Performance, Trophies and the Goal

Many people make the mistake of confusing their performance results with the trophy and their goal. Let me explain.

One of my favorite actresses is the legendary Meryl Streep. She has more Academy Award nominations than any other person in the history of planet earth — a total of 18 nominations.

She was nominated for her first Academy Award in 1978. Her most recent one was in 2013.

If you consider a nomination a kind of “trophy,” she is the most “trophied” person in Hollywood.

That is remarkable.

Unlike many actors or actresses who essentially play the same kind of character from one film to another, Streep’s performances are so different from one film to another.

I’ll never forget the time I saw her in The Devil Wears Prada. In one of the opening scenes, Streep gets off the elevator and walks to her office to sit down. Without saying a single word — merely raising an eyebrow, walking a particular way, and looking at people in an ever so specific way, she conveyed an entire character's backstory.

My words can’t do it justice. She is just that good.

When you listen to in-depth interviews of Streep, it quickly becomes clear that she is so heavily devoted to delivering the best possible PERFORMANCE.

Meryl Streep first met her co-star Anne Hathaway on the film The Devil Wears Prada. She introduced herself and told Anne how much she looked forward to acting across from her. She then explained (and apologized) that she would be “in character” 24x7 for the next 5 months.

In other words, even during filming breaks, at lunch, going to the restroom... she would be doing all of these activities as her character in the film (even when the camera was not on).

It was only after the very last take that the real Meryl Streep re-emerged.

She explained she needed to eat, sleep, and breathe as her character day and night in order to deliver the best performance possible.

When you see how Streep approaches her work, it’s clear that her GOAL is not the trophy. Her GOAL is the PERFORMANCE.

This may sound like semantics, but the distinction is profoundly important.

Here’s why.

A trophy is a byproduct of the performance. When you focus on the trophy, you end up focusing on the wrong thing and you often do not get it. When you focus on the performance and do it well, often the trophy comes along with it.

When you look at your goals, are you focusing on performance or the trophy?

When CIBs write me saying they want to get a job offer from MBB, that job offer is the trophy. The performance is the case interview.

When my clients say they want to earn $1 million, $5 million or $10 million per year, those are trophies. The “performance” comes from finding some way to deliver enough value to other people that they gladly transfer $1 million, $5 million, or $10 million to you in exchange for the value you deliver.

Streep and other actresses who routinely work on improving their performance express dismay that many younger actresses today have a goal of being rich and famous.

They argue it’s the wrong focus. Fame and fortune are byproducts of being really good at what you do — in their case, delivering exceptional acting performances.

As you look at your own goals, I challenge you to question them critically.

Are you focused on the promotion (the trophy)? Or massively over-delivering what’s expected of you (the performance)?

Are you focused on making partner at MBB (the trophy)? Or delivering overwhelming value to your clients and your firm (the performance)?

While performance and trophies are correlated, the R-square is not 1.0 — it’s not perfect.

Sometimes whether or not you get a trophy depends on the subjective decision making of someone else — an external factor not within your control.

To create a career or life goal that depends upon the whim of someone else is a tough and anxiety-filled way to live.

But, to focus on delivering the best possible performance that YOU are capable of is entirely within your control.

Deliver outstanding performances consistently enough in the right circumstances, over a long enough period of time, and the trophies will come your way (in aggregate but not necessarily in any one specific instance).

In your life and career, are you focused on trophies or performance?

That’s my thought of the day.


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31 comments… add one
  • Israel Aug 19, 2014, 1:01 pm

    Yes, 100% agree. And – to another theme I’ve picked up on in your writing – the ‘performance’ is where the majority of your life takes place. We should all work to enjoy that performance, while we are delivering it, or we miss the whole point.

  • Ashok Aug 19, 2014, 1:10 pm

    This was one of the mindblowing analogies I ever happened to read, and it served the purpose too. There couldn’t be another easy way of directing people to focus on their performance without feeling jealous, thwarted, disheartened from every ounce of rewardless performance pass-by.

    • Victor Cheng Aug 24, 2014, 12:57 pm


      I think you totally got it. You can live a life of excellence or life of rewards. Although sometimes from the outside they look very similar, they couldn’t be different.


