8 min read

High Performance Mindset v Grief

High Performance Mindset v Grief
Pic by Chris Christie

“There is no way to ‘high performance’ grief” – my psychologist said this to me the other day and it really resonated with me, but it also got me thinking.

She is right,  you can't "win" at grief, something that I think I have tried to do at times - but I do think that some of my "high performance" traits and mindset have helped me process my grief.

I have spent most of my teenage and adult years developing what might popularly be referred to as a "high performance" mindset (*the below blurb on "high perormance" is influenced by The Flow Research Collective). It's been an incredibly useful trait in most areas of my life and it has lead to me acheiving success in both sports and academics. In many ways it has also helped me deal with grief, however I have had to learn how to modify these traits from how I applied them to sports, work and academics.

What does it mean to have a high performance mindset and what has helped and hurt me when dealing with my grief?

Growth mindset

How do you view failure? Your answer to this question determines whether or not you have a growth mindset.  People with a growth mindset see failure as a springboard for growth. When you have a growth mindset, you don’t view failure as failure at all: you see it as an opportunity to stretch beyond your current abilities.

This can be contrasted with having a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset assumes that the following qualities are “fixed” and can’t be changed in a meaningful way:

  • Your character.
  • Your intelligence.
  • Your creative ability.

A fixed mindset is all about preserving what you already have. A growth mindset realizes that all of these things and more can be improved over time. Your behaviour, your relationships, your idea of what success and failure are, even your capacity for happiness are all influenced by which mindset you have.  

A growth mindset supports a high-performance mindset because it drives a desire to learn and improve.

Being a life-long learner leads to:

  1. Embracing challenges.
  2. Persisting despite setbacks.
  3. Viewing effort as a path to mastery.
  4. Learning from criticism and past mistakes.
  5. Finding lessons and being inspired by the success of others.

Carol Dweck, author of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” says, “no matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.”

This aspect has mostly been useful in dealing with grief - due to it I have learned to embrace grief as a teacher. My grief has shown me aspects of myself that I never knew I had in me. It has improved my relationships with people close to me and since death is one of the only true constants for all of us, it has exposed me aspects of the overall life experience that I had not experienced. While grief is not a teacher we would ever wish on ousrelves or others, it is a powerful teacher if we embrace it and listen to the lessons it chooses to teach us. I believe that being a "life-long learner" has helped me view grief from this lense.

High-Performers Know What They Can Control

Do you believe that you determine your fate? Or, do you think that life is something that happens to you? Your answer to this question comes down to your locus of control.

The principle of locus of control was originated by Julian Rotter in 1954. He described it as, “the degree to which persons expect that a reinforcement or an outcome of their behavior is contingent on their own behavior or personal characteristics.”

People with a high-performance mindset believe in their own ability to control themselves and to influence those around them. This is a high internal locus of control.

The factor that affects your locus of control is known as the stability of the causal factor. This is a fancy way of saying that when high-performers fail, they chalk it up to their own ability—not bad luck or factors beyond their control.

“Commitment is you taking complete ownership of your life regardless of what is going on around or to you,” says snowboarder Mark McMorris—a 2x Olympic Medalist and 20x X Games Medalist. McMorris has suffered several catastrophic injuries in his rise to the ranks of snowboarding’s elite. Any of his multiple fractures and grueling recoveries would have been an excuse to retire.  But in “Unbroken” (2018) a short Red Bull documentary about his life filmed by his friend, Adam Burwell, McMorris displays the mindset that won’t allow life-threatening injuries to keep him off his board doing what he loves.

If someone with a high external locus of control is the victim of a freak accident, they think, life isn’t fair, I can’t win. Not McMorris, his high internal locus of control wouldn’t let him make excuses. He didn’t blame anyone else. He stayed committed to his passion and remained unbroken.‍

In some regards I have struggled with this. Truth is, there is a lot in life we cannot control. Laura's accident was one such thing, what I have had control over however is how I have responded to it. In many ways I still blame myself for the avalanche that killed her and not being able to save her, but I do control my ability to change that narrative - it is something I am actively working on so I don't carry as much guilt about the incident.

High-Performers Understand Cause and Effect and the Concept of Marginal Gains

Having a high-performance mindset allows you to realize the time lag between cause and effect. You can’t always associate today’s actions with tomorrow’s result. High-performers trust that if they put in the work, results will come with time.

Having a high-performance mindset requires persistence and patience. You have to commit to a process of success and not give up when you don’t get immediate results.‍

Marginal Gains

Success is often the result of compounding gains. “If you get one percent better each day for one year, you'll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done,” says James Clear, author of Atomic Habits (2018).

You won’t notice getting 1% better at something tomorrow, but by the time you’re 10%, 25%, or 37% better, you’ll start to see a significant change in your abilities.

This compounding effect works for relationships, income, health, habits—anything that you set your mind to improving.

What gets high performers out of bed and working on themselves each day is the knowledge that regular small improvements add up to large eventual gains.

