours, even days on end doesn’t bother him in the least. He values Relationships intensely, but his preference is to have only a few of them, and to invest in building them over a long period of time.

In contrast, my well-being “shape” is somewhat different from
WB Shape--CFKSteve’s. As you can see on the left, my sense of well-being comes from finding Meaning through my Relationships with people I work with, regardless of job content. I’ve changed careers at least a half-dozen times, and jobs more often than that—the actual content of my work and Accomplishment doesn’t really matter, as long as I’m Engaged, using any of my Talents and creating an up-beat environment for the people around me (Positive Emotion).

If you were to parachute Steve and me into a big picnic somewhere, you could probably see our individual searches for congruence playing out pretty clearly. I would approach the event as Steve and Clairean opportunity to meet new people, share funny personal stories, and relax into having a rowdy good time. Steve would approach this exact same opportunity as a time to quietly observe interesting organisms interacting from his outpost on the sidelines. Unless he runs into a good friend, he probably won’t engage in a lot of chit-chat. He’d prefer a more in-depth conversation on a topic of significance. Me? I’m swapping one-liners with any and everybody.

One opportunity—two different ways to thrive in it. Well-being is in the “I” of the beholder.

For you to achieve and sustain exponential performance in work and in life, you must first become aware of your own “shape,” and second, you must consistently take action to find or create opportunities where you can optimize your experience and, in doing so, become self-energizing.

Youpward spiralu become self-energizing when you work and live in an environment that fosters a virtuous cycle, where things tend to get better and better (the opposite of a vicious cycle, where things tend to get worse and worse). In this environment, the more you are able to flourish personally while achieving high performance in your career, the more motivated you are to invest even more effort, which yields an even greater sense of well-being and accomplishment. Wash, rinse, and repeat, on and on and on.

Creating this kind of environment, which you should now recognize as a Congruent Opportunity, requires strong self-awareness and self-management, as already noted. Additionally, it requires mutually beneficial alignment with the other people with whom you share your environment—say, a spouse, a boss, your friends, the people who report to you. A self-energizing individual magnifies his or her satisfaction and capacity by helping those “others” improve their own self-awareness and self-management; that is, by serving as a leader and role model. And at last, we’ve reached a definition for the third level of exponential performance.

So how do you get there? Ah, good question! One for another day…


Exponential Performance Defined—There’s More to this Opportunity than Meets the Eye

At one point in my life, I felt called to be an elementary school teacher. One of the many useful things I learned while getting my SpiralM.Ed. was the concept of the spiral teaching method, where you start with a high-level overview, and then delve progressively more deeply into complex topics. (Later, during my brief fling in the public school system, I learned something else useful. Specifically that I am wildly unsuited to be an elementary school teacher. But that’s a tale for another day.)

Anyway…now that you are familiar with the elements of both the original Performance Equation and my equation representing the Theory of Well-Being , this is an opportune time to loop back to the concepts of Opportunity and congruence, and expand our understanding.

Exponential performance equation--P2Sitting there in the Exponential Performance equation, poor old O-for-Opportunity seems pretty plain. Not even an exponent to call its own. But as you will soon see, this humble ring actually encircles quite a critical chunk of territory!

In his book, Principles of Self-Management (1999), Dr. John Marshall defines Opportunity simply as being one’s work environment. And in explaining his Performance Equation, he notes that your Big life small careerTalent and Effort are best used, and consistent success is explained by, “being the right person in the right place at the right time.” In this view, then, Opportunity comprises the job and the organizational culture in which you are expected to execute that job. And your career is an isolated subset of your life.

Because my quest is to develop a unified theory for helping humans be self-energizing and more fulfilled in work and in life, my view of Opportunity is not bounded by job descriptions, cubical walls, the gang at the office, and the 40-hour workweek (okay, make that 60 hours…80, tops).

In one episode of A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor’s character, a writer, is asked if he writes fiction or non-fiction, to which he replies, “I don’t make that sharp distinction.”

Today, if you ask many of us if we are engaged in “work” or “life” at any given moment, we’d probably have to say, “I don’t make that sharp distinction.” Just to give one example, today I’m in my home Keegan poses with the Barrel Toy eye paintedoffice, doing laundry as a background task, and striving to concentrate on my top priority project (i.e., writing this blog) while being periodically pestered by work-related calls from my business partner, panting and wagging visits from our new puppy, emails from clients, and loud requests from the cat for a two-handed, full-body scratch.

