By Brian Tracy

We are living in the Information Age. Today, the major source of value in our society is knowledge and ideas, combined with the ability to put them into action in a speedy and efficient way. The movement from the industrial age to the service age to the information age has been so fast that most people have missed it completely. In fact, our school system is still turning out people to work at relatively unskilled jobs requiring limited education. But those jobs are all gone.

The rule today is that “the more you learn, the more you earn.” The future belongs to those few men and women who continually work on themselves to upgrade their knowledge and skill in a balanced way so that they are capable of taking advantage of the opportunities that come along from day to day.

The expression “cross training” comes from athletics. World class athletes have known for many years that the only way that they can perform at their very peak is by developing all of their various muscles and abilities in a balanced way. In its simplest form, physical cross training requires that you work on endurance, strength and flexibility in a rotating format. When I was lifting weights as a young man, it  was quite standard for us to work on the muscle groups that were less developed to keep them growing in balance with those muscle groups that were further ahead.

In mental cross training, you must do the same thing with your repertoire of knowledge and skills. Many economists have stated in recent years that the average income in America has not gone up since 1979. However, this is both true and false. It is true in that the average income has not gone up because there are now so many single parent homes earning lower incomes. It is false in that the income of the top 20%, those men and women like yourself who are continually learning and growing, has gone up steadily over time. You cannot do much to affect those who are missing the boat in the information age and allowing their knowledge to become obsolete. But you can help yourself by getting onto the fast track and developing a wide range of skills that enables you to perform at your very best in your field.

Don’t be afraid to read outside your field. Attend an occasional seminar or lecture on a subject that may be new to you. Associate with people socially who have different interests than you and ask them about their various interests. Ask for recommendations about books to read, things to do and even places to go. Resist the temptation to get into a rut with your existing knowledge and skills, and instead, force yourself to expand your horizons by involving yourself in different mental activities.

One of the things we know is that your knowledge and skill, in any field, is becoming obsolete at a more rapid rate today than ever before. Knowledge in your field is probably doubling every two to three years. This means that your knowledge must double every two to three years as well just for you to stay even. If you want to make any progress, you have to be learning more and faster than ever before.

With mental cross training you need first of all to determine the subjects that you have to be good at in order to be in the top 10 or 20% in your field. Your job is to make the decision, right now, to go all the way to the top. And the fortunate thing is that, if anyone else has done it, you can do it as well. You simply need to follow in their tracks.

Harvard Business Review did a study some years ago on a subject that they called, “Critical Success Factors.” The idea of critical success factors revolved around the discovery that in any field of endeavor there are seldom more than five to seven skill areas that you absolutely, positively have to be good at to dominate your field. There may be a hundred or a thousand things that you have to do, but there are only basically five to seven areas where you need to commit yourself to excellent performance in order to move way ahead of the rest of the field.

These critical success factors are where you begin your program of mental cross training. If you are in sales, for example, your seven critical success factors may be prospecting, getting appointments, establishing a relationship with the client, identifying the problem that the client has that your product or service will solve, presenting your product or service as the solution, closing the sale, and personal management. You will have to be absolutely, positively excellent in every one of these areas for you to be a great success in selling any product or service in any market. And here’s one of the most important discoveries about mental cross training. If you are weak in any one critical area, that one area will set the height at which you use all your other skills. It will be the chief factor that determines your income and your level of success in your field. If you are absolutely excellent in six out of seven critical success factors but you are terrible in the seventh, you will be held back from ever realizing your full potential in whatever it is you do.

Let me give you an example. Let us say that you are absolutely excellent in every single part of selling except prospecting. Because of fear or negativity or competition in the marketplace, you are poor at getting appointments with new prospects who can and will buy your product or service. You may be outstanding at everything else but if you can’t get in front of people, you will ultimately fail and have to leave the field.

In another example, let’s say you are good at prospecting and getting appointments and establishing rapport, but when it comes to actually getting the client to take action or closing the sale, you tense up, you are unable to do it, and you leave empty handed. Again, you could be outstanding at everything except closing the sale and that alone will sabotage your entire career.

If you are in sales, or in any other field, the first thing you need to do is to identify your critical success factors, the key areas in which you must be excellent if you want to be successful. You then give yourself a score from one to ten with one being the lowest and ten being the highest in each area. You will find that wherever you have given yourself a low score, that is the area of performance that causes you the most problems. It is your primary area of stress, frustration, anxiety and underachievement in whatever it is you are doing. You need to have a score above seven in every area for you to perform excellently in a well-balanced way.

It is essential that you be perfectly honest with yourself. It will do you no good to pretend that you are good at something when in reality it is interfering with your success in your career.

Once you have worked out your critical success factors and you have given yourself a score in each of the five to seven areas, take your score to someone who knows you and who will help you by scoring you themselves. The best person for this is your boss, but if you have a friendly customer, go to your friendly customer and ask him or her if he or she will give you a score as well.

If you are in management, there will probably be seven critical success factors that determine your level of achievement in your position. They could be a variety of things but the most common, what I call the “big seven” are planning, organizing, staffing, delegating, supervising, innovating and reporting. If you are poor in any one of these seven areas, that could be sufficient, in itself, to hold you back from using all your other talents.

For example, let’s say that you are excellent at planning, organizing, staffing, supervising, innovating and reporting your results to your superiors. You just have one problem. You are terrible at delegating. By the way, this is quite a common weakness in management.

