Redpoint recently hosted “The Anatomy of a Breakthrough Performance.” Held at the innovative Exploratorium museum in San Francisco, it was an event that brought together a lineup of luminaries who have indeed achieved breakthrough performances. From the America’s Cup skipper Jimmy Spithill to Navy Seal Commander Pete Naschak to peak performance guru Andy Walshe, Redpoint asked these extraordinary people to share how they have succeeded where others have failed.
The result was an illuminating and highly entertaining conversation full of valuable insights and life lessons learned through decades of trial and error. Our founders and CEOs in attendance were treated to an out-of-the-box afternoon that saw them drawing with crayons, flinging toy rockets at one another and asking questions about how they, too, can achieve that breakthrough performance.
Redpoint partner Geoff Yang kicked off the event and then handed over the reins to Walshe, the director of Red Bull’s global athletic development program, who has trained Olympians and worked with daredevil Felix Baumgartner on his record-breaking 24-mile free fall from space. Walshe was joined on stage by Spithill, Naschak, IDEO partner Brendan Boyle, SONOS CEO John MacFarlane and data scientist Eric Berlow.
Though each person’s goal requires a unique blueprint, the men stressed some common themes that can help anyone push beyond their perceived limits. Here is a quick summary of those themes:
Failure – Every single speaker highlighted the importance of failure in his quest for success. It wasn’t so much the ugliness of the defeat itself that mattered most. Rather it was the way in which that defeat led to better, smarter ideas and execution. Failure was educational, inspirational and motivational—and it was essential to the ultimate triumph. Failure for them is not something to fear because it is inevitable with any challenging undertaking. Failure instead is a stepping stone, something to harness and tame, or the proverbial making lemonade from lemons. “Defeat is a great opportunity,” said Spithill.
“Adversity can be one of the best opportunities to learn about yourself and your teammates.” – Jimmy Spithill
In his case, Spithill shared some of the “curveballs” that led to last year’s dramatic comeback victory in the America’s Cup. In particular, he noted a day when his $15 million catamaran went into a nosedive and was dragged out miles beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. The damage to the vessel was one thing—and it could be repaired. But Spithill said the way his team handled the situation turned out to be “a real plus” in their ultimate quest. They learned how to be better from the experience and they also strengthened their bonds as individual contributors on a team, gaining greater trust in one another. “Adversity can be one of the best opportunities to learn about yourself and your teammates,” he said. “Champions always come back from adversity.”
Pushing Limits – Underestimating either an individual or a team is a common failing. And this can be costly, particularly for people trying to achieve the seemingly impossible, such as Baumgartner breaking the sound barrier in a free fall. Our panel shared its experiences and viewpoints about how to push people beyond their perceived physical or mental comfort zones—and explained why it is a key ingredient to generating change and optimizing performance.
Seal Commander Naschak recalled taking a group of elite athletes through eight days of rigorous physical and “mentally mind-bending” exercises, exposing them to harsh conditions in varied terrain. Despite many moments of self-doubt, each man made it through the challenges and brain scans compared from before and after the endurance test showed notable improvement. Every man said they came away with more confidence and a new perspective on their own mental and physical capabilities. “You can reset what is possible,” says Naschak.
Naschak talks about the changes in the brain when people push past perceived limits.
Walshe agreed with that sentiment. He explained that the team behind Baumgartner’s thrilling leap into the record books shared a vision that you can “take the essence of a performance and push beyond all disciplines.” Despite the daunting task at hand, the group drew on the know-how and experiences of the best in the world to overcome the litany of challenges Baumgartner’s quest presented, from designing and building the right space suit to ensuring that Baumgartner would be physically and mentally prepared to withstand the fall.
SONOS’ MacFarlane brought this concept into a more business-like setting. He noted that it’s almost impossible to push strong teams too hard, though you can push individuals too far. Teams, he said, that are comprised of the right mix of people can typically withstand much more stress than any one member can endure. Instead of focusing on individual contributors, MacFarlane says it’s helpful to emphasize clearly defined goals to bring teams together and keep them striving, even when they may feel they are tapped out. “A higher sense of mission drives people in tough times and keeps them focused,” he says.
IDEO’s Boyle having a little fun
Unleashing creativity – New ideas do not often come without risk. Optimizing the risk –whether it comes by hiring people with a wide array of differing viewpoints and problem-solving skills or by pushing people far outside their comfort zones–is key to generating meaningful change.
IDEO’s Boyle discussed “the trap” some companies, particularly larger, established ones, encounter when they stick too much to like-minded colleagues. “New ideas don’t come from the same place,” he said. People also must be willing to shake up their routines and group mindset.
Just getting our group to find partners, pick up a crayon, and then quickly sketch portraits of each other seemed to prove the point. While Boyle said children do this task gleefully and fearlessly, adults tend to worry about the quality of their drawing or what others might think of it. The takeaway from this exercise is simply that people need to find more ways to relax and enjoy a task for what it is rather than what they think it should be.
Berlow, who is in the midst of a project dubbed “hacking creativity,” also emphasized the need for assembling groups of divergent thinkers and abilities. His team is currently working on a project to identify creativity profiles by studying the creative processes exhibited by 100 of the most well-known and high-achieving people, including Einstein, John Lennon, Andy Warhol and Steve Jobs. The goal is to form connections between people based on the way they think and work.
Culture – In a sense, creating a culture that optimizes performance requires organizations to embrace all the ideas presented by the speakers—from embracing the role of failure to nurturing the creative mind to never underestimating what the right mix of people can achieve.
SONOS’ MacFarlane emphasized the importance of establishing a higher mission that drives people to succeed as well as cultivating an atmosphere in which people feel safe even when they make mistakes. He went so far as to suggest that leaders might reward failure and risk-taking as a way to get people to test unconventional strategies or ideas.
And even when teams are progressing, be prepared for the inevitable roadblocks. Organizations that allow individuals to step away from the daily grind without fear of repercussions outperform all others. Whether drawing pictures with crayons or playing with toy rockets, Boyle recommends adopting strategies that tap into individuals’ creative energy in unconventional ways.
Culture, of course, starts at the top, with leaders most responsible for setting the tone that works best in their own organizations.
The unique event concluded with a dinner by the bay. Appropriately, the attendees were mixed up and assigned to tables with people they didn’t already know.