Am I living or working? Yes!

Even if your work setting is far less permeable than mine, you know that worries about personal issues leach into your thoughts when you are officially “at work.” And the Grump Mode setting from a rough day at the office doesn’t always flip immediately to Cheerful Mode just because you’ve finally escaped to your home and family. Especially when the *%$#@! boss texts you during dinner.

In an earlier post, I asserted that you can achieve exponential levels of Performance when you work in a congruent Opportunity—one that aligns with your interests, respects your Attitudes, and rewards you for consistently putting your Talents (both Inherent and Trainable) into Action to the benefit of both you and the organization.

O defined V02This is the first level of exponential performance, focused on performance solely in the context of your work life. This component of Opportunity is Career Fit, notated in the latest equation as CF.

Attaining the second level of exponential performance requires you to expand your understanding of Opportunity—and your search for Congruence—by integrating into them the five elements that make up Well-Being (WB): Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. This level acknowledges that life and career are inextricably intertwined. Achieving true high performance in one at the cost of completely sacrificing the other isn’t really even possible  (not as long as you are pursuing a career, anyway).

Finding a congruent opportunity is still the key to taking your performance to exponential levels while enjoying an overall sense of well-being.  Congruent Opportunities:

  • Provide a culture aligned with your values
  • Serve a purpose you believe in and care about
  • Require someone with your inherent traits, as well as your specific skills, knowledge, and abilities
  • Minimize friction (i.e., anything that makes it difficult for you to exercise your Talents to the fullest extent of your Effort)

With this broader understanding in view, here’s my comprehensive definition of the kind of Opportunity that engenders total exponential performance: an environment in which I am rewarded for, and experience Engagement by, investing maximum Effort in using my strongest Talents to achieve Accomplishments that are Meaningful to me while maintaining Relationships that are mutually beneficial and fulfilling, and enjoying the Positive Emotions that result from these activities, interactions, and achievements. Note that all of this applies inside and outside of career context.

You achieve true Performance2 only when all of these elements are in optimal balance…as you perceive it.

Yes, perception is key, as we’ll explore in the next post. Rather like the character played by John Astin in the Night Gallery episode “Hell’s Bells,” one person’s congruent opportunity could be another person’s worst nightmare!


One Goal, Two Models, and Eight Factors: Part II

Big life small careerAbout one hundred and seventy-seven million. That’s the number of hits you’ll find if you go to Google and search for the phrase “work-life balance.” Apparently, there’s a lot to be said on the topic.  What’s the optimal balance between work and real life? What does it mean to be a “high performer” in the context of being a fulfilled person, not just a productive employee?

The original Performance Equation intentionally addresses performance as it relates to success in specific job roles. You Big life big careerprobably know all too well that satisfaction with and in your career affects your sense of well-being in other aspects of life. Being stuck in a job opportunity that is not a natural fit to your talents, energies, attitudes, and beliefs can create chronic crankiness at a minimum, and for some in severe situations, lead to deep depression.

However, even for workaholics, life has more to offer than just career satisfaction—factors that can far outweigh the ills of a crappy job.

Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman is a psychologist, best-selling author, and one of the founding thinkers behind the relatively new discipline of Positive Psychology. As he explains in his book, Flourish (2011), humans have tended to think about the pursuit of happiness as the path to a good life. But modern-day, first-world thinkers view happiness is a transitory state, a mood often equated with superficial cheerfulness, merriment, and smiles.

Through his years of research, Dr. Seligman has developed a richer, more complex model for thinking about what constitutes a good life. He calls this the Theory of Well-Being. People enjoying a state of well-being are doing much more than just surviving. Well-being encompasses a sense of satisfaction with your life and the belief that you are functioning well—that is, you are growing, learning, and making a positive difference in your world. This brings us, finally, the second of the titular Two Models that I promised you:

Model #2: The Elements of Well-Being

Well-being theory posits a robust model made up of five key factors that, taken together, create a life of fulfillment, meaning, and satisfaction. Each of the five elements uniquely contributes to an individual’s sense of well-being—none alone is sufficient to achieving well-being. And as with the Performance Equation, if any factor is absent, well-being cannot be fully achieved; conversely, when all are present at optimal levels, the overall result is larger. Therefore, I have taken the liberty (without Dr. Seligman’s knowledge or permission) of presenting the Theory of Well-Being as a multiplication equation:

WB equation

P is for Positive Emotion. Positive emotions are fleeting responses to changes in the way individuals interpret their current circumstances. When you register that a situation is in some way bad for you, a negative emotion arises; when you sense good fortune, enjoyment, or opportunity, a positive emotion arises. The functions of emotions, both positive and negative, were shaped over millennia by the processes of natural selection to increase an individual’s resources for survival.

