Exceptional Performance

In an old interview at Tesla, Elon Musk shared some insights into his highering practices:

“There’s no need even to have a college degree at all or even high school. I mean if someone graduated from a great university, that maybe an indication that they will be capable of great things, but it is not necessarily the caseā€¦ we are looking just for evidence of exceptional ability, and if there’s a track record of exceptional achievement then it’s likely that that will continue into the future.”

Elon Musk

So, what is exceptional?

1, Forming an exception; not ordinary; uncommon; rare
2, Better than the average; superior due to exception or rarity.


When searching for ‘Exceptional performance’, I found this interesting appraisal quote from the University of California, Davis’s HR pages:

“Exceptional Performance: Performance consistently or far exceeded expectations.” UC Davis

And ability and achievement?

Ability: possession of the means or skill to do something.

Oxford Languages

Achievement: A thing done successfully with effort, skill, or courage.

Oxford Languages

Can you define what exceptional ability and achievement look like in your field? If not, the Global skills and competency framework for the digital world (SFIA) is a good place to start.

Managing Oneself

Peter Drucker is arguably the most influential thinker on management. One of his best-known works is the 18,000-word book ‘Managing Oneself‘ published in 2008 from a 1999 Harvard Business Review article. The article now be found in HBRs ’10 must Reads: The Essentials’, the collection of the 10 most important articles published in their 100-year history. The book’s core idea is that you need to cultivate a deep self-awareness to achieve ‘true and lasting excellence.

Drucker presents a series of questions you can answer about yourself to gain the self-awareness needed to ‘build a life of excellence:

  1. What are my strengths?
  2. How do I work?
  3. How do I learn?
  4. What are my values?
  5. Where do I belong?
  6. What can I contribute?

The most difficult of these questions is the first. With over 180 cognitive biases that affect our ability to process reality, such as confirmation bias where we look for evidence that justified our existing beliefs, how do you truly know what your strengths are? Drucker’s recommended method is feedback analysis; each time you make a key decision write down the outcome you expect and then return in a couple of months and compare the actual results with your expectations. By assessing patterns using this method you will be able to assess your strengths from where you can create desired outcomes. You can then spend time improving these strengths as the most effective route to high performance. Creating a series of feedback analyses can take two to three years for meaningful patterns to emerge, so what can we do immediately while collecting these experiments?

Success in the knowledge economy comes to those who know themselves-their strengths, their values, and how they best perform.

Peter Drucker

How do I perform?

My current focus is on the second and third questions of Drucker’s questions. A set of sub-questions are presented to help us get to:

  • In what ways do I work best?
  • Do I process information most effectively by reading it, or by hearing others discuss it?
  • Do I accomplish the most by working with other people, or working alone?
  • Do I perform best while making decisions, or while advising others on key matters? 
  • Do I perform best when things get stressful, or in highly predictable environments?

By answering these questions you can start to understand what kinds of productivity techniques and tools might suit you best. I know for instance that I can consume and process information through listening. I am often able to recall things I have heard better than those I have read, although this means I often have to avoid listening to things like the radio when I am driving home from work and processing the day’s information and decisions. I have set up techniques to support this including preferring listening to audiobooks over reading them or listening to the week’s economist rather than reading the paper version.  

An interesting point though is how much of overall performance is improved by foundational skills and how much is open to preference and styles? Time blocking for example, where blocks of time, usually in 30-60 minute intervals are allocated to specific tasks, is widely seen as the best method to organise a day. Many methods of note-taking from GTD to Zettelkasten, and the ‘Building a Second Brain’ method all base themselves on the premise that the brain is built to process information rather than store it. Which of these ideas are universal for improved performance that forms the starting point for developing exceptional ability?

How do I learn?

I did not enjoy school nor did I develop any good learning habits or achieve anything exceptional academically. I did however get obsessive with other pursuits such as music production, where I did much better. Drucker suggests that people that excel at learning through writing tend to do poorly at school as most classes are not set up to exploid this approach. One of the reasons I set up this blog is I have a google drive full of documents I have used to organise my thoughts and when learning something new, I usually reach for a pen to organise the idea in my own way. Drucker suggests that there are multiple ways to learn including readers, listeners, talkers, and writers and says that most of us know how we learn best but rarely act on this, and so do not reach high performance. 

As a teacher, I know there are definitely foundational skills and techniques that everyone can benefit from using more. Encoding, spaced repetition and active recall are all seen as highly effective methods of rote learning. Kolb’s cycle presents four stages of experiencial learning; planning, doing, reflecting, and learning but perhaps the most effective way we do each of these stages can vary from person to person and within different contexts. Bloom’s two sigma problem suggests that 1:1 and very small group tutoring produces results two standard deviations better than other methods and John Hattie’s invisible learning presents a meta-analysis of the meaningful research on teaching methods.

 My actions for gaining self-awareness for excellent performance

With my MBA graduation over and the immediate actions complete for my new job, it is time for me to refocus on my performance. I am working on a number of methods to improve my understanding of my strengths but what can I do to improve my ways of working and learning? 

First, I need to work on my foundation skills and update my productivity and learning systems. Then, I need to build on these foundations with more advanced personalised methods that fit the way I work and learn best. Finally, I need to use these two sets of skills on a daily basis. 

Some resources I am using: