The Art of Strengths Coaching

A is for Attention, Application And Achievement  

There are many models for doing fine work. One approach is to focus on attention, application and achievement.

“Attention is everything,” we are told. “What we focus on, we become.” Everything is food and the things we focus on can affect our personal and professional lives.

Winifred Gallagher describes this approach in her book Rapt: Attention and The Focused Life. She writes:

Living the focused life is not about trying to feel happy all the time…rather, it’s about treating your mind as you would a private garden and being as careful as possible about what you introduce and allow to grow there.

Over time, a commitment to challenging, focused work and leisure produces not only better daily experience, but also a more complex, interesting person: the long-range benefit of the focused life.

The first step is to pay attention to what you are doing. The second step is to apply yourself in the appropriate way to achieve your goals.

This can mean different things in different situations. Sometimes it can mean being relentless. Sometimes it can mean relaxing. Frequently it means following the key strategies that will give you the greatest chance of success.

The third step is to follow good habits. It is to keep doing the right things in the right way. It is to keep doing your best on the way towards achieving your picture of success.

Looking back on your life, when have you taken these steps in your own way? You may have been following a passion, doing a stimulating project or simply enjoying the moment.

What did you do right then to pay attention? How did you apply yourself in the appropriate way? What happened as a result of taking these steps?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to explore the following themes.

Describe a specific situation in the past when you chose to pay attention to what you wanted to do, applied yourself in the appropriate way and achieved your aim.

Describe the specific things you did to go through these steps.

Describe the specific things that happened as a result of going through these steps.


Looking at your own life, what are the things to which you pay attention? Do you pursue your passions or put these to the back of the queue? Do you focus on finding positive solutions or simply worry about negative problems?

Do you build on what you can control or worry about what you can’t control? Do you aim to make things happen or hope that things will work out?

Great workers, for example, pay full attention to the activity they are pursuing, the piece of work they are doing or the person they are trying to help. They are fully engaged in working towards what they are trying to achieve.

How do people learn to pay attention? For some people the roots go back to their early years. They were encouraged by their parents or teachers to pursue their interests, gather information and see patterns. They developed the skill of learning how to learn.

They threw themselves into playing music, painting, model making or other activities. Sometimes they went into a state of deep play. Such people went through a process of absorption, adventure and achievement.

Maria Montessori, the educator, said that children often learn by becoming totally absorbed in an activity. They then enjoy the adventure of learning. Finally they reach the goal and experience a sense of achievement.

Some people learn that it is okay to follow their passions, develop persistence and get positive results. Later on in life they apply these transferable skills to other activities. They sometimes go on to build on their strengths, do satisfying work and achieve their picture of success.

People who follow their passion and pay attention sometimes go into a state of flow. They flow, focus, finish and, as a by-product, gain a sense of fulfilment. This can provide the platform for achieving peak performance.

Looking to the future, can you think of a situation in which you want to be good at paying attention. You may want to do this when enjoying an experience, pursuing an activity or working to reach a specific goal.

What can you do to pay attention? How can you build in time for rest, relaxation and rejuvenation? How can you then do your best in the situation?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe the specific situation in which you want to pay attention. 

Describe the specific things you can do to pay attention in this situation.


Great workers have one thing in common. They are prepared to apply themselves in the appropriate way to achieve their goal. They take the following steps to make sure they are pursuing the most effective strategies.

They clarify the real results to achieve and translate these into a clear picture of success.

They clarify the key principles they want to follow to achieve the picture of success. 

They translate these principles into practise and keep working towards achieving the picture of success.

Great workers pay attention to following their chosen principles rather than being captivated by the prize. Certainly they start by clarifying the picture of success, but then they focus on doing the right things in the right way every day.

Bill Walsh, the legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers, took this approach. He believed it was vital for everybody in an organisation to deliver certain Standards of Performance. This was more important than striving to win.

He believed that, providing people consistently delivered the Standards of Performance, the score took care of itself. Did it work? Despite not focusing on winning, his team was hailed as a dynasty.

He took over the team in 1979 and it took two seasons to turn around the ailing team. The 49ers then won the Super Bowl three times – in 1981, 1984 and 1988 – before Bill retired.

Interviewed for the book The Score Takes Care of Itself, by Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh, Bill said that his aim was to create an environment of excellence.

He aimed to build a top-notch organisation, rather than one that was toxic. This called for hiring great people and moving on those who chose not to meet the required standards. Bill explained:

I came to the San Francisco 49ers with an overriding priority and specific goal – to implement what I call the Standard of Performance. 

It was a way of doing things, a leadership philosophy that has as much to do with core values, principles, and ideals as with blocking, tackling, and passing: more to do with the mental than with the physical.

While I prized preparation, planning, precision, and poise, I also knew that organizational ethics were crucial to ultimate ongoing success.

