Attributes, skills and optimal performance
Do you ever wonder why some individuals, companies and organizations can power through to success, while others fall by the wayside and quit no matter how much talent they possess? How about why some people can’t seem to focus and prioritize? How about why some people can’t seem to get started on their goal or, if they do, can’t complete it? Why can apparent underdogs perform and prevail? Why can Davids beat Goliaths? It all comes down to attributes, which are not to be confused with skills. Many people use the terms interchangeably, but they’re really two different things. After reading retired Navy SEAL Rich Diviney’s outstanding book “The Attributes-25 Hidden Drivers of Optimal Performance,” I have a much better understanding of these terms. Once you’ve read this exceptionally well-written book, you will, too. “Understanding your attributes is one of the keys to unlocking your potential,” according to Diviney.
When you find yourself facing an uncertain, scary, or perhaps even dangerous situation, “how you perform is much less about what you know than who you are,” according to Diviney. In other words, its’s not your skills that will power you through the situation. It’s your attributes! Attributes guide our performance. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines skill as follows: the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance. Dexterity or coordination, especially in the execution of learned physical tasks. Attributes, on the other hand, are defined as: a quality, character, or characteristic ascribed to someone or something. With these definitions in mind, let’s take a closer look at the critical differences between skills and attributes.
First off, skills can be taught and learned. Given enough time and enough practice, you can usually master a skill. It’s not always easy, but you can do it. Our brains are wired to acquire skills. Skills tell us what to do in specific situations and environments. They direct our behavior and tell us how to get certain things done. Another way to determine if something is a skill is to ask yourself the following. Can I measure, assess and test it? If so, it’s likely to be a skill. We see an abundance of skills in sports. Consider the great basketball, rugby, football and skiing stars (to name a few) who dazzle us with their respective sports. Skills will always remain important, but they are subordinate to attributes. Skills only tell us how well someone can do a specific thing or behave in a predictable, known environment. They can’t tell us how someone will react in unpredictable and complex situations.
So, what are some of these sometimes-hidden traits that Diviney calls “hidden drivers of performance that apply just as readily in the civilian world as they do in the military?” What do people mean when they use the phrase “The Right Stuff?” What enables some people to perform at the highest level no matter how badly things go south? Diviney says they are innate, i.e., are born with them, but that they’re easy to overlook and conflate with visible skills. Some are familiar: resilience, grit, the ability to think on your feet, situational awareness and decisiveness, to name a few. The old skydiving joke offers a good example. If you have a problem up there, don’t worry! You have the “rest of your life” to figure it out. And that could be anywhere from five to forty seconds, depending on altitude. This is when the ability not to panic but to perform comes into play. There are five steps to go through to solve your parachute problem, according to Diviney. “Assess the situation, decipher the problem, decide which skill is needed to solve it, implement that skill and then evaluate whether that solution worked.” If it doesn’t work, you repeat the cycle. Note that only one of those steps involves a skill. The other four are attributes. It’s similar to the OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) I wrote about in Surthriving in a VUCA world.
Diviney groups attributes into five main categories: grit, mental acuity, drive, leadership and teamability. Each of these categories contains several components. There aren’t many people who possess a high degree of all the attributes on this list, Diviney is quick to point out, but these are the most common and most applicable to the broadest range of optimal performance. I’ve chosen to deep-dive into Grit, as it’s my favorite. Diviney says that grit is not really an attribute because it’s not one thing. It’s the result of several attributes combined. Diviney breaks grit down into four component attributes: courage, perseverance, adaptability and resilience. And you can’t make it through high-stress training programs like BUD/S without reasonably high levels of all four. BUD/S doesn’t care what type of athlete you are – it’s designed to strip you down to your core where you can only draw on your attributes.
How versus could
My BUD/S class (Class 39 EC) was filled with what I thought were unbelievably strong candidates. Yet, when the shit came raining down on us (not literally, of course) in Hell Week, the vast majority of them packed it in – some in the first hour! All special ops training is designed to recruit people with the right attributes. As Diviney wrote, “not recruits who knew how to do the job, but men who could do the job!” Skills can be taught later. But spec-ops people aren’t the only people with grit. Optimal performers in all fields need grit. You find the same attribute in a single parent working several jobs to support the kids or a patient enduring yet another round of chemotherapy.
Peak performance versus optimal performance
People often speak about peak performance but pay little attention to optimal performance. And that’s a shame. Peak performance is just what it says. It’s a peak, an apex from which the only way to go is down. You can’t sustain peak performance forever. Optimal performance, on the other hand, is the ability to do the very best you can in any environment. And in some cases, that can mean simply surviving! Optimal performance begins in the brain, and it’s about doing the best we can no matter what life throws at us. This post was the very tip of the iceberg about optimal human performance. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in drivers of optimal performance. As Diviney says, “once you understand your attributes and those of the people around you, you can create optimal performance in all areas of your life.” To find out your attributes, – in case the last 18 months haven’t made you aware of them – go to: https://theattributes.com/ . It’s well worth a visit.