Dr. Barbara L. Fredrickson has been researching positive emotion for more than 25 years, and is considered a leading scholar in social psychology, affective science, and positive psychology. The list of possible positive emotions is a long one, but in a recent publication (2013), Fredrickson focused on the following 10 positive emotions because they are well-researched and also because they are things we all tend to experience fairly often in our daily lives: joy, gratitude, contentment, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love. Indeed, life would be bleak without these.

Next in the formula is E. In this context, E represents Engagement—that sense of being totally absorbed in what you are doing, to the degree that you lose all sense of time, and everything melts away except for your intense focus on the activity at hand. In explaining this factor, Seligman draws heavily on the research and writings of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In the business world, Csikszentmihalyi is perhaps best known for his books in the popular press, including Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990) and Finding Flow: the Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (1997). (Psychology Today magazine offers a nice summary of flow in its online review of Finding Flow.) Individuals can enjoy the enriching benefits of engagement in their vocations, avocations, or ideally, in both.

R stands for Relationships. John Donne wasn’t kidding when he said, “No man is an island.” Life on planet Earth inevitably involves interacting with other humans. Put succinctly, this factor reflects the capacity to love and to be loved, and honors the essential role that forming and nurturing positive relationships with others plays in achieving well-being.

M equals Meaning. Seligman believes that the “…Meaningful Life consists in belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self” (2011). Literature from many cultures is littered with archetypal characters who have every material possession and every sensual pleasure imaginable, and yet feel hollow and unfulfilled. The solution? Devoting one’s life to the pursuit of meaningful goals, to making the world a better place, even simply helping another person.

A is for Acomplishment. This final factor acknowledges that people are, to varying degrees, hard-wired grow and take action for their benefit in whatever environment they happen to find themselves. We want to accomplish something, although that something differs from person to person, and for any individual, typically changes over time.

So there you have it, as promised:

  • One goal: to bring together recent research from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, psychometrics, and predictive analytics and use that research to create a coherent approach to increasing performance and well-being in one’s career and life—what I refer to as achieving exponential performance
  • Two models:
    • The Performance Equation
    • The Theory of Well-Being
  • Eight factors:
    • Talent
    • Effort
    • Opportunity
    • Positive emotion
    • Engagement
    • Relationships
    • Meaning
    • Accomplishment

Exponential performance equation--P2Well, that’s all fine and lovely, but eagle-eyed readers may see a problem here. The equation for Exponential Performance is notably missing any reference to WB. How do the Performance Equation and the Theory of Well-Being mesh into one coherent model?

Patience, Grasshopper! Now that we’ve got both models laid out, it’s time to revisit Opportunity and enrich our thinking on that component of the equation.


Exponential Performance Defined—Shaping Up with Euclid

TxExONow that we’ve got the concepts of Talent (T) and Effort (E) squared away, let me take this opportunity to explore the third and final factor in Dr.  Marshall’s original Performance Equation. Opportunity (O) refers to the success potential available to you in any given professional environment (Marshall, 1999). As you may recall, in his model, Dr. Marshall asserts that the more closely your talent and effort levels match the known success attributes of a given opportunity, the more likely you are to thrive and flourish there. That is to say, the better your fit with the opportunity, the higher performance level you are predicted to achieve.

So what constitutes an opportunity, and how does it limit or enhance your potential for success?

