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
  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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).


  • 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!!

  • 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.


  • 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?


  • 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.


  • 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.

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