5 Fundamentals to Achieve Peak Performance

A Radical Approach to Success at Work

Every day, you are performing. You step onto stage whether you are in the lead role or whether you are supporting others. Before the curtain goes up on today’s performance, study these 5 performance fundamentals so that you can perform at your peak.

Who better to teach these fundamentals than Cathy Salit? Cathy is the CEO and founder of Performance of a Lifetime. Her firm helps leaders and companies with the human side of business and strategy. For over twenty years, she has created custom workshops for companies ranging from American Express to Coca-Cola. Her new book, Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work is filled with lessons that will transform your performance.



Performance Fundamental 1: Choose to grow.

You talk about growing instead of knowing. What’s the difference? And why is that important?

We live in a culture where knowing — having all the data, getting the right answer, knowing how to do things as a precondition for doing them — reigns supreme. I call this the “Knowing Paradigm,” and it’s commonly accepted as crucial to success in school, at work, and for life in general. And in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with knowing — it’s critically important when you want to cross the street in traffic, calculate a tip, perform brain surgery, etc.

But to the extent that the Knowing Paradigm crowds out everything else we can do — the growing and developing that comes not from knowing an answer or being right, but from the interplay of our creativity, emotions, perceptions, relationships, and environments — we’re missing out.

This wasn’t a problem when we were little kids (a time of enormous growth and transformation), when we were free to experiment, play, pretend, imagine, and perform. That kind of learning — sometimes called “developmental learning” — is how we learned to walk, talk, ride a bike and about a million other things that weren’t based in facts and we never studied for. And we got a ton of support from the adults in our lives to experiment, explore, and grow in this way.

Illustrations © 2016 by Drew Dernavich for PERFORMANCE BREAKTHROUGH. Approved for use by Drew Dernavich.
Illustrations © 2016 by Drew Dernavich for PERFORMANCE BREAKTHROUGH. Approved for use by Drew Dernavich.

But it doesn’t last. For most of us there comes a point when we go from being praised for trying something new (even when we didn’t get it right) to being told we didn’t get it right (even though we were trying something new). Now it’s time to color inside the lines, stop playing around and get serious.

And by the time we get into the job market, the support we got to learn developmentally as children is long gone. As an adult, it can be embarrassing to not know. There are repercussions if we don’t get it right. We feel stupid, and we make others feel stupid if they don’t “have it together.”



That’s one of the downsides of the Knowing Paradigm, and I think we need to challenge it. Being “smart” in this way is making us not so smart in other ways. We get stuck in our roles and our “scripts.” We narrow our interests and forget how to see and act in new ways.

Fortunately, we can start growing again — by reintroducing play, pretending, performing and improvising into our work and lives. We’re not just limited to what we already know and who we already are. We can be who we are and who we’re not…yet. We can be who we’re becoming. This is called the Becoming Principle, and it underlies everything we do and teach.



Embrace the Unknown

We shun the unknown and the ambiguous, but you say that embracing it is often the best path toward growth. Why is that, and what can help us to embrace it?

Oh, yes. Don’t we all wish we could know how things are going to turn out! Should I take this job? Get married? Come out? Move to another city? Have a kid? If only I knew for sure!

But we can’t know it all, and embracing the unknown and the ambiguous is a way to get in tune with that basic fact of life. As I’ve said, data and information are important, but they’re not all there is. For many of life’s opportunities, instead of “look before you leap,” I think you should “leap before you look.” Perform that new job, that move to a new city, that new relationship — and in the process live life, learn, grow, stretch, and go places and do things that can enrich you. And that goes for things that ultimately fail, as well as succeed.

Improvisation innovator Keith Johnstone said, “Those who say ‘yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say ‘no’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.” If you perform in a more adventurous way, you will have more adventures! If we are only who we already are — then we can’t grow. That’s why I write about the Becoming Principle, which is about being who you are and who you’re not…yet, at the same time.



Performance Fundamental 2: Build ensembles everywhere.

Why are ensembles so helpful?

In addition to being a CEO and an entrepreneur, I’ve been an actor, improviser, and singer for most of my life. I’ve been part of performing ensembles through all of that and have experienced their power firsthand. Over the years, I’ve continued to observe, build, and work with groups in all walks of life and occupations, and I’ve found that the most creative and productive work environments are when you have ensembles, and in particular, ensembles that are made up of people with different skills, different experiences, different temperaments, and varied points of view. If you build with the rich material that a diverse group brings together, together you are able to accomplish much more, and with greater creativity and collective wisdom.