Every career opportunity is unique. In your own life, when you’ve needed to weigh job options and to determine whether a given position was a good fit for you, you probably considered issues and questions such as:

  • Classified adsCareer/Job Alignment
    • How well does a particular career path or specific job role make use of your inherent strengths? Your current skills, knowledge, and abilities?
    • How well does this opportunity align with your sense of who you are, what you believe in, and what you stand for?
    • Is this position in a field or industry that interests you? That you believe is valuable to society?
  • Results Needed
    • Considering the immediate and the long-term results it will generate, is this opportunity worthy of your time, talent, and effort? Are the results meaningful to you?
    • To deliver the results required by the position, what percentage of your effort will be devoted to meaningful work versus effort spent on busy work (as you personally define them)?
    • Would you be likely to feel engaged and challenged while performing the tasks required to achieve the results required by this opportunity?
  • Culture Environment
    • Do the stated values and priorities of this organization’s culture align well with your personal values and priorities? And does the organization actually put its values into practice?
    • Does the organization’s culture promote the levels of personal and professional growth that you seek?
    • Will you be rewarded for your work in a way that is meaningful to you?
    • Would you enjoy working in this environment, including the facility, the people, the energy level?
    • Does the culture promote positive relationships among colleagues? Are your personal style, sense of humor, and personality quirks likely to be well-received?
    • Does the culture promote work/life balance?

Clearly, the answers to these questions are unique and highly personalized. I believe it’s also pretty clear how putting yourself into an opportunity that is not a good fit could be career-limiting at best, and totally demoralizing at worst. To take just one example, you would be hard-pressed to feel energized and to consistently perform at your highest and best level if you were stuck in a role that felt like it was 90% busy work and only 10% productive time.

Square peg-Round holeWhy, it would be like being a square peg in a round hole!

Which brings me to Euclid. Do you remember Euclidean Geometry? It seems to me that I first encountered the joys of Euclidean Geometry fairly early in high school. I loved it! Messing around with dots, lines, angles, and polygons was much cooler than messing around with numbers and solving for x.

Thinking through Marshall’s concept of individual “fit” to an Opportunity being essential to Performance, I have an image from high school math class of trying to align one multi-sided shape with another multi-sided shape. And if they line up, they are said to be congruent. This concept of congruence strikes me as an elegant way to visualize how Talent and Effort do or don’t line up with any given Opportunity. In the spirit of Einstein, let’s perform a thought experiment.

Congruence spokesHere’s a graph with two axes for Talent (Inherent Traits and Trainable Skills), and two for Effort (Attitudes and Actions). I’ve also added an axis for Interests. You don’t need psychometrics, psychology, or neuroscience to tell you that you are unlikely to enjoy significant, sustained success working on something that doesn’t appeal to you, isn’t enjoyable on some level, or have some meaning and significance to you. (Much more about that later.)

Imagine that you could indicate a point on each respective axis to represent the Talent, Effort, and Interests requirements of the job. Imagine also that you could map on those same axes points representing your Talents, Effort, and Interests. You could then compare the shapes to determine whether you were naturally suited to be a high performer in that role. Are they congruent? Or is it a square peg/round hole situation?

Using this image, it becomes pretty easy to see for which Opportunity your Talent and Effort are a good fit. Let’s look at a couple of examples. Note that in the diagrams, the red shape represents the requirements of the Opportunity, and the blue shape represents the shape of your natural strengths.

Congruence poor fitIn the first example, compared to the job requirements, your inherent traits are way out of whack—it appears that some of your inherent strengths would not be well used, although your trainable skills, knowledge, and abilities are pretty close to the requirement. Also, both aspects of your Effort exceed the position’s needs.

In contrast, consider the second example. Same you-shape, different opportunity. In this case, it appears that what you have and what the Congruence good fitOpportunity requires are pretty close to being congruent. The Performance Equation predicts that you are much more likely to be a high performer in the second opportunity.

To express all this in plain English, rather than plane Geometry, you can achieve exponential levels of Performance when you work in a congruent Opportunity—one that aligns with your interests, respects your Attitudes, and rewards you for consistently putting your Talents (both Inherent and Trainable) into Action to the benefit of both you and the organization.

At the risk of offending all you true mathematicians and connoisseurs of formulae and precise notation, I express this enhanced variation of Marshall’s Performance question as my Exponential Performance Equation for individuals:

Exponential performance equation--P2

Talent squared times Effort squared while working in a congruent Opportunity yields Performance squared.

“But wait,” you may say. “You promised you’d ‘define your terms.’ So far, Performance hasn’t really been clearly defined.”

Yeah, I figured you’d notice that. And obviously, it’s a pretty significant question.