Grief is a non-linear process and I am not convinced you ever "recover" from it, nor do I know if we should. I think there is a lot of value in holding the memories of those we have loved and lost alive - but once again, what we can work on is our relationship with that grief. I have committed to long-term conselling and realize and appreciate that some days the grief will be worse than others, even months and now a couple of years after Laura's death. I don't think we can "improve" at grief, but we can learn to integrate it better over time.

High Performance and The Habit of Ferocity

Steven Kotler notes that one of the keys to "high perfomers' success was what he calls 'stacking motivation'. When you stack motivational drivers, you build momentum into what you’re doing.

The habit of ferocity is about stacking up all possible motivators,” Kotler says. All of the top entrepreneurs, athletes, or artists that you admire do this to some degree. It’s the reason they get up at 5 am, go to the gym when no one else does, or make active recovery a non-negotiable part of every day. Stacking your motivation is about combining the activities that motivate you most and aligning them with your work. Being in flow, practicing gratitude, and having great conversations with people who share your goals are all examples of motivational activities.

A high-performance mindset is also about sacrificing short-term pleasure for long-term gains. This goes against our brain’s tendency to seek immediate gratification.“The problem is we’re not living up to our full potential because we’re not in the habit of living up to our full potential,” says Kotler.

Developing a habit of ferocity requires perseverance. The Navy Seals have a saying, the only easy day was yesterday.

Perseverance can be trained through physical exertion. This is why regular exercise is so important. While physical training will increase perseverance, you also need grit to control your thoughts and to help you regulate your emotions.

A high-performance mindset requires you to develop several types of grit. The grit to:

  1. Be your best when you are at your worst.
  2. Master your weaknesses.
  3. Control your thoughts.
  4. Overcome your fears.
  5. Recover effectively.

When you commit to doing what it takes to gain perseverance and grit, higher performance should follow.

While all of this about high performance rings true - when it comes to grief and emotions, you can't and you shouldn't just grit your way through it all. Grit allowed me to perservere and get out of bed and look after myself when the world around me collapsed, but it can also lead me to push my emotions aside and bury them. In the acute phase of my grief this helped me not feel overwhelmed, but with time I had to start processing things. I realized the importance of actually working with my emotions and listening them as a critical aspect of my recovery. I think that the notioin of grit is the most potentially harmful high performance trait if not applied and regulated properly.

As an athlete and a physcial person, my tendency was to move myself into a state of exhaustion, ignoring the the fifth line above "recovering effectively". I have learned that I needed to respect the state of extreme shock that my body was in and slow down. I had to take up different activities, like meditating, walking, sketching, or just learning to sit with my friends as a counterbalance to the extreme stress I was undergoing.

Like any tool, a high performance mindset is only as good as how you apply it. It is not inherently bad of itself when dealing with grief, in fact, it can be very useful if adapted and then applied to what your emotional needs are. I knew how it worked with school, work and sports - but when it came to grief, I needed to learn how to soften the edges of what I already knew. Working with my therapists helped me learn how to take the tools I had spent a lifetime fostering and adapt them in a way that served my new needs.

Weekly Run Workout

15-20 min easy run warm up
4* 20 second stride accelerations (these should be controlled and comfortable "cruise speed")
4-6 * 1.5 min uphill hard with a walk/jog back down recovery
4-6 * 1 min hard with 1 min easy on the flats
15-20 min cool down jog

Mindful Running thoughts from Cassie Smith again

What  is Taking You Away from This Moment?

Your thoughts are the filter through which you interpret the world around you, they also incfluence and are influenced by your emotions. Therefore, the thoughts that fill your mind play an extremely important role in your experience of the present moment.

Often times, your body may be physically present, but your mind may be time traveling back into the past (rumination), or ahead into the future (worry). Your emotions and actions will largely reflect what is going on in your mind, therefore, it is important to pay attention to the thoughts that take up space in your head!

Running and Your Mind

Many people avoid exercise and running specifically because of the negative labels they associate with this type of activity. They may have certain expectations or ideas about what it means to run. For example: "Running is hard", "I am not a runner", "I hate running", "I'm not very fast", and so on. These thoughts and beliefs can influence how you experience your run. If you think running is a horrible, painful experience, it will likely be one. However, if you keep an open mind, specifically noticing the judgments and assumptions you may have, and then choose to just observe versus believe them, you may be surprised at how your experience of running changes.

(Example: Running in the rain can be something you dread, or it can be seen as a challenge to try something hard that may boost your confidence)

Weekly Reflection:

Notice what thoughts are trying to take up space in your mind as you run (or walk). Acknowledge that they are there, and try to observe vs attach yourself and emotions to them.

Notice if there are any assumptions or expectations you have about running. What are they? How do you notice these thoughts impact your experience? Are there other thoughts that might be more gentle and motivating?

Continue to use your breath as a grounding point in the present, as your thoughts wander to other places and times, do not judge yourself, just notice that this has happened and come back to the present moment and your breath.