Lifting the Floor vs Raising the Ceiling

I had a conversation recently with a performance coach named Chris Doherty. Chris works with junior golfers to help them improve their game, some of whom have gone on to be D-I athletes and PGA tour players.

Chris said one thing to me that stood out to me in that conversation—the idea that when looking at performance improvement, lifting the floor is different from raising the ceiling. Each one requires a different approach.

This note encourages you to check in with your anxiety to see which one you ought to focus on.

Upside and Downside Performance

The basic concept is this: when we are looking to improve performance, to get “better,” we can choose to focus on raising our ceiling or lifting our floor. Both are likely to raise our average performance but at any given time, one of them is likely to lead to more rapid improvement than the other.

In golf, your score is how many swings it takes you to put the golf ball into the hole over 18 holes. A lower score is better—a perfect score is a “hole in one,” which means you took one swing and the ball immediately went into the hole.

When Chris is working with a young golfer who has a very wide variance from day to day, say, one day it takes them 90 swings to make it through 18 holes (a bad score) and another day it takes them 70 (a good score), he will focus on lifting their floor. He wants them to learn how to avoid bad days before they work on having tournament-winning good days.

When a young golfer learns to be consistent, with regular scores within a couple of strokes of each other, then Chris shifts the focus to having a good day—a “breakthrough.” The idea here is that we have to master the basics of the level we are currently at before we can truly step up to the next level of performance.

Consistency and Risk

Let’s apply this concept to people who aren’t competitive athletes.

In your professional life, “lifting the floor” means showing up consistently day-to-day. If you’re a writer, it means creating habits around producing every day, whether you feel inspired or not. If you work in a service field, it means providing quality service to every customer, even if you are distracted or having an off day.

Once you get to a place where you are showing up consistently, it’s important to not fall into the trap of putting things on autopilot and start playing it safe. Raising the ceiling involves risk and failure—in order to get better once you’re consistent, you have to try to do things differently. If you’re a writer, it might mean experimenting with new forms of prose or new topics. If you are in a service field, it might mean offering a new service that you haven’t mastered yet.

This process is iterative. Once you get consistent at delivering “level 2” service, you start learning how to deliver “level 3” service. Once you figure it out, you strive to become consistent at “level 3,” and then begin to explore “level 4.”

Listen to Your Anxiety

How do you know whether you should focus on lifting the floor or raising the ceiling? Answer: listen to your anxiety. Anxiety is information—it is a signal that some action needs to be taken.

When you reflect on lifting your floor vs. raising your ceiling, which one feels scarier?

·         Do you struggle with consistency and habit, on some days being dialed-in and other days being zoned out?

·         Or do you play it safe, showing up on autopilot, getting the basics right but never testing or challenging yourself, and never taking the risk to excel?

I’ll use myself as an example. I used to write pretty inconsistently on my blog, and now I publish regularly every Friday. I’ve mastered “level 1” consistency on my emotions and finance notes. Now I need to move to level 2, which is publishing more content on more platforms other than my “safe” blog. I have to focus on raising the ceiling.


Journal on the following or discuss with a friend.

1)      Taking Stock

Choose an area of your life where you want to improve your performance. This can be your work or a personal area, such as exercise or a romantic partnership.

Are you inconsistent and haphazard in how you show up? Or are you on autopilot, playing it safe?

2)      Noticing

When you reflect on lifting your floor vs. raising your ceiling, which feels scarier? Choose the scarier option.

3)      Action

If lifting the floor is scarier, take an action towards consistency. This could be blocking calendar time, having an accountability buddy, or a public declaration of some sort.

If raising the ceiling is scarier, take a risky action towards improvement. Can you try a new approach to your task that might fail? Can you return to a beginner’s mindset, and start to learn aspects of your craft that are a little different (e.g., you’re a photographer, and you start to learn the basics of film)?

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