The Secret to Success: The Overload Principle

We like routine. We like things as they are. We want improvement on one hand, we want success, but we are often unwilling to pay the price.

My professional life started out as an exercise physiologist for P&G executives in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1984. And physiology, like all sciences, has clear principles that dictate the science.

On day one, hour one, of any physiology course, the student will learn about the most important principle of human physiology. It’s called the “overload principle.” And here is how the dictionary defines it:

“In order for a muscle (including the heart) to increase strength, it must be gradually stressed by working against a load greater than it is used to.”

Once you understand and internalize this, you can reach for the stars. So many people get up, do the same run or the same weight machines day after day, year after year. And they get frustrated because they don’t improve.

Well, it’s clear why. Once the body has adjusted to a certain level of stress, it stops improving. If you want to get better, you have to stress the muscles. Stress the cardiovascular system. Ask it to do more than it is used to. And then the body adapts, down to a cellular level, so that it is ready the next time you ask it to perform at that level.

That’s the Overload Principle. To grow, we must overload the body. Ask it to do more than we did the last workout. And that’s the route to success in the field of sports or any athletic endeavor.

But, as I look back on the past 30 years in the corporate world, I have come to realize that the entire body is like a muscle. Our entire being hence responds to the overload principle. Our brain is a muscle of sorts. Our personality, our character, is also like a muscle. If you want it to improve in any facet of life, it needs overload — simple as that. Then, we as humans adapt, grow, and get better.

Once an individual embraces the overload principle, they are in for a world of success, more than they could ever imagine! But it’s hard work. It’s a difficult, yet conscious, choice, because we love to be comfortable. We don’t like the overload principle on a visceral level. We like routine. We like things as they are. We want improvement on one hand, we want success, but we are often unwilling to pay the price. We want it all. We want to take it easy, be comfortable, and yet have all the success in life!

You can see people every day rejecting the overload principle whether they realize it or not. When a person says, “Love me for who I am,” or “I am what I am, take it or leave it,” well, this is the ultimate cop-out. This is a person saying, in coded language, “I refuse to improve, I refuse to get better, I refuse to be pushed or challenged to improve myself. What you see is all I am ever going to be.”

It’s not pathetic. It’s sad. These are people who will realize only a fraction of what they can truly become, because with these statements, they toss the overload principle into the garbage. If you don’t overload yourself, you don’t get better. It’s as simple as that.

What the most successful do, those who maximize their potential and continually improve, is they embrace the overload principle across their life. Not only in the gym or running on the roads but in all walks of life. Key examples:

• Those who are stuck in one place and miserable most of the time take easy jobs. Ones where they can screw around and slack off and still get paid. They don’t want change or stress. They stay in a comfy job where they “know everyone” and don’t have to learn new names, new processes, new ways of doing things. They want to earn as easily as they can. Conversely, those who embrace overload want to work for the best companies, ones where they will be pushed and challenged. They will take on tough assignments, maybe moving industries or countries just to challenge themselves to grow. They will throw themselves into high-stress roles and put themselves into the arena. They may fail, but they will learn and grow. They constantly overload their career “muscles” to make them stronger and better. Even if this means sometimes you fail to lift the weight!  You want to grow? Take the job in the challenging environment, in a challenging company that will push you. Don’t take the easy, cushy way out.

• Surround yourself with the right kind of friends. Some “friends” actually drag you down. They belittle you. They want to keep you down where they are. They love the status quo. They don’t want anything to disrupt their world. Every new idea or dream you have, they crap all over it. Negative all the time.  My advice is to dump these kinds of “friends,” if you can even call them this. No, the right kinds of friends believe in you. They push you to take on challenges. When you fail to live up to the expectations you are capable of, they help you up with one hand while smacking you on the head with the other. They believe in you, so they expect better from you. These are the people you surround yourself with — those who encourage you to take risks, to overload and be all you can be.

• Those who embrace overload take the hardest classes. They want to push the limits, see what they can do, and learn the most they can learn. The other ends of the spectrum are people who look to “pad” their classes with easy subjects simply to help their overall grades. They forgo overload, and improving, for show and for bragging rights. But they lose out long-term.

• Choose the right life partner. Does your partner inspire you to be all you can be? It’s an important question.  I never understood when a husband or wife would “let themselves go” right after the wedding. I mean, why take someone for granted? My wife loves me for who I am, but more importantly, she loves even more the person she believes I can become. And this is important because it inspires me to improve. To try and get better, not get worse and expect someone to love me “because they should.” The best partners bring out the best in us. They inspire us to continually improve the person we are. They don’t promote complacency and accepting that “the best years are behind us.” And one would never say, “Love me for who I am” to someone who truly inspired them. Because this is an admission of never attempting to improve oneself and having zero motivation to even try.

Get the overload principle working for you with your body, your mind, the person you are. Throw yourself into the fray. Take the tough challenges head-on. Get out of your comfort zone.  Try new things. Every day, ask your body, your brain, your person, to be challenged, to attempt a new level of stress. Do this, and it’s guaranteed there will be more joy, more success, more happiness in your life than you could imagine, because taking it easy doesn’t make you happy. It is a sense of accomplishment, of seeing self-improvement, that drives happiness. And success.