7 min read

On The Mundanity of Excellence

Why excellence is actually pretty boring.
On The Mundanity of Excellence

Ideas covered:

Excellence is the result of consistent superiority of performance.

  • Talent is a useless concept. When we witness great performance we tend to throw it behind the blanket of talent, but that's not where excellence comes from. Small habits create outstanding performance.
  • Quality > Quantity: Excellence is a qualitative phenomenon. Doing more does not mean doing better. It is the quality of the work you do, not the quantity of the work you do, that makes the difference.
  • Excellence is a compound effect of mundane actions. Excellence comes from performing ordinary actions consistently and carefully so that they compound over time.

This essay looks at ‘The Mundanity of Excellence’  by David Chambliss, sourced from the brilliant team at Fermat’s Library. Chambliss followed swimmers of all ages and all levels over a span of 6 years to try and understand what resulted in excellent performance.

Chambliss conducted his research before the winners were known. As the author says, "it was designed with the explicit idea of seeing how the plant grew before the flower bloomed."

Most of you aren't swimmers, but you can map these findings to practices of your own – the things you want to excel in – to improve performance.

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Why talent doesn't lead to excellence

'Talent' is the most pervasive lay explanation we have for athletic success. Great athletes, we seem to believe, are born with a special gift, something inside of them, denied to the rest of us— physical, genetic, psychological, or physiological. Some have “it,” and some don’t […] but talent fails as an explanation for athletic success, on conceptual grounds. It mystifies excellence, subsuming a complex set of discrete actions behind a single undifferentiated concept."

Paul Graham says something similar:

"People who've done great things tend to seem as if they were a race apart. And most biographies only exaggerate this illusion, partly due to the worshipful attitude biographers inevitably sink into, and partly because, knowing how the story ends, they can't help streamlining the plot till it seems like the subject's life was a matter of destiny, the mere unfolding of some innate genius. In fact I suspect if you had the sixteen year old Shakespeare or Einstein in school with you, they'd seem impressive, but not totally unlike your other friends. Which is an uncomfortable thought. If they were just like us, then they had to work very hard to do what they did. And that's one reason we like to believe in genius. It gives us an excuse for being lazy. If these guys were able to do what they did only because of some magic Shakespeareness or Einsteinness, then it's not our fault if we can't do something as good. I'm not saying there's no such thing as genius. But if you're trying to choose between two theories and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, the other one is probably right."

When we witness a great performance in sports, theatre, or a great lecture, we tend to witness it as a whole and jump to the conclusion that the person delivering that performance is really talented; a genius. When we do this, we fail to see all the incremental improvements, the effort that compounded over time to produce the final result we are witnessing. We throw it all behind the blanket of talent, but that's not where excellence comes from.

People tend to be labelled as talented, gifted, or natural only after they've put in years of effort to arrive where they are. It's not that there's no such thing as "natural ability", but rather that the smallest amount required for excellence appears to be lower than most people believe.

“People say artists are born with talent, you're not. You have to really learn and really practice”. - Ed Sheeran

Rather than defaulting to the term talent, consider the group of actions done by an athlete that end up producing outstanding performance.

Doing more doesn’t mean doing better

Excellence is a qualitative phenomenon. It’s the quality of the work you do, not the quantity of the work you do, that makes the difference. Doing more doesn’t mean doing better.

"Olympic champions don’t just do much more of the same things that summer-league country club swimmers do. They don’t just swim more hours, or move their arms faster, or attend more workouts. What makes them faster cannot be quantitatively compared with lower-level swimmers, because while there may be quantitative differences—and certainly there are, for instance in the number of hours spent in workouts—these are not, I think, the decisive factors at all. Instead, they do things differently. Their strokes are different, their attitudes are different, their groups of friends are different, their parents treat the sport differently, the swimmers prepare differently for their races, and they enter different kinds of meets and events.”

The idea of excellence being a qualitative phenomenon reminded me of a generally agreed-upon notion found in creative work. The frequency of your work showing up at regular intervals, without worrying about results — leads to better results. The notion stems from a parable in the book 'Art and Fear':

[A] ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class, he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorising about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay."

The notion of quantity leading to quality seems to contradict Chambliss's claim that "excellence isn't doing more of the same training or practice and expecting to improve as a result of it." But the parable makes note of the quantity group learning from their mistakes.

By throwing more pots, the quantity group created an environment where they could experiment and learn. The cost of throwing a bad pot was essentially zero, but the feedback it generated was priceless.

It is not by doing increasing amounts of work that you become excellent, but rather by experimenting with the kind of work you do. Chambliss highlights three fundamental differences in the way professionals conduct their training and their life in general, providing us with a framework for how to change the kind of practice we do:

  1. Technique: World-class swimmers pay great attention to the details. They adapt their training to perfect different aspects of their technique. That might be reducing drag in their stroke or perfecting their dive to get as much distance with as little friction as possible. They're meticulous about the small things.
  2. Discipline: The best swimmers are more likely to be strict with their training, coming to workouts on time, carefully doing the competitive strokes legally, watching what they eat, sleeping regular hours and doing proper warmups before a meet.
  3. Attitude: At the very high levels the swimmers tend to enjoy practices that the entry-level swimmers find boring. They enjoy early morning workouts and hard practices and look forward to competitions. It seems to be a fallacy that great athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals.

One way to pull on all three of these levers is to change your setting. Athletes often move to higher levels when their setting changes. This could be joining a different team, working with a new coach, or making new friends who swim at higher levels.

We find the same phenomenon in other areas of life. Carl von Clausewitz, writer of the classic 19th-century text on military strategy On War, noted that great generals rise quickly. Especially in wartime, when battlefield performance is a vital need, there is no long period of apprenticeship before one achieves the highest ranks, no tedious “accumulation” of knowledge or skills. They were men who rose to the position and did what was necessary to win.

The same is true for all professions. There is no speed limit. Whether you join a new company, find a new mentor, or move to a new city, changing your setting creates the opportunity improve your technique, discipline and attitude, edging closer to excellence in the process.

How To Achieve Excellence

"People don't know how ordinary success is" - Mary T. Meagher (Swimmer, 3 x Olympic champion, and World record-holder)

Outlier performance is really dozens of small skills or activities which have been drilled into habit and fitted together into a synthesised whole. These skills have a compounding effect that results in excellence. There's nothing extraordinary about these actions except that they're done consistently and over a period where they can compound.

"When a swimmer learns a proper flip turn in the freestyle races, she will swim the race a bit faster; then a streamlined push off from the wall, with the arms squeezed together over the head, and a little faster; then how to place the hands in the water so no air is cupped in them; then how to lift them over the water; then how to lift weights to properly build strength, and how to eat the right foods, and to wear the best suits for racing, and on and on.”

Excellence lies in identifying the plethora of skills relevant to your ambitions and learning to do them well. The 'little things' really do count.

In the 100 Meter Freestyle event in the Los Angeles Olympics, Rowdy Gaines, knowing that the starter for the race tended to fire the gun fast, anticipated the start. He didn’t actually jump the gun, it seems from video replays of the race that Gaines knew exactly when to go, and others were left on the blocks as he took off. But the starter turned his back, and the protests filed afterwards by competitors were ignored. Gaines had spent years watching starters and had talked with his coach before the race about this starter in particular.

There is no secret, there is only the doing of all those little things. Each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of your everyday life.

Excellence is mundane.

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