Episode 028: How To Become Truly World Class (At Anything!) – with Simon Hartley

Working with athletes and billion pound executives, Simon Hartley understands what it really takes to become world class in anything you choose to do. This week, he reveals the key traits and characteristics of the world's highest performers, along with how you can adopt them in your life.



The Show Notes

Simon Hartley, welcome to the success Kickstart podcast. How's it going?

  • Very well indeed. Thank you very much.

Q: Very good delighted to have you here. Obviously, we have known each other for some time now and I've been to your events and seminars and had a smashing time and I knew as soon as I heard your story and your background and what it is that you do it had a real impact on my life and I knew that I wanted to get you on here to share your message with the listeners. Now for those people who haven't come across your work yet. You want to take a few minutes and take us behind the scenes and give us your story because I really like this to kind of know where you've come from and how you got to where you are in your life at this moment.

  • The story probably starts when I failed some exams. If I'm honest when I was a kid, I wanted to be a pilot in the Navy Fly Fast Jets and things like that. I took my careers teachers advice. So, I studied maths and physics and when I failed my flying aptitude test my motivation for maths and physics nosedived along with my career prospects in aviation. I flunked them completely and I needed to restart almost with my education.
  • So, I studied Sport and Sport Science, went to University and studied Sport Science and specialized in sport psychology. So, sport psychology is really my background working with athletes and sports teams, which I've been doing now for kind of 20 plus years. My real interest has always been to study and work with the world's best. I mean literally the top handful in the world at what they do and to sort of distil the principles that allow them to be great at what they do and then help other people adopt those.

Q: So, this is all about the idea that you can learn to be better at anything. You can learn to think more effectively about anything and that's what we're going to be talking about in this episode. Before we dive into that, I want to know two things. The first thing is along your journey, what would you say has been the most difficult moment in your life because we all have difficult things that we need to overcome and a lot of people allow them to hold them back. So, what was the most difficult moment that you've experienced in your life. What did you do to overcome that I guess is the big learning point from it? What was the big lesson that you took away from that?

  • I mean, there are a couple like I suspect losing our first baby during pregnancy was probably the most difficult but the one I think I learnt the most from was almost going bankrupt and literally being you know sitting in my kitchen on a Sunday morning staring at my last £10 in the world wondering how I was going to feed the two little girls next door and it was it was rock bottom but it was all also a moment of clarity from my point of view and there were three really big lessons that came out of it.
  • A few years ago before that, I bumped into a guy who said to me the better you are, the more you earn and the more money you'll have and I was sitting there thinking, a couple of years ago, I owned far more than I am now, but I'm better now than I was then so it broke that myth which I think is really crucial for me.
  • I also started to realize I had been chasing the dollar not following my passion and so in that moment and it was, you know credit to Caroline my wife, she said just go back to doing what you do well and that you're passionate about and let the money follow and that's what I've been doing ever since and fingers crossed it seems to be working.
  • The other one that I've learned since is that we had to climb a long way out of debt and I also learned that you do that one pound at a time. It's like any massive journey, any massive challenge, you know, if you wanted to climb Everest you do it one step at a time and it's the same climbing out of anything or taking on any massive challenge, you do it literally in debt terms one pound at a time. So those have been massively valuable lessons for me.

Q: That's really powerful but on the flip side of that and you kind of touched on it already I think but I want to go a little bit deeper on it. What would you say is your biggest or most exciting epiphany that you've ever had in your life and what impact did that have for you, I guess on your philosophy of what success looks like and how personal development works?

  • There have been a few. Spending time with world class people and just listening to them and learning from them has been massive.
  • I guess the single biggest moment that I can remember that's really changed my life was sitting reading a philosophy book by a guy called Joseph Piper who is a German philosopher and I was sitting on the shores of Draman's Fjord in Norway and it was a it was early in the morning, probably about five o'clock in the morning and Caroline and the girls were asleep. We were on holiday. Sun's rising over Draman's Fjord and I'm reading his take on happiness and how you achieve happiness and he describes it as contemplation in the divine because he was a very religious man – that kind of means praising God from his point of view, but I was sitting there thinking in my world, in my life, that means appreciating beauty and that has literally allowed me to change my life experience in split seconds.
  • The difference between walking down a country lane stressing out about something or walking down the same country lane seconds later and noticing all the nice things around you and then walking down a few strides afterwards and actually appreciating that the sun is shining, the birds are singing and it drastically changes your life experience within seconds. That for me has been one of the biggest epiphanies.