In Dr. Marshall’s initial research, Performance was measured purely in terms of net earnings in the context of a competitive sales environment—whoever bagged the most bucks was the high performer.

In thousands of validation studies across 35 years and numerous industries, the understanding of Performance has broadened. For our purposes, a high performer is someone who consistently meets and exceeds the defined results required by a particular job role. Remember, the original Performance Equation addresses performance and retention relative to one’s work life.

But wait—there’s more to life than just work! What does it mean to be a “high performer” when it comes to leading a good, fulfilling life?

Excellent question. Remember, my quest is to bring together current research in neuroscience, psychology, psychometrics, and predictive analytics to form a unified theory for how humans can be more effective and more fulfilled in work and in life. So now it’s time to explore Model #2.


Exponential Performance Defined—Cogito, Ergo Actus

As we saw with Talent, the word effortE defined has an informal meaning; i.e., making a sincere attempt to do something by investing energy and hard work in achieving a result. More formally, in the language of the Performance Equation, Effort comprises two related sets of habits:

  • Attitudes = habits of thought
  • Actions = habits of behavior

Having a great attitude is a great start, but real value in life and work comes from translating that attitude into meaningful action. That’s the difference between having great potential versus delivering great performance. And achieving exponentially great performance is our aim, after all.

What do we mean by habits of thought? Imagine yourself diligently making your way through a typical day. As usual, stuff happens (to paraphrase a popular bumper sticker), and each time, you have the mental equivalent of a knee-jerk reaction in which you explain yourself to yourself.

Broken VaseIf you drop a freshly washed vase and it shatters to smithereens, you think, “Man, I am so clumsy!” Or perhaps you think, “Gosh, that wet vase was slippery.” You connect with a valuable business prospect and think, “I sure was lucky to stumble across that contact.” Or maybe you think, “My networking finally paid off.” You make a few flubs giving a presentation, and you think, “Next time, I’ll make sure somebody else gives the pitch.” Or you might think instead, “I’m starting to get the hang of public speaking. I’ll keep practicing until I’m more polished.”

As you can see, the Attitude you express in the way you explain yourself to yourself has a huge impact on the Actions that you actually will do—your habits of behavior.

If you believe you can learn from mistakes, you’ll make a mental note to dry off wet glassware before moving it. But if you believe you’re just a klutz, well…too bad, nothing you can do. If you believe that your networking led to snagging a good prospect, you’ll redouble your efforts. But if it was just dumb luck, well…let’s keep our fingers crossed that it happens again. If you think that an old dog like you can learn new tricks, you’ll seek out opportunities to master new skills, knowledge, and abilities. But if you don’t, well…just avoid taking any chances or trying anything challenging.

To make things even more interesting, when you start talking about habits of thought and their impact on your habits of behavior, you encounter what is sometimes called the problem of “one brain, two minds.” Biologically, humans obviously have one brain, but when it Rider and Elephantcomes to decision-making—such as deciding what actions to take—the brain has two distinctly different systems in play: the rational system, and the emotional system. Each system has different strengths and weaknesses, and both are crucial to survival and success.

Author and psychologist Jonathan Haidt presents a wonderfully helpful analogy in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, and the Heath brothers (Chip and Dan) popularized it further in their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Put succinctly, imagine that your brain is a Rider sitting high atop an Elephant. The Rider represents the rational systems; the Elephant, the emotional systems. They have to work together to get anywhere.

This rational system/emotional system concept is a massive topic, and we’ll be coming back to it frequently and in greater detail as we go along. Until then, you might enjoy this 2-minute video, “The Rider, The Elephant, and The Path.” And keep in mind that when we talk about improving performance and increasing well-being, the implication is that we are changing from a current state to a desired future state.

As my friend and colleague Sam Yankelevitch would say, “This is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg!” As our journey to exponential performance continues, we’ll invest significant effort in understanding Effort. Recent research in neuroscience and psychology offers staggering amounts of information about the interactions of Attitude and Action!

E2 definedBut for now, let’s return to the task of defining exponential performance. You raise the power of your Effort when you consciously optimize your habits of thought (a.k.a. attitude—At) by aligning the rational systems with the emotional systems, and then use those habits of thought to drive your habits of action (Ac) in ways that move you toward your goals.

