The Cognitive Trick That Elite Athletes Use To Achieve Seemingly Impossible Goals
People who exhibit “superhuman” strength are able to do so only when they focus on a purpose greater than themselves.
In July 2011, I was crawling down the aisle of a plane on my hands and knees while passengers screamed around me. We were on a flight from Spain to the US, and we thought our number was up.
The plane had hit a bout of extreme turbulence just as I’d left the restroom, causing the aircraft to shake violently. Nearby flight attendants were also slammed to the ground. The lights flickered, and food trays flew across the aisles.
I was frozen with panic; I felt as if I were watching the entire episode happen from outside my body. It was, without a doubt, one of the most surreal and terrifying moments I’ve experienced to date. Then two young women in the back of the aisle began to sob hysterically. “Please! I don’t want to die!” one said.
Without thinking, I lifted myself from the floor of the plane and took their hands into my own icy palms. In a firm, calm voice, I told them that everything would be okay. And I kept saying that until the plane stopped shaking.
Transcending our limitations
Years later, I’m still struck by how I was able to move beyond my own fear so I could comfort two strangers. Where did that courage come from? And more importantly, how can I harness it in other areas of my life?
According to Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, who write about the accomplishments of elite athletes in their new book Peak Performance, there’s a simple phenomenon that allows people to overcome their fears and limitations: a concept called self-transcendence.
While researching their book, Stulberg and Magness interviewed countless scientists and world-renowned athletes. They found that people who exhibited this kind of “superhuman” strength were able to do so only when they chose to focus on a purpose greater than themselves.
Take the story of American long-distance runner Jennifer Pharr Davis who in 2011 achieved a new record by becoming the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail in less than 50 days: 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes, to be precise.
An avid hiker, Davis and her husband, Brew, had spent three years preparing for their ascent. But they couldn’t have predicted the severe physical toll it would take on their bodies. An onset of shin splints and diarrhea left Pharr Davis frayed and psychologically distressed two weeks into their climb. On her fourth day of severe discomfort, she finally caved and told her husband she was quitting.
But her husband wasn’t having it. He looked into her eyes on that New Hampshire road and reminded her of everything he had given up so that they could climb together as a team. It was in that moment that Davis realized she’d been spending the hike focusing only on herself.
As a result of this revelation, Davis began to see her action in a profound spiritual context. “I wanted to honor my God, to get back to the reasons that got me hooked on hiking to begin with—a love for the wilderness, a love for my husband, and to use my gift,” she said. Despite her physical discomfort, she began hiking with a renewed sense of purpose—leading her to eventually shatter the previous record by 26 hours and earning her the title of National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.
Stulberg and Magness refer to this paradigm shift as “ego minimization.” They point to a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where researchers used fMRI scans to see what happens inside the brain of people presented with threatening messages.
Prior to their evaluation, each participant was asked to first reflect on their core values. What the scientists discovered is somewhat surprising: The part of the brain associated with “positive valuations” showed heightened neural activity when participants read the threatening messages. Though it sounds counterintuitive, instead of shutting down, their brains actually moved toward a challenge when faced with a threat.
Perhaps this can explain how I was able to overcome my fear all those years ago. My core belief in the importance of being of service to others allowed me to unfreeze from the floor of the plane. By minimizing my ego, I was able to detach myself from the situation and take action.
But self-transcendence isn’t necessarily limited to helping others. Sometimes it can be motivated by the pursuit of a higher ideal.
In the 1997 film, Gattaca, for example, we learn early on that Ethan Hawkes’ character, Vincent, has always dreamt of going into space. Yet because of a rare heart condition, he is repeatedly told he never will. Even his brother, Anton, who is the genetically superior brother, underestimates his abilities. Towards the end of the movie, however, Vincent beats his brother at their childhood game of “Chicken” in the ocean, wherein both swim out as far as they can and the first to come back to shore loses. An incredulous Anton demands to know how he was able to win. Vincent gives the perfect answer:
“You want to know how I did it? I never saved anything for the swim back.” In other words, his desire to move past societally-imposed limitations allowed him to transcend even the fear of death.
As Stulberg and Magness write in their book, “A self-transcending purpose doesn’t come from thin air. It comes from inside you.” Like Vincent, I too have had to swim in order to save my life. When my older brother died unexpectedly in early 2004, I found myself floundering, unable to find my way back to shore. For weeks after, I retreated into some of the darkest corners of myself, spending days without being able to eat or even leave my bed. At the time, I was studying in a foreign country, and couldn’t bear the thought of resuming my classes.
Yet the day I went to withdraw from school, I was approached by a kind professor. He looked into my grief-eaten face with compassion and asked me to reconsider. “You can honor your brother by finishing your studies,” he said.
At that moment, I realized I had no choice but to transcend my despair.I knew my brother would have wanted me to continue. Although I didn’t get better overnight, the idea that I could honor him gave me a renewed sense of purpose that saved me from drowning.
Service as a mindful choice
A wide body of research suggests that minimizing our focus on the self increases our motivation in less heroic, mundane activities as well. An earlier study published in The Academy of Management Review found that hospital janitors who cleaned bedpans and mopped floors derived more meaning from their work when it was framed as helping patients heal. By keeping the hospital clean, they were preventing vulnerable patients from getting sicker.
When we recognize that our actions are inextricably tied to the greater good, even unpleasant chores like taking out the trash or washing dishes become acts of mindfulness. Zen monks have long internalized this lesson; they seek to achieve detachment through a spirit of selflessness. In their daily Zen practice, activities like cooking and cleaning become their own form of meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh explains that mindful living is an art: “You do not have to be a monk or living in a monastery to practice mindfulness. You can practice it anytime, while driving your car or doing housework.”
Ultimately, it’s fitting that we are most capable of achieving great things when we manage to transcend ourselves. Whether we’re holding someone’s hand on a plane or mopping floors here on earth, we’re at our best when we recognize that the world is much bigger than us.
NEXT STORY: The High Cost of Low Engagement