  • Nikhil Aug 19, 2014, 1:17 pm

    Hi Victor,

    I couldn’t have agreed more. Being present, focusing on the task at hand to best of one’s abilities is the best way to approach anything and everything one is involved with. Focusing on results or end goal can be distracting on several occasions. You almost want to remote control your mind where for most part you get it to focus on what you are doing and occasionally get it to look at the bigger picture, measure your progress, generate feedback and pass on to your immediate task at hand for any course correction. While I agree that your mind should not be fixated at the trophy but rather on the performance, it is important to devise a mechanism which provides you a feedback on whether your performance can eventually get you to that trophy. As I said, you ought to almost control the mind where it can switch between the two modes.

    • Victor Cheng Aug 24, 2014, 1:00 pm


      I think there’s a difference between getting feedback to improve your performance, vs to get the trophy. Feedback for the trophy is still trophy focused.

      A good test to see which approach you’re taking is this. If there were no trophy would you still be doing what you’re doing? Or if there were a trophy but you could never tell anyone about receiving it, would you still do what you’re doing?


  • Vinesh Aug 19, 2014, 1:32 pm

    Hi Victor,

    Great article- I definitely agree and am actually surprised by how often the two are conflated. I think it’s also important to recognize the source of approval when regarding a good performance. I think there’s a huge difference between what may be something we worthwhile performance and what OTHERS impose upon us as something we must value as a worthwhile performance. It’s a slippery slope, because we cannot become complacent, and lose our desire to improve these performances, but it comes down to something else you’ve addressed before: you can’t only listen to all your critics, because they can’t always be right!

    • Victor Cheng Aug 24, 2014, 1:01 pm


      The mark of a leader is one who continually competes only against him or herself. It’s about being the best performer one can possibly be, as opposed to trying to “beat” someone else.


  • Jiju Aug 19, 2014, 1:33 pm


    It so amazingly true what you have written. I guess if people spend more time on the process than the result, its always going to be positive. Even if the end product is not what we expected..

    It really matters where your focus is!!

  • hiwote Aug 19, 2014, 1:47 pm

    This is amazing Victor! I love love love this post. I recently realized how unfulfilled “trophy chasing” had left me. And I didn’t even know I was looking for trophies, I had unknowingly conflated dreaming big with chasing trophies.

    • Victor Cheng Aug 24, 2014, 1:04 pm


      It’s a subtle difference, but a difference definitely exists. The other reason for the difference in fulfillment is the noticing where the locus of control resides. Happiness is highly correlated with an internal locus of control (e.g., I have control over my life, my performance). Depression at the extreme or emotional ups and down is correlated with external locus of control (e.g., my happiness depends on what others think of my performance which is likely basing your sense of fulfillment and happiness on the ebbs and flow of the weather).


  • Isaac S. Aug 19, 2014, 1:51 pm

    Fantastic article with a great message. Thank you, Victor!

    ” A man who refuses to do more than he’s being paid for will seldom be paid for more than he’s doing” -Earl Nightingale.

    • Victor Cheng Aug 24, 2014, 1:05 pm


      Very true! Early Nightingale is/was brilliant. I’ve been a big fan for nearly 10 years.


  • Mesh Aug 19, 2014, 2:04 pm

    This is such a simple concept, yet one that we find most hard to remember as we are constantly distracted by external factors that distract us from knowing the Truth, and that is exactly what you just said.
    I work in an extremely competitive environment with like minded individuals, who, just like me are driven and motivated and want to be the best. But what does the best mean exactly? I think too often we focus on these trophies just to be better than the next person but long term this is not self-fulfilling. After reading your article, I reflected on a few decisions I have made recently which conflict with who I really am, trying to achieve a qualification / promotion just because I “define” this as the way to get ahead isn’t actually the right way to achieve goals and most importantly, do something because you love it! Just like Meryl.

    • Victor Cheng Aug 24, 2014, 10:53 pm

      I think the weakness of be better than everyone else vs be your best self gets revealed if you strove to be the best at Enron.

      It’s hard to go wrong when you strive to meet or exceed your own absolute standard of performance. The other approach has its pitfalls that only become apparent from time to time.