Here’s another, perhaps unexpected way, that ensembles are so helpful: If you want to find out more about who you are and the impact you have on others, the groups you’re in are a great place to start. When we’re part of creating something bigger than ourselves, when we’re performing as an ensemble together, we’re no longer focused simply on ourselves. We can see things through others’ eyes. Everything we do — our words, our gestures, our participation — is received and responded to by others, and that social environment helps us discover (and further grow) who we are.

Illustrations © 2016 by Drew Dernavich for PERFORMANCE BREAKTHROUGH. Approved for use by Drew Dernavich.
Illustrations © 2016 by Drew Dernavich for PERFORMANCE BREAKTHROUGH. Approved for use by Drew Dernavich.

How do leaders craft performances to develop winning ensembles?

Every performance needs a director, and as a leader, that’s you! The directors I admire respond to what’s needed in the moment, at the same time as they’re keeping an eye on the entire play. Just as important, after giving a direction, they observe what the actors do, learn from their performances, and continue to direct from there. Great directors/leaders bring a strong vision to the process but take care to create an environment in which people know that they are co-creating that vision, that what they have to give will be respected and will be used. That’s the kind of setting in which a great ensemble can be built and where people do their best work.

Here are some things to try as an ensemble director:

  1. First, model being a great ensemble member. Spend a week saying “we” every time you would normally say “I.” Observe the impact that has in conversations and meetings.
  2. Put aside some time in a meeting, or with a team, and ask the questions, “How are we doing this together? Could we do this better? How do we think we’re working and communicating together as a ____ (project team, department, company)?” Don’t rush to solve a problem or come up with a solution. Focus on having the conversation—as an ensemble.
  3. Be a casting director. Prepare for a meeting by thinking through what roles everyone might be able to play. Don’t reserve this for “special occasions,” such as project kickoffs or other new endeavors (but don’t leave them out, either). Have a conversation together to discuss who’s doing what when and where, and how the ensemble wants to work together.



Performance Fundamental 3: Listen.

You mention listening. This is something that I am constantly trying to master. What can help us become better listeners?

You’re not alone. Studies show that most of us listen only about 20% of the time. And much of what passes for listening is really just formulating what we want to say while someone else is speaking.

I think we all need to learn to listen like an improviser. When you listen improvisationally, you perform listening with a focus not on yourself and what you’re going to say next, but on what the other person is saying and doing. You let it land, let them impact you, and then respond given what you have heard. Conversation can be more like jazz — where you’re building and creating and riffing off what you hear.

Illustrations © 2016 by Drew Dernavich for PERFORMANCE BREAKTHROUGH. Approved for use by Drew Dernavich.
Illustrations © 2016 by Drew Dernavich for PERFORMANCE BREAKTHROUGH. Approved for use by Drew Dernavich.

You can build your skill as an improvisational listener by following — and practicing — the fundamental rule of improv that I mentioned earlier: “Yes, and.” Say “yes” to something the other person has said, and then add something (that’s the “and”) that connects to it and builds on it. You have to listen in order to have something to say “yes, and” to!

Another technique to help you perform as a listener is slowing down, pausing, and letting the other person’s words sink in and have their full impact on you before you respond.



Some are very uncomfortable with pauses. How do you help people to be comfortable with silence?

We have an exercise we use at Performance of a Lifetime to help people experience the amazing benefits of silence. It’s actually called Amazing Silence. It’s a conversation in which two people face each other, make eye contact, and talk about a topic that one of them really cares about. And they have to pause for 10-15 seconds before they respond to what the other person says.



At first, this takes most people straight out of their comfort zone. But after the exercise, they say that the very things that make them most uncomfortable — the eye contact, the silence, the topic of conversation — was what produced the most connection. The silence becomes much more than counting down the seconds. Slowing down and being totally focused on someone else creates a different kind of talking, a different kind of listening, and a different kind of relationship. The conversation is richer than we’re used to, and it’s another step toward the “comfort with being uncomfortable” I mentioned before.

So, while you don’t have to look into someone’s eyes for 10 seconds during your next client meeting (I mean you could, but that might not work out so well!), try making MUCH more eye contact. Push through the discomfort. And while you also might not pause for 15 seconds, pause for 3-5 seconds. Let others see you think; see that you care, that you’re interested. And let that pause create space for you to take in what’s going on around you, including — but not limited to — what you hear.


Performance Fundamental 4: Create with crap.

You devoted a chapter to creating with “crap.” One of the exercises you give is when someone does something that is stupid or annoying, write a poem or make up a song about it. Why does this help? Any examples you’ve seen in action?

I loved writing about this because we all have to deal with a lot of crap — situations and people we find frustrating, disagreeable, or worse. This can make us feel demoralized, off-balance, angry, or you fill in the blank. But as a performance director and improviser who is — by definition — committed to creating and building with everything, you can relate to the crap as a gift! It’s all just material to build with, to be creative with.