It began with this fundamental leadership assertion: Regardless of your specific job, it is vital to our team that you do that job at the highest possible level in all its various aspects, both mental and physical (i.e., good talent with bad attitude equals bad talent). 

There are also the basic characteristics of attitude and action – the new organizational ethos – I tried to teach our team, to put into our DNA.

Of course, for this to happen the person in charge – whether the head coach, CEO, manager, or assembly line foreman – must exhibit the principles. 

This called for commitment to details. These included people having a positive attitude, being prompt, showing good sportsmanship, treating fans with respect and always exhibiting professional behaviour.

Bill believed that leaders must develop the right strategy for delivering success. People could then follow the strategy, do superb work and achieve success. He said:

The motto of the Boy Scouts, ‘Be prepared,’ became my modus operandi, and to be prepared I had to factor in every contingency: good weather, bad weather, and everything in between. I kept asking and answering this question: ‘What do I do if…?’ 

You must envision the future deeply and in detail – creatively – so that the unforeseeable becomes foreseeable. Then you write the script for the foreseeable … 

Of course, there’s always something you can’t anticipate, but you strive to greatly reduce the number of those foreseeables.

Bill followed the 80-20 rule. The 49ers focused on maximising the 80% they could control in a game. There may be 20% they couldn’t control, such as a referee’s call, a bad bounce or fortune.

The team aimed to prepare and perform properly because this vastly increased the chances of success. People were expected to practice relentlessly until their execution at the highest level was automatic – routine perfection. Bill said:

Maintenance workers, ticket takers, parking lot attendants, and anyone receiving a pay check with the emblem of the San Francisco 49ers on it were instructed as to the requirements of their own job’s Standard of Performance and expected to measure up.

The 49ers became known for winning games in the last few minutes. Why? Bill explained to Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh:

Have you noticed that great players and great companies don’t suddenly start hunching up, grimacing, and trying to ‘hit the ball harder’ at a critical point?

Rather, they are in a mode, a zone in which they’re performing and depending on their ‘game,’ which they’ve mastered over many months and years of intelligently directed hard work. 

By focusing strictly on my Standard of Performance, the 49ers were able to play the bigger games very well because it was basically business as usual – no ‘try harder’ mentality was used. 

In fact, I believed it was counter-productive. Consequently, the San Francisco 49ers could function under tremendous stress and the forces that work on individuals in competitive situations.

The team dealt with pressure situations by continuing to do the basics. They could then add the brilliance.

Bill demonstrated a characteristic shown by many great leaders. They actually do what they say they are going to do. He was true to his philosophy and principles. The key was to ensure that people delivered the Standards of Performance. The score would then take care of itself.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking to the future, can you think of a situation in which you want to apply yourself in an appropriate way?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe the specific situation in which you want to apply yourself in an appropriate way. 

Describe the specific things you can do to apply yourself in an appropriate way in the situation.


Looking to the future, can you think of a situation in which you want to do your best to achieve your chosen aim? You may want to simply enjoy an experience, do a stimulating project or reach a specific goal.

You will have your own way of pursing your aim, but here are some suggestions. It can be useful to plan ahead and set aside a block of time when you can do your personal best:

To be positively engaged in the activity.  

To follow your chosen principles. 

To work towards achieving the picture of success.

Whichever approach you use, it will involve paying attention. Bearing this in mind, let’s return to Winifred’s book Rapt. Below are excerpts from the book in which she describes the value of taking this step.

My interest in attention goes back to childhood, when I ran the usual experiments on its effects on behaviour. I saw that by focusing on one thing, you could ignore another.

If you concentrated on some enjoyable activity, you could make time simultaneously race and stand still. Staying focused on a goal over time might not guarantee you’d achieve it but was a crucial step in that direction.

A psychological theory – your life consists of what you focus on – is one thing in your mind or on paper, and is something else again when you test-drive it over rough terrain.

Today’s world ensures that we are bombarded by sounds, sights and the media pumping out masses of information. We can also be affected by working in open plan offices or listening to people who continually want to talk about problems.

How to deal with such input? Winifred believes that attention can help us in these situations. She writes:

By helping you to focus on some things and filter out others attention distills the universe into your universe. 

Paying rapt attention, whether it is to a trout stream or a novel, a do-it-yourself project or a prayer, increases your capacity for concentration, expands your inner boundaries, and lifts your spirits, but more important, it simply makes you feel that life is worth living.

Let’s return to the theme of achievement. Looking to the future, can you think of a specific situation in which you may want achieve a particular aim?

How can you pay attention to achieving the goal? How can you apply yourself in the most appropriate way? How can you do your best to achieve your picture of success?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe the specific situation in which you want to do your best to achieve your chosen aim.

Describe the specific things you can do to do your best to achieve your chosen aim in the situation.

Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of taking these steps.



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