  • Francisco Aug 19, 2014, 3:24 pm

    At this point in life, when you have done things for the right purpose and committed to your ideals, and yet still have not seen any progress in your career,……then I think is fair to search for an immediate and well deserved satisfaction with the trophies. Trophies like toys can soemhow improve your self-esteem by making you feel that you are being appreciated by someone.

    After All, toys of any kind make people happy and give them a status.

  • Alice Aug 19, 2014, 4:16 pm

    I whole-heartedly agree. To live by the whom of another persons decision (professional or personal) makes life far more stressful and uncertain than it needs to be. By focusing on our own performances, and striving to do the best we possibly can and being comfortable in the knowledge that we’re doing so makes life and work fulfilling.
    Waiting to hear from your boss/partner that your deserving of recognition and promotion is the wrong approach. We need to offer ourselves that recognition and trust others will agree and acknowledge us in the right way, at the right time.

  • Vaibhav Gupta Aug 19, 2014, 6:20 pm

    Good thought and analogy.

    My take from this will be:-
    1) Strong performance will always help you in the long run, whereas you have to alter your trophy oriented performance, every time after achieving the trophy.
    2) Trophies come and go but it is the performance that leaves a lasting impression.

  • Dash Aug 19, 2014, 9:16 pm

    Thanks! always a helpful reminder!

  • Stephanie Aug 19, 2014, 10:20 pm


    To my point of view, it is more like a transfer. At an earlier stage of life, you are eagered to possess money, fame, etc. to guarantee a better life. But once you can make yourself live comfortable, the second phase (goal) comes to your mind, it’s pursuing inner peace and self-fulfilling. For me in particular, I have the kind of feeling now that what I want to do and what I determined to chase is more like make a life, other than simply make a living, which I’m glad to see. Again, interest is always the best driving force. Based on this, performance becomes an inevitable outcome. So the key factor is the inner demand from your heart.


  • Peter Klugsberger Aug 19, 2014, 10:56 pm

    Hi Victor,

    Congrats on yet another great post. Love the analogy and agree on the amazing work of Meryl Streep. Reading through you post triggered my memory of a press conference interview of Matthew McConaughey when he won the Oscar for Best Actor “Dallas Buyers Club” – what caught my attention was just after 4 minutes into questioning where he explains how he became more ‘process oriented’ than anything else – his argument is that he can control the process, not the outcome. The daily construction and the resulting personal growth is what will get you the trophy. Great insights into how to become a true performer.

    All the best,

  • Hung Aug 20, 2014, 12:45 am


    Thank you for a very strong message. I couldnt agree more.
    By focusing on our own performance, we become independent as opposing to waiting for trophy from others.
    That is my take.

  • Volha Aug 20, 2014, 1:27 am

    When it comes to malicious intentions to get the trophy just for the sake of raising self-esteem in a short term, I like the illustration of it is ‘Wreck it Ralph’ cartoon.
    Basically, it is not the medal that makes you a hero.

  • Nduka Aug 20, 2014, 3:59 am

    Well done my professional mentor, you have re-affirmed one of the things I so much believe and I am glad is coming from you.

    It has been the driving force in my life. I have always focused on the result and never on the reward and that has made life, work and everything fun for me.

  • Shreyas Aug 20, 2014, 4:37 am

    This is a fantastic post. It highlights a very vital mistake most people make i.e. focusing on a target. I know of a manager in my ex-company who said that he would not buy a car until he could afford the most expensive car Mercedes makes and then, he would buy it. But years have gone by and he seems nowhere near that trophy, because Mercedes keeps making better and better cars whose prices keep rising all the time. And his career growth just has not matched up to to that.

    There is a saying in Sanskrit “Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana, Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani”. It means… do not do something thinking about what you can gain out of it. Do it because you should. In other words, keep performing at the topmost of your ability and do not think about the trophy. The trophy will then come to you.

  • Sarah Aug 21, 2014, 3:08 am

    I have a brother who always remind me to focus on contribution. He says, “Focus on YOU CONTRIBUTION. No need to focus on YOUR ACHIEVEMENT. Because when you focus on YOUR CONTRIBUTION (in relating to this article, focus on delivery of YOUR PERFORMANCE), your achievement WILL follow.