There’s an exercise I use sometimes with friends and colleagues that can help. You know the Beatles song “Hey Jude”? Change it to “Hey, Dude,” and each person makes up new lyrics (no need to rhyme) about some crappy thing they’ve been going through. Here’s my example for today (and feel free to sing it as you read it):


Hey Dude

My dog just chewed

Up the shoes I

Spent too much money for

They’re ruined and now I have to go back

Drop more hard earned cash

On Manolo Blahnik

And then, like in the original, everybody repeats the last word:

Blahnik, Blahnik, Blahnik, Blahnik

It’s fun and silly, and it definitely provided some comic relief for my misery (and crap). Creating something playful and incongruous with the crap we’re dealing with gives us some distance from our immediate reaction to it. And performing it with a group helps us go through it with others, and then we’re not so alone.

Performance BreakthroughIn my book I give the example of a client, Alicia, who had “tried everything” to get her perpetually tardy husband to show up on time. After a workshop with us, she made a deal with him that every time he was late for something they were doing together, he had to pay her back by dancing with her, five minutes for every 15 minutes he was late. Why did this help? Well, she had to do something with how she felt about the situation. She was not denying her feelings of neglect and annoyance. But she made a choice to draw upon a couple of other things she authentically likes to do (dance, love her husband) and then to perform that version of herself the next time he came home late. By performing this way she discovered that she’s an innovator of sorts who could take a highly unpleasant situation and make it downright fun.






Performance Fundamental 5:Improvise your life.

What do you mean by “improvise your life?”

I’m actually being quite literal here. Like all human beings, you’re a natural-born performer. The plays we perform in (the “work play,” the “family play,” the “morning commute play,” etc.) don’t have scripts, but we can and do become “scripted” in how we perform them. From relatively inconsequential preferences like how we take our coffee, to pretty important issues like our style of leadership, it’s as if these performances — which at one time were new and fresh (and improvised) — were always there and now they define who we really are.

But if you keep improvising (walk and talk a new way, ask questions when you would normally say nothing or argue, use different body language, etc.) you can continue to invent who you are, what you do, how you do it, and how you feel, see, and think. That’s why your ability to improvise is so important. Not just when you’re forced to by circumstances beyond your control (although that’s a really good time for it); and not just when you need to come up with some new ideas (ditto), but all the time.

So I’m saying perform every conversation, every interaction, as an improvisational scene. Listen with laser focus, say “yes, and” to everything that comes your way, and actively create with it. It’s a very different way to be in the world and in your life. You can begin this by starting to take notice of what you ALWAYS do. Maybe when you come home from work you always mutter hello to your significant other, then turn on the TV or pick up your iPad. Start improvising a new way to come home. Say hello with a big smile and turn on some music and start to dance. Get together with a different group of friends than usual. Talk to strangers. And when you go back to work, kick off a meeting with a story. Or an improv game.

What’s most gratifying about your work?

At my core I’m a rebel, and I’ve spent my life and career challenging every dysfunctional status quo I’ve met. And I love being able to give people the support to challenge their own status quos, to shake things up, to break the rules and re-imagine the roles that hold them back, and create new possibilities for themselves and for their companies, their clients, their families and communities.

There’s a vibrant and growing community of people from all walks of life, all over the world (all the world is indeed a stage), who have discovered the power of performance as a transformative force. One of the most gratifying places where we shake things up is in the nonprofit arena — using our Becoming Principle performance approach with organizations that bring people together who don’t typically come together — cops and inner-city kids, poor people and affluent people, black and white people — and, through performing together, enable them to see, hear, and relate to one another in new, more effective ways.

You’ve worked for over twenty years with corporate teams on leadership, communication, and teamwork. What observations can you share? Do most teams have the same issues?Cathy Salit

I’d say the common thread is the notion of identity: “I am who I am,” and, “We are who we are.” It can be pretty hard and weird at first for people to perform in new and different ways. The whole idea of performing often strikes them as phony, inauthentic, “not really me.” I understand that. But if we want to start growing again — learning and developing in new ways — we’re going to need to break out of our current “characters” and current scripts. To grow, you have to be both who you are and who you’re not, at the same time.

So my experience over the years is that people surprise themselves. They discover that this performance approach can help them create their own personal performance breakthroughs. They surprise each other. Teams are able to create an entirely different way to run the Tuesday morning meeting by performing the meeting — calling “cut” and “take two” when (per usual) it goes south. Leaders can perform difficult conversations, where they’re trying out different lines and listening in new ways. People discover that performing in this way — far from being inauthentic — taps into their innate multiplicity and creativity. And that’s as authentic as you can get.



Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work

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