2 experiences you need for getting to the next level

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, 1776, David McCullough tells the story of John Greenwood, a sixteen-year-old boy who in May of 1775 heard news of Lexington and Concord. The American Revolutionary War was underway, and Greenwood resolved to walk the 150 miles by himself to Boston with little more than the clothes on his back.

Stopping at wayside taverns, he’d play songs on his fife for soldiers who would ask him where he was going. He responded, “I told them I was going to fight for my country.”

Once he got to Cambridge, he learned of the battle raging at Bunker Hill. Immediately, he was seized-upon by a gruesome scene. While walking down the road leading to the fight, wagons passed him by carrying piles of dead bodies and severely wounded men.

Greenwood was terrified and wished he hadn’t enlisted. “I could positively feel my hair stand on end,” he said. But then something happened that forever changed him. He saw a lone soldier walking down the road. In his own words:

“… a Negro man, wounded in the back of his neck, passed me and, his collar being open and he not having anything on except his shirt and trousers, I saw the wound quite plainly and the blood running down his back. I asked him if it hurt him much, and he did not seem to mind it. He said no that he was only to get a plaster put on it and meant to return. You cannot conceive what encouragement this immediately gave me. I began to feel brave and like a soldier from that moment, and fear never troubled me afterward during the whole war.”

Experience #1: Seeing someone else operate without fear

Greenwood was changed in an instant. He saw a man seemingly unaffected by what should have been an excruciatingly painful wound.

He saw a man who had passed a personal point of no return. A “lone soldier” who was so absorbed by a situation and a cause that he didn’t notice his own pain.

Greenwood realized at that moment his extreme self-consciousness, which was holding him back. In seeing someone else operate from a higher mental plane, Greenwood was immediately brought-up to that plane himself.

Courage, commitment, and confidence replaced fear. He stopped worrying about himself. He stopped noticing every sensation in his body. Instead, his mind was captured by the moment and importance of what was happening around him. In his own words, he never was troubled by fear again throughout the remainder of the war.

If you’re having a hard time being focused, or if you’re plagued by fear to do what you believe you should be doing, then you need exposure to “battle.” You need to see someone who has passed their point of no return. You need to look at someone who no longer cares about temporary discomfort.

How do you get such exposure?

You have a few options.

When it comes to Greenwood, he had to walk 150 miles on foot to get to the place of battle. You may need to walk the equivalent of 150 miles on foot to see what’s going on at the frontlines of whatever “battle” you’re attempting to fight.

Who is on the frontlines?

Who are the battle heroes in your field or cause?

How can you get closer exposure to these people?

How can you see them at work?

How can you tap into their mindset and mentality?

You may need to work or sacrifice for a few months or years to get such exposure. This preparation period will soften the soil of your heart and mind, allowing you to be completely open and receptive when the moment comes.

In the book, The Compound Effect, Darren Hardy describes having such an experience. He had invested in a mentorship with Paul J. Meyer, who was the founder of several companies and an innovator in the self-development space. In Hardy’s words:

“Whenever I thought I was really doing things, really playing at a high level, I’d get around Paul — he was my reality check. What he did before lunch was mind-boggling to me… After spending a couple of hours with Paul, hearing about all his plans and ventures and activities, my head would spin. Just trying to make sense of all he had going on exhausted me. After time with Paul, I’d want to go take a nap! But my association with him raised my game. His walking pace was my running pace. It expanded my ideas about how big I could play and how ambitious I could be. You have to get around people like that!”

Once you’ve been adequately exposed to what’s possible, there’s no going back. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. has said, “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

You absolutely can create these transformational experiences. But you’ll need to put yourself in the heat of battle proactively. You can’t have such skills on the sidelines. You must make yourself vulnerable, even with doubts and fears streaming through your system.

Experience #2: Have someone you love/respect tell it to you straight

It’s nice for the ego to get constant praise and affirmation. However, having people around you who hold you to a continually elevated standard is more powerful for your long-term development.

Hal Eyring, a former business professor at Stanford and also a religious leader, tells the story of getting straight A’s one semester while in college. He was taking several challenging physics classes and was excited to share his success with his mother, yet was humbled by her response. “That’s what we expect of you,” she told him. Reflecting on that experience several decades later, Eyring stated, “Sometimes the greatest kindness we could receive would be to have someone expect more from us than we do because they see more clearly our divine heritage.”

According to loads of research in psychology, it’s critical to be surrounded by people and leaders who hold you to a high standard and expectation — a concept known as “The Pygmalion Effect.” Unquestionably, we as people rise or fall to the expectations of those around us.

Receiving praise and affirmation is indeed essential. But rarely will the affirmation trigger within you a powerful conviction that you can do better. Instead, what you need is someone to hold you to a higher standard than you carry yourself.

You need someone who you know loves you enough to tell you that you could do better. That’s one of the reasons I decided to marry my wife. Other girls would tell me how great I was, and that didn’t inspire me. For some reason, I never felt like I could impress my wife. I always felt like I had to earn her approval and respect. That created a challenge that led me to become more than I thought I was.

Even still, after nearly six years of being married, Lauren will make comments that light a fire under me. Despite being physically fit, she recently told me I was starting to get a “Dad-Bod.” Although I disagree, I now have even more of a reason to get into the best shape of my life. I want to prove to her that I can be more fit than I was when we were in our early 20’s.

Getting critical feedback and being around nay-sayers is two entirely different things. You need to know that the feedback you’re getting is honest. You need to know that the person who is talking to you cares about your best interest. Their feedback is coming from a positive, not a negative place. You need to know that they want you to be successful and expect more of you than you’re currently expecting of yourself.

Recently, I submitted two book proposals to my publisher for the next two books I’m going to write. I was humbled continuously as my agent would send back drafts and tell me, “What are you doing? You’re so much better than this.”

While writing Willpower Doesn’t Work, I had hired Ryan Holiday to help me develop the book. With each draft or conversation, he would continually say things similar. “You can do so much better than this.” Even after the book was published, Ryan told me, “You can write a better book than that.” I respect him enough to know he isn’t merely rude, but honest.

You need people around you who hold you to a higher standard.

You need people to tell you when you’re not performing at the level you could be.

You need hard feedback that will cause you to honestly reflect and dig deeper into yourself than you’ve been willing to dig in a long time.

You then need to go to a quiet place and ask yourself some hard questions. You probably need to meditate and or pray. You need to redevelop a sense of resolve and commitment to play at a higher level.

You then need to do the hard work of pushing past your emotional blocks. You need to rise above your current sense of who you believe you are. You need to exceed even the expectations of those who believe you can do better. You need to show up at a level no one else is willing to go.

This is how you get to the next level and the next.

You get humbled by people who know you could do better.

You then rise to their expectations and exceed them. Because ultimately, you need to hold yourself to higher standards than anyone else is willing to hold you. But to get to that level, you need to be told straight that you could do much better. You need to be humble and willing to receive that feedback. You then need to prove them wrong and show them that you’re so much more than even they think you can be.

I love that my wife recently called me out. I’m more committed than ever to get into the best shape of my life.

I love that my agent recently called me out. It led me to produce the best writing I’ve ever done in my life. I’m on the brink of writing two books that will fundamentally change the trajectory of my career. I couldn’t have done that if I had an agent who had low expectations for me and just wanted a quick-win. She reminded me of the vision I have for myself and told me to get up and play a bigger game.


Who is holding you to a higher standard?

How often are you getting honest and real feedback?

Who are your mentors?

Who are your friends?

How regularly are you have these 2 types of triggering experiences?

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This article first appeared on Medium.