If you were poor at delegating, and good at everything else, you would never achieve your full potential as a manager. You would always either delegate poorly or not at all. You may delegate to the wrong people, or you may delegate in the wrong way at the wrong time. You may delegate in such a way that nobody knows for sure exactly what it is you expect of them, and in what quantity and quality. The inability to delegate is a major reason for failure when a person becomes a supervisor or manager.

Fortunately, if you feel that you are not particularly good in a critical success factor area, like delegating, you can read books, listen to tapes and take courses, thereby bringing up your skills above seven out of ten so that this area is no longer a problem for you.

It is always easy to tell where you need to go to work on yourself in mental cross training. The areas where you are weak are the sources of your major problems in your career. They are the areas that preoccupy you and concern you the most. And, they are often the activity areas where you get the worst results. Sometimes you are fearful in those areas and become anxious when it comes to performing those activities. If you are not careful, you will have a tendency to avoid performing in those areas, or even go one step further and convince yourself that you are already quite good in those areas. This is why it is so important that you ask other people around you to evaluate you in an objective way and tell you how well they think you are doing.

There is a new management technique that is becoming quite popular throughout the country. It is called the “360 degree method.” In this managerial method,  managers and subordinates are valuated by all the people who work around them. Questionnaires are sent out to everyone within an organization and each person is asked to evaluate their superiors and their subordinates. These questionnaires are then collected and analyzed for presentation at a meeting where each person sits in the middle of a 360 degree circle and is critiqued and evaluated by all the people with whom he or she works.

If this is done properly, it is extremely helpful to people. It comes as a great shock to most people that in areas where they think they are quite good, their co-workers and subordinates think they are quite poor.

In psychology there is a word called “Scotoma.” This refers to a blind spot. What psychologists have found is that most of us have blind spots with regard to certain areas of our lives. We have blind spots with regard to certain qualities and characteristics that we either have or don’t have. And what I have discovered in my consulting career is that people are blind in the areas where they are the very weakest.

For example, I had an executive working for me some years ago who felt that he was absolutely excellent at hiring people. He would not take any advice or input from anyone. He made his hires from the seat of his pants. And every single person that he hired turned out to be a disaster. Eventually, his right and authority to hire people had to be removed completely. This inability of his to learn how to properly interview and select the right people eventually proved to be fatal in his career. He had to go back to working as a salesman and an individual entrepreneur because he was simply incapable of picking people to work with him, no matter what position he had.

So here’s the question. What are your scotomas? What are the areas where you are weak? What are the areas you need to work on to bring yourself up to a high level of performance? If you are not sure, have the courage and the honesty to go to other people and ask for their feedback. Remember, feedback is the breakfast of champions. You can’t get better unless someone else is willing to give you an honest critique and help you see yourself as you really are.

If you are in sales, it is absolutely essential that you get your sales manager or someone else to go out with you at least once per month for an entire day to evaluate your sales performance. When this person comes out, he or she should sit there quietly and say nothing, and just watch the way you interact with the customer. Afterwards this person should tell you exactly what they saw, both the good and the bad. Unless you have this kind of honest feedback, it is impossible for you to improve. But once you get this feedback, instead of becoming defensive, make a decision to go to work on yourself and bring up that skill area so that it is no longer a limitation on your performance.

The final point that I need to make on mental cross training is that whatever knowledge and skill you have today, it is not sufficient for the future. One educational journal recently said that fully 99% of what you know today will be irrelevant 10 years from now. Knowledge in your area is doubling every two to three years. This means that your knowledge must be doubling as well. Wayne Gretsky is famous for saying that the reason that he plays hockey so well is because while most people are going to where the puck is, he goes to where the puck is going to be.

Your question must be, “Where is your puck going to be?” What knowledge and skills will you have to have three to five years from today in order to continue earning an excellent living in your particular field. What talents and abilities are you going to have to develop that may be brand new? Are you already excellent with a computer? Can you function well in terms of communication skills? Are you excellent at every part of your job today? Whatever it is, and wherever you are, make a decision to identify your weakest areas and then go to work on yourself. Make a decision to learn what you need to learn so that you can accomplish what you need to accomplish.

There are three rules that I want to leave you with regard to mental cross training. First, it doesn’t matter where you are coming from. All that matters is where you are going. The future is more important than the past. You can’t change the past, but you can change your future by changing what you do today.

The second rule is that, for your life to get better, you must get better. If you want to earn more, you must learn more. Knowledge is the chief source of value today. If you want to improve the quality of your life, you must improve the quality of your knowledge and skills.

Third, you can learn anything that you need to learn to become any person that you want to become and to achieve any goal that you can possibly set for yourself. There are no limits except the limits that you set on your own mind.

Mental cross training is a discipline that you can use all the days of your life. Make a decision, right now, to bring up your skill levels in the critical success factors of your career to the point where you are one of the best people doing what you do. Then, expand your thinking and your learning outward and begin to take in new subjects. Dedicate yourself to lifelong learning. Remember, your mind is like a muscle. If you don’t use it, you lose it, but if you continue reading, listening to tapes, taking additional courses and working on the development of your knowledge and skills, your future will be unlimited.

By developing the habit of regular mental cross training you can become one of the most competent, confident and capable people in your field. You can fulfill all your dreams and achieve all your ambitions. You can push to the front and lead the field.

From this day forward, resolve to become a “do-it-to-yourself project.” Begin and continue the lifelong process of continually getting better in all the areas that are important to you. Just as a champion athlete develops all of his or her muscles symmetrically and in balance, you must develop your mental muscles in a balanced way as well. Mental cross training is the key to making yourself a master of the information age and putting you in complete control of your future destiny. Go for it!