BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!

If you’ve spent any time in the kitchen, I’m sure you have experienced the piercing sound of a smoke alarm before. Or maybe the smoke alarm went off because you never spend any time in the kitchen and were taking on the stress-inducing task of baking some chocolate chip cookies, all the while wondering why you didn’t just eat the raw dough.

The point is, hearing a smoke alarm usually means that something has gone wrong. When the smoke alarm goes off, you better act quickly if you’re going to salvage whatever it was that was supposed to sate, if not impress, your house guests.

Unfortunately, more often than not, the smoke alarm is the “save your life” tool, not the “save your baked goods” tool. Most of the time, its only function is to tell you when something has gone wrong. The smoke alarm alerts you to a problem that now must be fixed, and if you think about it, many people live their lives like this, moving from problem to problem, trying to fix each new issue as it arises.

If you consider the major characteristic of amateurs in sport, business, education, or any other performance arena, most of them behave like a smoke alarm. A perfect example of the “smoke alarm” mentality is highlighted on every episode of Kitchen Nightmares, with celebrity chef host Gordon Ramsey.

If you’ve never seen the show, a failing restaurant asks for Ramsey’s help in saving their business. Usually the restaurant needs a complete overhaul from Ramsey, a professional, to create a new experience that people will enjoy much more than the current setup allows for. This transformation, along with the profanity-laced tirades of Ramsey, makes for great television because there is already a problem in place, and with problems come stress, which inevitably leads to some heated arguments.

Most issues in these episodes stem from a “smoke alarm” mentality; the owners refused to hone their cooking skills, business sense, and advertising abilities because everything was going well at the start. They lost focus and didn’t realize their restaurant was in a death-spiral until it was almost too late.

Unfortunately, many people don’t end up changing their mindset, and over 60% of Kitchen Nightmares restaurants have closed since appearing on the show! Yet, the success of any business or individual can be drastically improved at any point simply by losing the “smoke alarm” mentality, and being weaned away from this amateurish complacency is the truest sign of professionalism.

Professionals, specifically elite professionals, have learned to shift their focus when it comes to their development within a certain area of performance. Instead of waiting until something is wrong, professionals consistently work on developing their abilities in specific areas.

If you look at a letter written by Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, in 2006, he started working on the problem of gasoline powered vehicles long before it was a profitable business plan. He understood that if he didn’t work on making an all-electric vehicle right away, there would come a time where it would be too late. Like a true professional, Musk, instead of trying to be a great problem-solver, was in fact attempting to be a problem-evader. Not in the sense of running in the opposite direction when something went wrong, but in the sense of building up Tesla’s strengths so that there was more success in the future. And success there has been!

Amateurs (i.e. Most other car companies) are content with the smoke alarm mindset, where they become focused only when there is an imminent threat. Just like a smoke alarm, they are complacent and functionless when everything is going right.

So, how does an amateur become a professional? They begin to move away from the smoke alarm mindset. Gradually, with this shift in focus, you too could move away from the “smoke alarm” mentality and into what I call the “smoke defender” mentality.

Let’s start simple: Today, take a short inventory of your amateur and professional attributes. In which aspects of your lifestyle do you fall into the “smoke alarm” mentality? In other words, where do you know you could improve, but nothing has gotten bad enough to force you to act?

Once you’ve answered this question, start working on strengthening the skills associated with that part of your life. Be proactive! And while you’re at it, share some of those perfectly baked cookies!


This article was written by James Schwabach. James is a performance psychology consultant who teaches his clients about the mental aspects of optimal performance.