Back in that mind-blowing Philosophy 101 class from my Furman days, we wrestled with the concept of The Self. One of the great thinkers we studied was Rene Descartes, who is known for, among his many, many accomplishments, asserting, “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). With sincere apologies to Rene and Drs. Edwards and McDonald, I hereby characterize Effort as “Cogito, ergo actus”—“I think, therefore, I take action.”

My next action? Create a post addressing the third element of the Performance Equation: Opportunity. What is it? And is it knocking?


Exponential Performance Defined—Whaddaya Know?

T = I and Tr whereIn casual conversation, when we talk about talent, we typically mean natural, “in-born” gifts, such as quick wit or outgoing personality, or special aptitudes, such as being good with numbers or sports or music. For purposes of understanding the Performance Equation, we’re taking a slightly more formal approach to defining Talent.

In this context, Talent is made up of two components: Inherent Traits and Trainable Skills, Knowledge, and Abilities. In the previous post, we discussed how Dr. John C. Marshall and his research team came to identify the six personality traits that have now been statistically demonstrated to predict high performance and retention in business roles. As you recall, these six traits are essentially “hard-wired” into your personality by the time you reach early adulthood. These are the Inherent Traits in this model.

So what, then, are the trainable skills? With apologies to public radio host Michael Feldman, trainable skills, knowledge, and abilities are the answer to the question, “Whaddaya know?” They are the other half of the can do concept.

The great thing about your skills, knowledge, and ability is that you can always, at any point during your life, learn new stuff! In fact, you are typically learning new stuff all the time.

Sometimes you do it unintentionally. Just think of all the advertising slogans that you know. Chances are, you had absolutely no desire to learn them, but sheer repetition pounded them into your brain. (Gosh, thanks, Madison Avenue! )

You can also choose to intentionally learn new information, master new skills, and acquire additional knowledge through informal and formal channels—reading books, taking courses, following blogs. The Bunny slipperslist of sources and opportunities is almost endless. Heck, today you can sign up for a MOOC and take courses from Harvard on neuroscience or particle physics while sitting at home at your own computer, wearing your bunny slippers and sipping Mai Tais. (Although I can’t vouch for how much you’ll retain in that scenario.)

The point of all of this is simply to point out that while you don’t seem to have much choice about some aspects of your Talent, other aspects are yours to command. You can always choose which new skills, knowledge, and abilities you’d like to master, and by dint of your effort, you can accomplish exactly that. (Of course, the amount of effort it takes to do this will vary. More about that later.)

With that understanding firmly in place, believe it or not, it’s now time to explain the first component of exponential performance. (And you thought I’d never get around to it!)

T2 definedIn my updated equation for exponential performance, your Talent can be more than just the sum of your Inherent Traits and your Trainable Skills. You significantly enhance the value of your Talents when you consciously align your Trainable Skill choices with your unique Inherent Traits. Or, to express this concept as a formula (see blue box), Talent increases exponentially (T2) when you multiply your Inherent strengths (I) by acquiring skills, knowledge, and abilities (Tr) that build on those strengths.

To take a simplistic example, consider your personal comfort zone around conflict. If you are inherently comfortable with conflict, you might readily build on that strength by joining a debate team or taking a class in negotiating skills. If, however, you prefer to avoid conflict, you would be at a bit of a disadvantage, needing first to overcome your general reluctance to engage before being able make the most of the new learning.

Well-known management guru Peter F. Drucker was getting at this same idea when he said, “It takes far more energy to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.” (1999) In a nutshell—build on your strengths. Why waste effort on weaknesses?

And speaking of effort…having traversed the trail to exponential Talent, it’s time to take the exit toward exponential Effort in the next post.


Exponential Performance Defined—What’s Hockey Got to Do with It?

T and E definedI’m a word-weenie, not a number-cruncher. Venturing into territory that even pretends to involve mathematics is risky for me. Even so, my experience with applying the Performance Equation both personally and in selecting and developing high performers has led me to an insight that I believe makes sense metaphorically, if not mathematically, when expressed as a formula.

Before leaping to my conclusion about exponential performance, we must first dig more deeply into the reasoning and research that form the underpinning for the original Performance Equation: T x E x O = P.

We’ll focus first on the T—Talent—and its two components, Inherent Traits (I) and Trainable Skills (Tr).