Q: You work with the world's highest performing athletes and business owners and a bunch of other things as well. Let's talk about what that is and how that works because they must have characteristics that they share – it's not just that they were born naturally very talented at a thing. You can be very good at the thing but not be I guess amongst the world's highest performing. So, people listening to this may not be aspiring to be you know to win a swimming race or any of that stuff. But what are the characteristics that the world's highest performing people share as they apply to us regular people?

  • There are eight interestingly and some of these might sound obvious and some of them might not.
  • They start with world class people genuinely follow their passion and there's a difference between your dream and your passion which I learned when I faced that last £10 in the world challenge – being bankrupt. I'd been following the dream but not necessarily following my passion. So, they genuinely do follow their passion. Now, I know this kind of sounds obvious and many people will say, yeah, I've heard all that before but it's actually really rare. It's really rare that people actually do first of all understand their passion and recognize it but then honour it and follow it and this is the foundation of really truly world-class performers and it actually fuels their motivation over a long long period of time. It gives them really stable enduring motivation that actually then allows them to go on and be great. So that's the first characteristic.
  • The second is that they focus on one step at a time. They focus on the step they're taking right now and they can do so because they're more interested in the process than they are in the outcome. They know where they want to go. Absolutely. You know, I haven't met an athlete ever that hasn't wanted to go win gold medals and win races and whatever so they know where they want to go but they don't focus on that. They focus on the thing they're doing and executing that really really well and because they do it step after step after step, they perform at a really high level for a long period of time and of course, that's one of the foundations of becoming world-class.
  • Third is that they keep it really simple and not because inherently it's more simple than anybody else's job, but because they look for the simplicity in it. Lots of people if I asked them, you know, tell me your job in the simplest possible terms. They'll say oh you wouldn't believe how complicated my job is and human beings have got I think a natural tendency to over complicate everything. It actually takes effort to simplify things. It's harder to simplify things but these world-class performers have found the simplicity because they've looked for it and because they keep things really really simple, focus on the basics and execute them really well, they end up becoming world-class.

Q: Do you want to tell Chris's story in terms of that so looking for the simple thing and what you did about Chris Cook because I think that's a really interesting example of that?

  • Yeah sure Chris and I worked together. So, he was a swimmer, a 100-metre breaststroke swimmer. We worked together for about seven years in total. When we kicked off, he was nowhere in the world. He wasn't even in the top four in the City of Newcastle. And that was at the age of 19 or 20 when most people would say if you haven't made it by that age in swimming, you're not going to. So, he struggled to get into the top four in Newcastle at age 19. At the end of his career, his last competitive race was the Beijing Olympic Final in 2008. At that time, he was a double Commonwealth champion and the double Commonwealth gold record holder, Double Olympian, Olympic finalist, seventh fastest in history, and there was a really drastic pivot point where his kind of progress curve inflected and rose steeply and that was the point, we actually understood what his job was. For the first three years or so, we didn't understand his job. We got confused. We thought his job was to win and it was never to win and it was never to gain medals or break records or get selected for the British team or get funding or whatever. None of those things were his job. His job very simply, a 100-metre swimmer in a 50-metre pool was to swim 2 lengths of the pool as fast as he could.
  • It was that moment that allowed us then to help him become infinitely more effective in every single training day because he would ask does the thing I'm doing right now help me swim two lengths of the pool quicker and when he asked that question, he ended up ditching over 60% of the things he’d ever done. They just went in the bin because they didn't contribute and then he started to ask well what does make me quicker and where should I put my focus and because he became far more effective with every single moment of training than it than all of his competitors, he started to really progress up through the world ranks and within a couple of years, he got into the top handful in the world. He was sort of top five, top six in the world and he was making Olympic finals and world championship finals and all those sorts of things, but it was that that moment of clarity which allowed him to do that.

Q: Obviously, one of the things that I've studied from you a lot, is the idea of building a strong mental game. So, what are the keys to building a strong mental game? And I guess what part does that play in the idea of being world class at anything we want to achieve.

