The Performance Flywheel

It turns out that each of our lives is powered by a flywheel. It is largely invisible, and it differs in the direction it turns, the velocity at which it rotates, and the effort expended at turning it.

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This past week Jeff Bezos announced plans to step down as CEO of Amazon, the company he founded in 1994. As one of the most accomplished CEOs in history, Bezos built one of the most valuable companies in history, redefining commerce and pioneering new ways of innovating and business building that will continue to impact the way we live our lives and how we lead for years to come. One of Bezos’s most important insights came as he was transitioning the company from an online book retailer to an “everything store.” He realized that he needed to keep prices incredibly low, which would drive more and more customers to the Amazon marketplace. That would, in turn, drive more sellers and greater product selection. The ever-increasing volumes would then allow Amazon to amortize its continuing investment in supply chain and fulfillment capabilities. This virtuous cycle was explained by business author Jim Collins as a “flywheel” – a machine that is hard to move by itself but that, with constant pressure at different points in the wheel, begins to turn by itself at increasing velocity through a self-reinforcing loop.

Of all the many lessons Bezos has given us, the importance of the flywheel may be the most significant and enduring. Not just in business but in our personal lives. It turns out that each of our lives is powered by a flywheel. It is largely invisible, and it differs in the direction it turns, the velocity at which it rotates, and the effort expended at turning it. Perhaps you’ve heard of people who feel like their lives are “spinning out of control.” Or who have “turned” things around. Or, for whom things feel almost “effortless.” What is at work, in almost all cases, is a flywheel – a vicious or virtuous cycle that powers results in life. Although each individual’s flywheel is unique, each one contains the same basic components. Let’s start with physical vitality – the sense of dis-ease or well-being. Vitality has its own separate flywheel – the virtuous or vicious cycle of sleep, diet, and exercise. Vitality drives mood – your emotional and energetic state at any given moment. Mood affects the meaning you give to your circumstances. The same difficult conversation at work will show up to one person as something to dread and to another person as a welcome opportunity to learn, grow, and deepen a relationship. Meaning drives the actions that show up for you as even possible, and ultimately what you decide to do. In the hypothetical work meeting, the first person’s meaning will blind them to a set of effective actions that are clearly available to the other person. Ultimately, the actions you take over time form your habits and the results you get in life. The more positive those results, the less anxious you are, and the greater the likelihood that your head hits the pillow at the end of the day, allowing you to enjoy a sound night of sleep. The more and more this cycle repeats itself, the more likely the flywheel will build a momentum of its own, and the less effort you will need to exert to make it all happen. And, of course, the opposite is true. A vicious cycle can have just as much velocity and momentum, just in a different, less effective direction.

Here are some questions for you. What does your flywheel look like? In which direction and at what speed is it turning? What part of the flywheel has the most leverage and is in need of the most attention? What is one small thing you can begin to do (or not do) right now to nudge the flywheel in the right direction?

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