[Warning: You’re in for a bit of a rambling, lengthy journey. I believe your patience will be rewarded…but I also acknowledge that only you can be the ultimate judge of that. ]


Picture a hockey rink in Toronto, Canada. It’s late in the afternoon, and late in the decade of the 1950s. A lone figure occupies the ice, relentlessly practicing his stick-handling and puck management fundamentals. The other guys on the team have long since gone home. Our hard-working hockey player—let’s call him John—looks pretty good out there, but doesn’t necessarily appear to be the next Wayne Gretzky. In fact, if you ask John today to assess his own ability at that time, he’ll quickly tell you, “I was a reasonable athlete at most things, but not great at any.”

Still, all that hard work paid off. John made it to the NHL. He played with the Philadelphia Flyers organization in 1967-8, and then coached hockey at York University and in Italy.

Now, whatever stereotypes you may hold about athletes, you need to know that John was no “dumb jock,” but rather an astute observer of human behavior. Here—I’ll let him tell you himself what he learned when he first entered the NHL, in this excerpt from a radio interview transcription:

“I could see in pro-[hockey] camp that some very skilled players never made it to the top, and others that were not quite as skilled (but still relatively skilled) were very, very successful. And of course, the ones at the top were very skilled and they worked very hard.

“The two characteristics that came out were talent, some of it inherent talent, and then there was effort, and how hard they worked. And those two things started to dictate who made it at a high level in the athletic world. Of course it’s the same in the business world.”

Hockey silhouetteTalent and effort. John recognized from his own life experience that his intense effort allowed him to perform better than his inherent talent would suggest that he could—to punch above his weight, to mix sports metaphors. The interaction between these two aspects of performance deeply fascinated John, and ultimately led him to leave hockey and pursue a Ph.D. at York University.

John’s doctoral thesis was an exploration of the effects and influences of competitive environments. His original theory was that high-demand work environments (such as professional hockey or competitive sales) require powerful personality characteristics for someone to survive and perform effectively. The further hypothesis was that these characteristics could be assessed reliably and that all individuals possess these characteristics to varying degrees (Marshall, 2003).

After analyzing the best psychological thinking of the times, John targeted a short list of personality characteristics that he believed would be performance differentiators, and envisioned them as bi-polar continua stretching from one extreme to another. The original study involved 87 competitive salesmen in the real estate, life insurance, and automotive sectors, and used their net income as the “score” that separated high performers from low performers.

Lo and behold, the research validated John’s hypotheses, and our friend the hard-working hockey player became John C. Marshall, Ph.D., founder of Self Management Group, the first and largest online assessJohn C Marshallment company in the world.

Today, after more than 35 years of statistical science research on almost 20 million individuals in more than 2,500 companies around the world and across industries, the assessment tools developed by Dr. Marshall and his team of statistical researchers measure the six personality traits—the Inherent component of Talent—that have been statistically demonstrated to predict high performance and retention in business roles. As in the original study, the trait measurements locate an individual across a range of possibilities:

  • Enterprising Potential—how you express initiative, from proactive to responsive
  • Achievement Potential—what motivates you: $$/challenge? People & service? Duty?
  • Independence Potential—from strongly independent to strongly prefers teamwork
  • Comfort with Conflict—from very comfortable with conflict to actively avoids it
  • People Orientation—from builds relationships quickly to builds relationships slowly
  • Analytical Orientation—from learns for the sake of learning to learns only the minimum

Psychologists have long understood that these inherent traits, the core elements of our personalities, are established early in life, and don’t readily change. Indeed, Enterprising Potential, Achievement Potential, and Independence Potential are generally well-established in an individual by the time they reach age 16. The remaining three traits—Comfort with Conflict, People Orientation, and Analytical Orientation—congeal a little later, after one has had more experience working with people and information. Still, by your late 20s/early 30s, these traits are also pretty well baked into your personality.

Looping back now (whew—finally!) to the Performance Equation, you can see that in terms of what you can do (aka your Talent), your inherent personality traits make a crucial contribution. But they provide only part of the picture.

As Paul Harvey used to say, in the next post, we’ll look at “the rest of the story” regarding Talent.


Full Disclosure: I am a Senior Consultant with Smart Work | Network, Inc., the master U.S. distributor of Self Management Group assessment products, and my company, V&R Consulting, LLC, is a reseller of those products.

