Three Keys to Maintaining High Performance Or, Three Hundred Nutcrackers & One Tough Nut

Posted on by Scott Ferguson

maintaining high performance

While reading an interview with a dancer in “The Nutcracker” who had performed the lead role of Marya over 300 times, I was struck by her high level of excitement and interest in the character even after so many years and performances. (Do her feet hurt at night, I also wondered.) Now age 26–her first Nutcracker part was at age 12—the dancer had, through the years, performed various roles as a student and professional dancer. What contributes to her motivation to do the same thing over-and over while maintaining her level of quality and not growing bored? How do some musicians sing the same song for decades? After mastering something, how does anyone maintain a high level of performance?

My theory is three factors must be present:

  • enjoyment of what we are doing
  • learning new somethings
  • freedom to go beyond the obvious


Enjoyment. To maintain performance, I have to enjoy what I’m doing and have a genuine interest in doing it. Even menial tasks can be appreciated when they are part of a fundamental enjoyment derived from what we do. Fundamental enjoyments might include feeling useful, entertaining, helping others, or making money (some people really are money-motivated). The dancer loves dancing and genuinely loves The Nutcracker. I felt I was helping others while designing urinary catheters and various other products in the medical device industry. I felt useful while working at McDonald’s in high school.

Learning. Somethings to learn might be ideas, techniques, processes, relationships, ways of being, communicating, or thinking—always there is something new to learn no matter how much we know or think we know. Admittedly, sometimes we have to look for something to learn. When I was a grinder slogging through a job and surviving my workplace, I took advantage of an opportunity to learn by observing disastrous managers and decision makers who taught me “how not to do things”. Those learnings by observation contributed to maintaining my high performance.

Freedom. After mastery of anything done repeatedly, there is a need for freedom to create, to explore, to go beyond the surface of what’s done and dig deeper. Perhaps this resembles ownership. The Nutcracker dancer feels she owns the role of Marya and the director gives her freedom to explore that role. Likewise, after cooking 10,000 burgers at McDonald’s, I felt I had some insight on how to make a consistent product with more efficient processes—it wasn’t rocket science. Later, as an engineer working to improve the quality of urinary catheters, it made sense to listen to the hands-on manufacturing employees who had assembled hundreds of thousands of urinary catheters. Even in repetitive tasks, there is space to go deeper. Musicians who sing the same song for decades still find new ways to explore the song.

What do you think? Recall something at which you have been very successful and think for a moment. Were enjoyment, learning, and freedom present? How can we incorporate more enjoyment, learning, and freedom into our daily lives?

Scott Ferguson Finding Freedom in Life

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