Every two years, athletes from every corner of the globe assemble to compete at the absolute peak of performance and conditioning. At the end of every event, you have three competitors or teams wearing medals. The rest go home empty-handed.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Are sprinters like Usain Bolt and swimmers like Michael Phelps really so physically superior to the people on their right and left? How much more can you strengthen and condition the human body than these athletes already do?

The simple answer is “You can’t.” One glance comparing either of these men to their fellow competitors reveals nothing. Compared to the average person, everyone running with Bolt is blindingly fast. Everyone swimming with Phelps has tremendous water speed and endurance.

To understand the difference, we must go much deeper than nerves, muscle fibers and sinews.

Invisible Strength

My friend Bobby Kipper and I began a conversation about this that led to a book, Performance Driven Thinking. In our deep dive to get to the bottom of what makes performers tick, we found two key metrics.

No doubt, you’ve heard of them. They’re called desire and will. “Desire” refers to your hope or longing for something. We say, They have a burning desire to win.

“Will” means to decide, attempt or bring desire to action. We say, He willed it into existence.

What’s not visible to the naked eye is what makes up the right mixture of these two. How they become “combustible” in the hearts and minds of elite performers. Desire by itself is insufficient. You can have desire, but do nothing with it. And will by itself is also incomplete. You can have the ability to act, yet not the desire.

But still … should we really assume only a few select Olympic athletes have this? The rest of them, in other words, are there because they needed someone to take up space?

Invisible Weakness

Maybe we’d better not ask that question. After all, it’s hard to know exactly how much of this thinking informs these people. We can’t read their minds. But we can read a lot about their surroundings and environment.

It’s far better to inquire about a person’s obstacles to Performance Driven Thinking. We should start with external factors. They can’t make choices for a person. But they can guide what that person thinks about.

There’s plenty of controversy today surrounding the cultural mindset of entitlement. Popularly, you may have heard it expressed as “everyone gets a trophy.” Modern Western culture has gone completely upside-down, comparing unequals as though they are equals. Apples to oranges. We reward people for presence rather than performance.

I want to acknowledge: there are risks in finding one’s identity purely on performance. That’s not what we’re concerned with here. All human beings have inherent value because they exist. It’s just that not all of them are brilliant composers. Ingenious inventors. Glorious performers. Able field commanders. Wild poets. Gifted programmers. The list goes on.

There is something to be said, in other words, for the unequal distribution of gifts and talents. We have plenty to say against the entitlement mindset. It reframes reality under the false pretense of “democratizing achievement.”

The Theft of Entitlement

Because Performance Driven Thinking boils down to choices people make, entitlement offers a cheap substitute. It seems like it democratizes achievement, but it does not.

Most people find absurd the idea of getting called forward to accept someone else’s achievement award at a banquet. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award this year. Should they give it instead to Justin Tucker,  the team’s kicker?

No one would seriously entertain the idea. Not even on the basis that the Ravens couldn’t have won as many games as they did without Tucker’s accuracy kicking field goals. That might be relevant in sending him to receive the team’s collective award for winning their division and conference. But not for Jackson’s MVP.

That’s precisely what we’re exposing in everyday American life. In workplaces, little leagues, politics and schools. There are far more people willing to forgo pride in performance in exchange for the pride of entitlement.

How to Outperform Entitlement

I love when I meet people who want to know what it takes to succeed. That tells me I’m dealing with someone who doesn’t subscribe to entitlement. Leaders who communicate clear expectations also give me confidence. Wherever there’s little to zero entitlement, I thrive.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the legendary bodybuilder and film star, had a great quote about this when he spoke about how to win in bodybuilding. “You have to get up and say, ‘I want to be a champion. And I’ll do whatever it takes – the amount of hours it takes, posing, looking at training videos, visualization. Whatever it takes, I will do.’ That’s the answer I want to hear from people.”

So we came up with Five Keys to Overcome Entitlement Thinking. They have much in common with Schwarzenegger’s mentality. These are the mental “tools” that help you move away from the herd.

  • You understand your personal and professional performance expectations
  • You go beyond what’s expected in your role
  • You resist going along with the “entitlement” crowd
  • You concentrate on your performance, not someone else’s
  • You use your knowledge, skills and abilities to the max

In the next blog, I’m going to add a layer to this. Overcoming entitlement is huge. But our culture also has a lot of built-in lies that wait right behind entitlement to throw you off-track. You’ll want a “heads-up” for those too.

Hopefully, at this point, you have a better sense of how these elite performers’ minds work. The best part? You don’t need the youth, stamina and physical gifts they have to exercise the same mindset in business. Or at home as a parent. Your heart and mind are capable of as much desire and willfulness as the next person.

In that sense, Performance Driven Thinking truly is democratized. It’s accessible to anyone and everyone who applies..