One Goal, Two Models, and Eight Factors: Part I

Flashback to freshman year, Furman University, Philosophy 101. The course was team-taught by a pair of young professors who billed themselves as “The Edwards and McDonald Vaudeville Team.” (And God bless you both, wherever you are today!)

Among the many insanely indispensable insights I carried away fromHumpty Defines that course was their relentless reminder to “define your terms.” We can’t have a meaningful dialogue unless we share a common understanding of the concepts we are discussing, using language we can agree on.

As explained in my inaugural post, my sole goal is to bring together recent research from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, psychometrics, and predictive analytics and use that research to create a coherent approach to increasing performance and well-being in one’s career and life—what I refer to as achieving exponential performance. Drawing on my training from Edwards and McDonald, then, the first step is to introduce and explain the two core models. First up: the Performance Equation.

Model #1: The Performance Equation

Before trying to understand exponential performance, it makes sense to start with a clear explanation of performance, period. Be it superior or poor, high or low, performance comprises three factors. Indeed, Dr. John C. Marshall, psychologist and founder of Self Management Group, describes performance as an actual 3-factor multiplication equation. It’s multiplication because if any of the three is missing—that is, equal to zero—then the result is also zero. Conversely, when all are present at high levels, the overall result grows larger.


The first element of performance in this equation is T for talent. Talent can be thought of as a combination of who you are (i.e., your inherent traits and hard-wired personality) and what you know (i.e., your skills, knowledge, and abilities). Talent reflects what you can do.

The next factor is E for effort. Like talent, effort has two components. Effort is a combination of what you think (your attitudes and beliefs) and what you actually do (your actions). Effort reflects what you will do.

Clearly, the can do versus the will do is important. I have tons of can do when it comes to healthy eating. I understand how calories work. croisant with coffeeI have the intellectual capacity to master the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. I have the cooking skills and the manual dexterity to rip the skin off my chicken before I broil it.  I am conscious of the fact that kale chips are more nutritious than cronuts. And yet…when I want a snack, what I all too often will do is reach for some lovely, yummy carbs.

The third and final factor in Dr.  Marshall’s Performance Equation is O for opportunity. Opportunity refers to the success potential available to you in any given professional environment. Every company pursues its own mission, and operates with its own structure and culture. Every job has a specific content focus, with specialized skill and knowledge requirements.

In this model of performance, Dr. Marshall asserts that the more closely your talent and effort levels match the known success attributes of a given opportunity, the more likely you are to thrive and flourish there. That is to say, the better your fit with the opportunity, the higher performance level you are predicted to achieve. As it happens, he’s got 35 years of psychometric research data to support that. But I’m getting ahead of myself. More about that later.

At this point, we’ve covered one goal, one model, and three factors. In the next post, we’ll begin delving more deeply into the Performance Equation and develop a definition of what it means to achieve exponential performance.

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The Search for a Unified Theory of…

Einstein had an obsession. With new discoveries in physics popping up around him everywhere, Einstein wanted to find one elegant theory that would snap all these disparate pieces into a e-mc2coherent whole. In his ideal unified field theory, each element would reinforce and be reinforced by all the other elements. Resonating together, each element would have greater meaning because of its linkage with the others. Einstein spent the last 30 years of this life pursuing this obsession.

Well, I’m certainly no Einstein, and I haven’t been pursuing this particular quest for quite 30 years yet, but I do have a somewhat similar obsession. Researchers in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, psychometrics, and predictive analytics are all addressing  basic questions about how humans can be more effective and more fulfilled in work and  in life.

TapestryAs a voracious, omnivorous reader, I’ve consumed mass quantities of these writings—from books and peer-reviewed articles to blog posts, and everything in between. (After all, “great leaders are great readers”!) Across the disciplines and the terminology differences, I see glimmers of connective tissue that might weave these ideas together into one, unified tapestry.

Hence, my Einsteinian quest!

In this blog, I propose to knit together models of high performance and well-being, pulling in research from across multiple disciplines. By synthesizing insights from these varied resources, I hope to give you new tools for heightening your self-awareness and leveraging your strengths to achieve your highest and best performance in both your career and your life. A unified theory of achieving exponential performance.

Ready? Game on!