Social psychologists call it the better-than-average effect: According to a broad range of studies, most of us will rate ourselves as above average in skill, effort, creativity, intelligence, dependability, athleticism, honesty, friendliness ...
Give us a survey regarding almost any trait, and we'll almost always rate ourselves as above average.
At least until we take a look at the training program of Swedish speed skater Nils van der Poel.
After recently dominating the 5,000 event -- and breaking a world record in the 10,000 meters -- van der Poel released his 62-page training program. Not just training splits, intervals, exercises, etc., but also his philosophy on training and success.
The common way to approach the sport seems to me to be to acquire some certain abilities (i.e., maximum strength, VO2max, threshold, technique, mobility, core stability, etc.), and as the competition approaches you put all these abilities together, like a puzzle, and so you build the perfect speed skater.
To some extent, I approached the sport in a similar way, but I believed that the puzzle only had two pieces: (1) competition speed capacity and (2) aerobic capacity.
(So) the main idea of my training program was that you will become good at whatever it is that you train. The idea was that whoever skated the most laps of 30.0 (seconds) during the last three months prior to the competition would win the 10k. My preseason (reaching up to three months prior to the prioritized competition) basically had two aims: (1) build the capacity to be able to skate a lap of 30.0 and (2) build a good recovery so that I could skate a 30.0 as often as possible.
Think about it. As van der Poel writes, since success inherently involves searching for a competitive edge, most professional athletes add a variety of different activities to their training program: weight training. Stretching. Plyometrics. Core work. Ancillary skills work. Balance and coordination.
But not to van der Poel:
All training sessions are performed at the expense of other, more efficient, training sessions, or at the expense of recovery after these sessions.
My point isn't that stretching is useless. If you need to stretch, then go ahead and bend over. But do not fool yourself; do not drop hours from the essential sessions in order to perform something that sounds cool or is easy. Yeah, the gym is warm and nice, mirrors everywhere so that you can see your pretty face and attractive muscles.
But you're more likely 50 watts (short) of the required bike threshold to make it below 12 minutes (in the 10,000 meters) than you are 50kg in squats from it.
I completely cut what I thought were the suboptimal sessions in order to increase the optimal ones (my bold).
To van der Poel, doing "more" meant doing more of what mattered most: building the endurance to skate as many 30-second laps as possible.
So he spent a year off the ice building up his aerobic capacity. When he returned to the ice, he focused on two things: refining and optimizing his technique, and building the strength and stamina to reel off those strings of perfectly executed 30-second laps.
"To me," van der Poel writes, "speed skating was just a one-legged squat, repeated over and over during maximum heart rate."
That approach might sound simplistic.
Even though the obvious insights are almost always the most powerful.
Take getting new employees off to a great start. Google's in-house research found that employees whose managers met with new employees on their first day to talk about roles and responsibilities got up to speed 25 percent faster than those whose managers did not.
Yet many managers were too busy. Or were too focused on other things.
Even though the impact -- if only on making a new employee feel welcome and valued -- was obvious.
Consider one of your most important goals, and then take a step back. Don't think about what you like to do. Don't think about what other people do. Cut out the suboptimal, and increase the optimal.
To fix your bottom line, the answer is probably simple: Focus on sales. To lose weight, the answer is simple: Cut calories. To minimize the onboarding curve -- and improve employee engagement -- spend time with new employees on their first day, and establish regular check-ins during those first few weeks.
And then never forget that you always -- always -- have more in you than you think. When you're doing something difficult and you think you need to stop, you don't. You have more in you.
When you're trying to overcome a bad habit and you just don't think you can, you can. You have more in you.
The next time you think you've reached your limit, do one more. The next time you think you can't go on, go a little farther. Challenge yourself to see if you can endure just a little more.
In time, challenging yourself will become a habit -- and so will accomplishing much more than you would have ever thought possible.
Skill and stamina? They naturally increase through focused effort.
But so does determination. As van der Poel writes:
I wasn't mentally strong as a kid. I hated to compete ever since I started speed skating. I truly hated it. It is still a little anxiety provoking for me. I think it always will be when I test myself in an activity that I really care about. But today it's a walk in the park compared with when I was a kid.
This development was mainly acquired through continuous voluntary confrontation with the challenge (read that sentence again and emphasis voluntary). It was first when I understood that, or felt like, I volunteered, that I was able to compete with a free mind.
Because the best challenges -- the ones you grow and learn from the most -- are the ones you volunteer for.