In a world of untold complexity, it’s nice when something simple and intuitive comes along to help us wrestle with a meaty topic.

The question of “How can I perform better” or “How can I be more successful” concerns (and sometimes consumes) practically everyone engaged in any kind of endeavour on the planet. Countless volumes have been written on the topic of course – one of my personal favourites being the classic “Think and Grow Rich“.

But despite all these rainforests (or terabytes if you prefer) of analysis and advice on the never-ending quest to do better, there has rarely been such an elegantly simple formulation as the following:

Performance (P) = Potential (p) – Interference (i)

This neat little equation, P = p – i, simply states that the level at which you are performing today is what you are capable of (potential) when all obstacles are removed (interference). The relationship was first (as far as I am aware, but happy to be corrected) formulated in the 1970s by business coaching guru Timothy Gallwey in his “Inner Game of Tennis“.

The left hand side of the question is self explanatory and simply refers to the level at which we are performing at any moment in time. Performance can usually be measured though data, versus KPIs, against budget, during appraisals etc. Nothing too controversial there.

At a superficial level, the right hand side is also easily understood. If, for example, a car is capable of moving at 150mph, but the road ahead is twisty, full of cracks and the surface is wet, chances are that these “interferences” will stop the car performing at “potential”. Something less that 150mph will be achieved. Simple enough.

However, the right hand side is where the magic happens.

“Potential” is a simple enough word in terms of its meaning. We all have an intuitive grasp of what potential means. Everyday we use phrases such as “I didn’t really give 100% today” or “I’ve taken my foot off the gas over the last month”.

But how do we actually know, at any given moment, what our true potential is? Even if we are performing better than ever before, are we at potential? Tough to say. The human body is capable of truly amazing things when under extreme duress / stress – ignoring the pain of a gunshot wound, leaping higher than believed possible to escape the claws of a lion, and so on.

What about in business? I’m sure if all of us are honest, we’d admit to having no real idea what our potential might be. Even the greatest business leaders in history may be hard pressed to say what they are/were truly capable of. Did Steve Jobs fulfil his potential in his time at Apple? Could he have done even better? Who knows?

Not knowing what our potential is at any one point is just part of the issue. Is potential for any individual even a static concept? Outside of some purely physical endeavours (e.g. 100m sprint), potential could be something that improves as one nears it, keeping it tantalisingly out of reach. As skills, knowledge and experience stack up over the years, are we not more capable than how we imagined ten years previously? Whatever the level of success we achieve, aren’t we just finding out that we can always achieve more?

These are maybe abstract arguments but it is tempting to conceive that potential – at least in the fields of human endeavour and contribution – may not know a limit. What are you and I capable of? I’d wager that it’s a lot more than we are currently ready to believe (or admit!).

With potential (kind of) dealt with, we are just left with interference. Interference is a drain on performance, but what kinds of interference are there? Following Gallwey’s framework, there are two basic categories – external interference and internal interference.

External interference is the simplest to review.

It is something in the environment, out of your immediate control, that gets in the way of you performing. We’re all familiar with bad internet connections, heavy traffic, interruptions from work colleagues which stop us from being as productive as we’d like to be at any given moment. These “frictions” will always exist in some shape or form for most of us, and are an inevitability of working life.

What’s left, therefore, is internal interference, and this is where things get really interesting.

Internal interference is anything that is in our control, which is getting in the way of us performing better. It could be as simple as wrestling with a hangover or other self-induced physical ailments. It could be our pre-disposition to fiddling around on Facebook or chatting with our buddies on WhatsApp instead of staying focused on the task in hand.

And most likely, something that afflicts practically everyone on the planet: our inner voice. This is the impossible-to-silence internal critic that gnaws away at self-confidence and sabotages decisive plans of action.

“What if I’m not ready for this promotion?”

“What if the boss chews my ear off for pushing back?”

“What if this venture backfires?”

“I’m not good enough to be CEO”

“It’s easier to stick with the status quo”

“I’m not up to this work”

Clearly if any of these thoughts are rattling around in our heads, they will cause us either to put off the action – know any procrastinators? – or undertake it whilst doubting our ability to pull it off.

These are commonly called limiting beliefs or limiting assumptions. They may not be – in fact are probably not – true, but the merest existence of them in our heads is highly effective interference. Henry Ford artfully summarised the potential toxicity of the inner voice when he said:

So if you want to improve your performance, the area where you can most likely have immediate impact is by addressing limiting beliefs and silencing that destructive inner voice.

The key to picking this low-hanging fruit is simply by raising awareness that these limiting beliefs exist. As a coach, the most powerful question I can often ask is simply:

“What’s holding you back?”

Ask yourself what’s holding you back. Write down five things that you think might be holding you back today. Fear of failure, or fear of what others might say, are usually right up there.

If you are struggling to identify specific blockages yourself, an open and honest discussion with someone in a confidential environment (usually not with the boss !) might be the solution.

The value of improved (self) awareness is that, once it is raised, high quality courses of action often swim into view when before there were none.

“Oh, I didn’t realise this was getting in the way. It’s obvious what I need to do now” is a familiar refrain. The learning and action follow naturally. So if you are frustrated with your level of performance and want to raise your game, the right answer is probably to seek improved awareness of what’s holding you back.

Of course there often isn’t instant improvement. Some interference can be profound and truly challenging to shift without dedicated effort over time. Caution is sometimes warranted (particularly if therapy is needed). If you want to dig deeper on this topic, Nancy Kline’s seminal book “Time to Think” is a tour de force on how to identify and then break down the most persistent of limiting assumptions.

In summary, whatever the nature of interferences in our lives, either superficial or the most deep-rooted imaginable, the equation P = p – i seems to capture all eventualities.

Such is it’s power to help us cut to the chase in understanding performance, I’m tempted to think of this relationship as “The Equation of Life”. It really seems to distill a very complex and important subject into a pretty simple framework.