    Thank you for your thoughts and your contribution Victor. Nowadays when I get caught up in a situation, I think to myself, ” What would Victor Cheng do?”. I supposed you have made it into my list of the 5 people I spend the most time with i.e. from your Strategic Outlier Letter Issue 1, Number 5 of July 2013.

    I want to say thank you. I would be superb to meet you in person! Can’t wait for that day!

    • Victor Cheng Aug 24, 2014, 10:55 pm


      I totally agree with your brother.

      As for the rest, I am honored to be in your top 5. I look forward to meeting you in person some day as well.


      • Laura Sep 3, 2014, 6:01 am

        I kind of agree with Sarah’s brother and all the sentiments in all the replies and the article is a lovely reminder. However, unfortunately things like staff merit or ‘contribution’ awards don’t do this – they are a subjective measure and I agree for own personal satisfaction that isn’t the road to follow. BUT, sometimes for any progression, which might mean not money but recognition and chances to do more of what you love..people have to follow what they know in their heart of hearts is tick boxes and spin and PR, not real measures of who is truly making the best contribution.
        Also in selection for jobs the same can apply – though I agree focus on process and own performance and trust outcome then has best chance of following.
        Also in selection for courses it’s not the best who wins. Example of student who didn’t make it into top University because gropped a grade at A Level and the reason they dropped a grade was because their exam answers were first class honours material which led to ‘ungraded’ because they didn’t fit the marking scheme for the A Level trophy. Ultimately sticking to what they know perhaps they became a great historian without going to the top Uni, but takes a very brave soul to put their trust in bypassing trophies they could easily pick up and making life harder for themselves.

        But hey, I do agree this is something we should all strive for and try to keep the cynical goals and actions to an absolute minimum 🙂

  • Ankur Verma Aug 21, 2014, 9:36 am

    Excellent article, Victor.

    Feeling under control is very important for happiness in life. And very rightly said that it can never happen when OUTCOME is our goal that may depend upon external factors. Instead, make performance the GOAL not the end result. Focus on ACTIONS rather than OUTCOME. Performance requires hard work, deliberate planning and effort to continuously improve our skills to gain competitive advantage as you have highlighted earlier. It’s interesting to see how it all fits in together.

    I somehow feel that skill building is the MOST important asset because only then we can create value for others and live the life we want. What’s your thoughts on this?

    • Victor Cheng Aug 24, 2014, 10:57 pm


      I do think skill building is a very important asset. I don’t think it is the only asset and may not be the most important one. I’d have to think about it. I could make a case the love, compassion, kindness, trust among other virtues are as if not more important than skills. A child is not skilled, but it’s hard to imagine a child not possessing a wealth of “assets”.


  • CS Aug 29, 2014, 8:36 pm

    Hi Victor,

    Great insights; I have a question on something that wasn’t addressed. You can’t always select the people you work with on your team (unless your saying the MBB’s don’t have this issue).

    Any tips for working with folks that are more trophy focus and deliver shoddy work? When they are in charge it can be frustrating as input is not weighted by data but in most cases by opinion/feelings. And although the intention is good it can create a lot of work/burn towards the end when someone above throws a flag.

    I have 3 questions to phrase this that start out as such – How do you avoid being an “ass-hole”..
    1) when the trophy chaser fights what the data demonstrates?
    2) when raising an issue? (assuming a calm conversation around #1 was held)
    3) how do you avoid seeming like the aggressor/drama inducer? Often times these individuals are shifty and change the wording to reflect what someone else wants to hear. And even though others can see it; in most cases no one will cut a Sr. M down.

    Until then I can continue to look for individuals that I work well with but somewhere along the food chain there’s going to be someone that is just interested in taking the credit in the effort to show they are productive without considering the consequences later down the line or the need for accountability.

    Thanks Victor.

    • Laura Sep 3, 2014, 6:04 am

      very interesting points CS, how to not get dragged into the competition to take credit and yet not find that no-one sees your ideas and talents, look forward to reply on that one.

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