Dave is visiting Dair’s office for a coffee (soy latte of course, no milk) and a chat. Over the past months his constant global touring schedule has meant this has become a rare treat. However, the small talk very rapidly turns to a topic that has been playing on his mind recently: failure.

“People very quickly brand themselves as a failure. They think the things that they want to, or should, achieve are out of reach and so they don’t look at the tools of trying to get better at the margins. And the concept of margins goes out of the window once you consider yourself a failure”.

I sense Dave is about to embark on what we refer to in the office as ‘doing a Dave Alred’. In essence this means you move from chatting casually about a given topic to rapidly immersing yourself and your audience into an in-depth and impassioned diatribe. When you’re with the man himself it’s advisable to simply jump on and enjoy the ride. However, it’s not the way to prepare an article – at least one that approaches readable, so I yank on the reins,

“When you say ‘the concept of margins’, what do you mean exactly?”

Dave is happy to oblige with his explanation,

“Let’s just say someone goes into the gym and they want to get stronger. She bench presses 25kg but then her friend pushes 50kg. She’s distraught. She goes for 50kg and of course, she fails. Rather than saying at this point of time, ‘my level is 25kg so I’m going to work towards 27-28kg’, she focuses on the 50 kg. She is judging herself against her mates’ numbers and making them hers. This is ironic as her friends’ ability has zero relevance to her own. In focusing on the 50kg she becomes blind to her own margin”.

I chip in, “So the margin is about incremental improvement?”

If you are striving to be a little bit better than your previous self then you’re in the Ugly Zone and you’re winning. That’s the recipe for improvement

“Improvements always happen at the margin. Everyone can be successful at their own margin. The margin is the Ugly Zone. If you are striving to be a little bit better than your previous self then you’re in the Ugly Zone and you’re winning. That’s the recipe for improvement”.

Here’s the thing. As humans, we obsess about outcomes. We constantly compare ourselves against, often unrealistic, outcomes and the outcomes of others. And where we don’t do that, institutions impose it on us. We’re so driven by the ‘result’ that our very language has become infected with failure. Dave explains,

“As a coach there are two ways I can deal with results. I can tell you that you got 7 out of 20 or I can tell you that you got 7 right. If you get 8 right the following week that’s an improvement on your previous self. That should been classed as success. Unfortunately we want to rank people, particularly kids, to label them, put them in boxes. The challenge is that we potentially destroy them by constantly grading them against a higher figure. Eventually, many start off by thinking ‘I can’t do something’ as a protection against the perceived failure. That’s a tragedy. It can affect every aspect of someone’s life”.

Dave Alred

It’s an important point. Apply yourself to working at the margins and over time you will improve on your previous self but learning and improvement does not happen in a straight line. Some days we plateau, some days we improve. Sometimes we need to go backward to go forward. Success comes from committing to a process and a task. I make the point to Dave, “Isn’t it critical that we have a solid sense of where we were, to understand how far we’ve come?”

Dave is now at his most animated,

“Absolutely! Recording how your facts is crucial. And when you achieve improvement at your margin you have to celebrate it. Allow yourself to feel good about yourself. Write it down, by hand. Keep a diary of the good stuff: facts that show your improvement. Focus on achievements and simply observe your challenges. You won’t answer every challenge straight away but it doesn’t matter in the slightest. What matters is capturing ‘What was good about today’.

I can almost feel the cynicism oozing from some reading this so I reluctantly and temporarily take up their cause, “Isn’t there a danger that this becomes all a bit, well, ‘happy-clappy’ ?”

Dave fixes me with a stare and I hold up my hands, making the poiunt that I’m just trying to look at things from all sides. He’s winding me up. He faces this type of objection all the time,

“Definitely not. First you must recognise what you have achieved each day but remember you need to substantiate with that with facts. Your facts. What have you actually done?11 press-ups instead of 10? Amazing. A better run through on your piano scales? Incredible. Ten minutes running without stopping two days on the trot? Awesome. The nature of the goal is irrelevant. Record what you do after every session, particularly every ‘first’ because they are the moments when you actually improve and extend your own margins”.

“What about when you don’t improve or plateau?”

“When you hit a plateau you keep recording but it might be time to be creative. Come at things from a different angle. Play with your options. Maybe 11 minutes running is too much. Can you do two runs of six minutes each with a rest in between? Then you’ve managed 12 minutes running! Whatever you’re doing think about how you can re-work the challenge”.

It’s no good beating up on your performance if you’re not preparing your body, mind and emotional self properly.

Another thing to note: hygiene factors. Don’t expect performance improvements in anything; physical, intellectual or skills based if you’re suffering from lack of sleeppoor nutrition or you have the flu. Dave picks up the theme,

“It’s no good beating up on your performance if you’re not preparing your body, mind and emotional self properly. That’s something else you should be recording too. It’s at times like this you need to re-set. On occasion we all go backwards. By writing it down it gives you the perspective and confidence to carry on – even if your starting point is behind where you first started. All that means is that you’ve adjusted your margins”.

Knowing my own shortcomings I mention that it’s a lot of writing to do. Dave gives me a pained look,

“But how will you know how far you’ve come? Most of us are vulnerable to looking at ourselves through filters that are tinted by any number of influences, from being tired to having an argument. If you’re capturing your personal facts then you are able to assess yourself objectively – and provide evidence to yourself that, yes, you have improved. Writing it down is like depositing money in the bank, it’s a reward not a chore. It’s a great way to take care of yourself”.

Take care of ourselves? That’s a novel idea. We should try it. We deserve it.

After all we’re a success now. And we’re only going to get better.

If you’d like a little more help from Dr. Dave Alred try our ‘One Week To Peak’ audio programme.

Dr. Dave Alred MBE is the author of The Pressure Principle.