  • Our mental game is critical. One of those really fundamental things about world-class performances, they perform at their best consistently and lots of people aren't able to perform at the best consistently because they're not managing what goes on between their ears so they're great days are great and they're terrible days are terrible. World-class performers their great days are great and they're terrible days aren't that terrible at all? They might only drop by a few percent so they get their mental game right because they've got control over some really critical things. Focus, confidence and motivation are from my point of view the foundation of a great mental game. The ability to focus on the right thing at the right time. The ability to control your own confidence not leave it in the hands of somebody else.
  • I ask the question who's got the remote control for your confidence because if your confidence is dependent on an outcome or as a result or somebody else's feedback, essentially, you've handed over the remote control for your confidence. So how do we get that back into your control again?
  • Motivation we look at and you got to understand these three things are interdependent not independent. So, when somebody says to me, how do I become more motivated? It's really difficult if you don't have focus and confidence because they feed each other. Really simply when we're focused on the right thing at the right time, we perform well in that moment. And when we do that moment after moment after moment, we build up evidence that allows us to feel confident. Confidence always comes from evidence, it doesn't come from pep talks or you know, I hope I hope I hope I'll be good at this or anything like that. It comes from evidence.
  • So, when we perform well moment after moment after moment, we build up confidence and then because we like doing things well, human beings like being masters of what they do, we then want to go and do it again and that feeds our motivation.
  • So, these things all work in a spiral a positive spiral that it's a self-feeding self-perpetuating spiral. We also have to know that absolute core of it is our why -understanding why we're doing what we're doing because the truth about focus is that focus follows interest and interest follows what we really care about and if we care too much about an outcome, then we're going to become outcome-focused not process focused and if we're outcome-focused, we're not going to focus on doing the thing really well, we're only going to focus on trying to attain what we want to attain. We try and engineer outcomes rather than delivering great processes.
  • So, all of this hangs together, this is the foundation of our mental game and if we want to perform really well on a consistent basis, we need to get that stuff right.

One of the things that you talked a lot about is character, so let's talk about what you mean by character and why is it actually important and this is going to lead the rest of this of this chat. So, what is character and why is it so important?

  • Character is, we’ve got to understand there are a few words that seem to be used almost interchangeably, but they're not the same so character and personality are often used interchangeably, but they're not the same thing. Personality is the mental qualities that make us distinctive as an individual. So, whether we're greater, I dotting and t crossing, whether we're a detailer orientated person, whether we're an out-of-the-box thinker, whether we are a highly focused driven competitive person or whether we're more of a harmonizer – that's personality, but it's not character. Character has got a much deeper level, another dimension to it.
  • So, character is the mental and moral qualities that make us distinctive as an individual. So things like honesty and courage and discipline and persistence and tenacity and resilience and composure – they're all characteristics so you can be an honest i dotter and t crosser or a dishonest i dotter and t crosser and it's understanding that this dimension of character drives most of what we do. I describe it as the outward expression of who I am. It's the way I live my personal qualities, my values, my beliefs, my philosophies. It's not just having them, it's the way I live them.
  • So, to say that I value honesty is one thing but to be honest, especially when it's difficult and especially when I'm challenged, that's the test of character. So, it's often described as the things you would do if nobody was watching or if nobody would find out, that's the true test of character. Because behaviour is quite superficial. People behave a different way because there's a reward in front of them or a consequence or whatever. Character is what you would do if nobody was watching, if there was no reward, if there was no consequence and Josef Piper thee philosopher I was talking about earlier, he describes it as the ability to do the right thing for the right reason not because there's a reward or a consequence but simply because it's the right thing to do. So that's what character is essentially.

Q: So how should somebody listening to this analyse where they're at in their life right now and find the areas of their character that needed the most work.

  • I think honest self-reflection which again sounds obvious but is really quite rare is the key. Now we can add to honest self-reflection in a number of ways.
  • First of all, we can look we can look at it through a number of lenses. So, we can look at the choices that we make and the decisions that we make. We can look at how we're driving who we are. We can look at the impact that we have on people around us and all of those things will help tell us the kind of character that we've go. We can also get other people's input. We can get a bit of a sort of 360 view on this and have the benefit of other people's perspectives.
  • One of those things that I started to understand about our human blind spots is they're called blind spots for a reason – we can't see them, other people can. So by looking at what we do and how we do it and being really honest about it, looking at the impact we have on the world around us and also getting the perspective of other people we can start to find which characteristics we really like in ourselves and we'd like to keep and which ones we actually probably would like to change.

