An Excerpt from Learned Excellence

Eric Potterat, Alan Eagle

February 01, 2024


A comprehensive and practical guide to the mental disciplines of high performance from the former lead psychologist for the US Navy SEALs

Top performers aren’t born that way—they learn excellence.

Dr. Eric Potterat, one of the world’s leading performance psychologists, developed the mental toughness curriculum for the US Navy SEALs and has helped top athletes, military personnel, executives, and first responders improve their mental discipline. In his new book, Learned Excellence, Potterat distills his insights into an accessible guide for anyone looking to perform at their best.

In this excerpt from Chapter 4, Potterat explains how we can embark on our journey toward excellence by simply changing our mindset.


Choose Your Mindset

You’ve likely heard of pickleball, a game that’s sort of like tennis but played on a smaller court with a plastic ball and an oversize Ping-Pong paddle. Invented in 1965, it has recently grown in popularity (by some accounts, the fastest-growing sport in the world) because it’s fun, easy to learn, and just about anyone can play. Many people treat it as more of a social engagement than a competitive sport. Sure, they keep score, but the true intent is to chat it up with the couple on the other side of the net.

Not me. When it comes to pickleball, I’m competitive as hell. My wife, Andrea, and I used to play doubles frequently, and I would always look for weaknesses in my opponents and do my best to exploit them. When we were close to winning, I upped my game. That is why I said “used to”: she will rarely play doubles with me now, because I get too competitive and detract from what most of the other doubles teams are after, a social and fun afternoon. I developed these competitive traits through years of playing tennis in my younger days. I used to watch how the more experienced guys who beat me approached the game mentally, and did my best to emulate them. Now I automatically adopt that mindset whenever I step on a court, pickle or otherwise.

But, in my role as a clinical and performance psychologist, I listen and I’m empathetic. I may look for weaknesses, but for the purpose of helping my client, not to beat them. I’m persistent and tenacious, but not competitive; winning isn’t the point. Different role, different mindset required for success.

NBA basketball star Stephen Curry is quoted as saying, “Success is not an accident. Success is actually a choice.” To which I would add, so is mindset. (Then I would say, “And keep hitting those threes, Steph,” and he would smile and give me a high five.) You can go with your default, or you can choose the mindset required to be the best. To do that, first you need to know where you are going. Think about the roles you have in your life. You are a student, an employee, a manager and leader, an entrepreneur. You are a parent, a sibling, a son or daughter. You may be a spouse or partner. You are a friend. You are a member of communities, be it a team, a troupe, a school, a nonprofit, a union, a club. You have many roles, and excellence in each of those roles requires a certain mindset.

To choose your mindset, first pick one of your roles—the one where you are a performer. For most of us, that’s our job or profession. Write down the top traits you think are required for success. “To be a successful _____, I need to be (more) _____.” These may be things you have observed firsthand from watching and talking to others, or picked up in articles, blogs, or books by and about the best performers in your field. For example, the mindset traits of a successful teacher (patient, strict, listening, commanding, empathetic, flexible, forgiving) are very different from those of a prosecutor (stern, tough, unforgiving, competitive, pragmatic, relentless, ready to exploit any weakness).

As you go through this process and are writing down those traits you aspire to for each role, it may feel similar to the values process we went through in the last chapter. But while values are inward facing, capturing and codifying the things we care about most deeply, mindset traits are outward facing. What are the personality characteristics we want to bring to bear on each of our roles? For the most part we don’t want to change our values, we want to understand them. But mindset traits, those are changeable. If reaching our fullest potential requires a different mindset, we can make that happen.

As I noted earlier, most of the top performers I have worked with share a common set of mindset traits. These may become part of the lists you create: noncomplacent; always looking for an edge; humble; tenacious; want to be part of something bigger; driven by mission, not material gains. Above all else, they universally possess a “growth mindset.” This is a term coined and popularized by Dr. Carol Dweck, who defines it as:

Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. Those who believe their talents are innate gifts possess a more fixed mindset. People with growth mindsets tend to achieve more than those with fixed mindsets because they worry less about looking smart and invest more energy into learning. 

We are all born curious, wired to seek out challenges and opportunities to learn. This is why toddlers approach strangers, dogs, and ice cream with eyes wide open. They drop things just to see what happens (doesn’t that sound like fun?). A wealth of research backs this up, including recent studies that show that children take on such “exploration” even when they understand the potential costs (that is, failure) at stake.

Most of us lose that natural growth mindset as we age into puberty and young adulthood. But not everybody. In findings that reverberated with eager parents everywhere, Dweck and team’s research shows that children who receive a higher proportion of “process praise” from their parents as toddlers are bound for greater academic success several years on, and that success is derived primarily from their growth mindset. If a parent praises your effort and approach on something (“I love how you kept trying!”), you are better set up for success than if they praise the outcome or person (“Nice painting, aren’t you a great artist!”). Why does this “process praise” lead to success? Because it instills in kids the belief that intelligence and other skills are malleable. They can be improved through effort and process. This in turn gives them more confidence to take on challenges, helping them build those skills. It’s a self-fulfilling, virtuous cycle.


Excerpted from Learned Excellence: Mental Disciplines for Leading and Winning from the World's Top Performers by Eric Potterat and Alan Eagle, published by Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2024 by Eric Potterat and Alan Eagle.

About the Authors

Eric Potterat, PhD , is a clinical and performance psychologist and a leading expert in individual and organizational performance optimization.

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Alan Eagle is an author and executive communications consultant, helping leaders and companies shape and tell their stories. He spent 16 years at Google, partnering with executives to communicate the company's story to clients, partners, employees, and the public.

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