Q: Now you've done a lot of work in developing your own character in various areas. There's things and areas of your mental game that you have intentionally done things to work on like set yourself challenges and I'm sure that will come up as part of this but for people listening, how do we go about developing those areas of character that we think need work to become the person that we want to be?

  • Well one of the fundamental things to understand about character as we develop character through challenge by taking on challenges and it's the choices that we make when we hit those challenges that really shape our character and if we want to develop characteristics, we've kind of got a couple of choices life will throw challenges at us absolutely and we can make different choices when we hit those challenges that will help us develop our character.
  • Equally we can set challenges for ourselves and this is what I've been doing personally for the last couple of years. I understood a few years ago that I probably wasn't as tenacious as I wanted to be. I would hit a challenge. I would hit what I call a quick point and quite often I would quit when I hit the quick point. I wouldn't go through I wouldn't get to the other side of it. And I knew that if I wanted to be really successful instead of backing off or quitting when I hit those really difficult times. I needed to find a way to go through them. So, I set myself a challenge which I knew would have multiple quick points in it and that challenge was to walk a hundred miles in 24 hours. And I did when I when I entered that challenge, I hit multiple quick points, which we usually sort of characterized by massive pain and I had to find a way to get through to the other side.
  • I also deliberately constructed that hundred-mile walk. So, it was eight twelve and a half mile apps which started and finished at my house to give me more temptations to just go home. I deliberately didn't tell many people about it. So, there was no external pressure. I didn't have any kind of external reason to keep going it was just the internal reason and through that process, I actually learned a couple of really critical things about tenacity. You will give up if you can't answer the following questions. Why am I doing this? How much do I want it? You've got to be able to answer those two. So, if you understand that when you hit the next quick point you can go back to those questions. Why am I doing this? How much do I want it? And if your reason is strong enough, you'll find a way to get through. If it's not you probably won't

Q: I've seen a lot of the video footage of you on these various challenges that you set yourself looking absolutely bloody knackered and just ploughing through because that's what you've got to do to develop that character.

  • That's right. Somebody once asked me did I do it to look cool and I said, have you seen the videos?!
  • As I said we spent days talking about this stuff, but this is a really good deep insight into what high performance is how you know, the world's best become the world's best at what they do and there's some really great lessons that people can pull out of this and apply to their everyday lives. So, I guess at this point as we start to wrap up what I want to ask is, what are the top three things that you would encourage our listeners to do right now, today, to start making massive changes in their life based specifically on what you shared with us.
  • There are a couple of really critical things that anybody needs if they want to make a significant change in their life. The first is a pair of things. It's awareness and desire to change. You have to have both; you have to want to do it. Not just know that you need to but really genuinely want to do it. So that's the first ingredient. I think you need.
  • The ability to embrace discomfort is the second. Any big changes are going to be uncomfortable. But if you understand that that discomfort is your friend, then you start to embrace it you, start to understand the value in it and then you start to go and seek it.
  • The third which is one that I've kind of realized relatively recently is to do something however small every single day. It's incredibly powerful if you want to become consistent at anything and develop any real discipline in anything, doing something however, small every single day gives you momentum and it's a great way to overcome the inertia, which stops most people in the first place or to overcome the phenomenon of yeah, I'll try it for a couple of days and then I'll run out of steam. Do something every single day. However small it takes you towards that goal is really really powerful.

The Quickfire Round

Q: Well now it's time to jump over into the quick-fire round. Number one. What's the best self-development advice you've ever received from somebody else and who was that person?

  • The best advice is take your own advice and I've honestly forgotten who that came from! It’s one that I've adopted and recycled several times.

Q: Can you give us a personal habit or personality trait that you now think contributes most to your success?

  • Yep curiosity.

Q: What does success mean to you?

  • It means being proud of who you are. Not just what you've done and most people I think get consumed in their achievements and what they've done and from my point of view, it hinges around who you are, being proud of who you are.

Q: Finally, most importantly, where can people go to find out more about you and your work.

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