The Jane Goodall of Excellence
Hamilton College Professor Daniel F. Chambliss spent a year and a half conducting a feat of unprecedented sociological research in the world of swimmers – living with coaches, attending practices, going to team meetings and parties, and interviewing over a hundred national and world class athletes.
He did so because swimming is uniquely suited to the measurement of excellence, as an individually segmented sport where classes of athlete are clearly delineated by division, and winners and losers are separated by mere milliseconds. This precision of measurement and segregation of variables provided an extraordinary opportunity to closely observe and painstakingly document the difference between mediocre swimmers and world-class athletes – in other words, to deconstruct excellence.
In his report published in Sociological Theory, Dr. Chambliss illustrates a detailed and definitive picture of how excellence really comes about. Most of his findings revolved around three main realities that are completely contrary to popular belief. For example:
Talent Is a Fictional Concept Invented so We Can Be Lazy and Ignorant but Not Feel Bad About Ourselves
Excellence does not result from some special inner quality of the athlete. “Talent” is one common name for this quality; sometimes we talk of a “gift,” or of “natural ability.” These terms are generally used to mystify the essentially mundane processes of achievement in sports, keeping us away from a realistic analysis of the actual factors creating superlative performances, and protecting us from a sense of responsibility for our own outcomes.
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. To understand these actions and the excellence which they constitute, then, we should first debunk this concept of talent and see where it fails.
[Factors of success] are clearly definable, and their effects can be clearly demonstrated. To subsume all of them, willynilly, under the rubric of “talent” obscures rather than illuminates the sources of athletic excellence.
The concept of talent hinders a clear understanding of excellence. By providing a quick… “explanation” of athletic success, it satisfies our casual curiosity while requiring neither an empirical analysis nor a critical questioning of our tacit assumptions about top athletes… Through the notion of talent, we transform particular actions that a human being does into an object possessed, held in trust for the day when it will be revealed for all to see…
The concept of the eccentric genius is similarly laughable; despite the archetype, there is simply no actual instance of this, and the author barely even dignifies it with a brief mention.
Excellence is not, I find, the product of socially deviant personalities.
Practice Does Not Make Perfect – It Makes You Mediocre
The author then highlights a somewhat nuanced revelation concerning how excellence really comes about.
Excellence… is achieved through qualitative differentiation… not through quantitative increases in activity… Athletes move up to the top ranks through qualitative jumps: noticeable changes in their techniques, discipline, and attitude, accomplished usually through a change in settings (e.g., joining a new team with a new coach, new friends, etc.) who work at a higher level.
Note that the author names technique, discipline, and attitude as the three areas of potential for qualitative jumps. As a mental model of the pursuit of excellence, he suggests “multiple worlds” rather than a ladder of upward progression.
So we should envision not a… world, but multiple worlds (and changing worlds is a major step toward excellence), a horizontal rather than vertical differentiation… What I have called “levels” are better described as “worlds” or “spheres.”
Your sphere plays a critical role in determining whether you develop what is possibly the most crucial factor of success.
At the higher levels… something like an inversion of attitude takes place. The very features of the sport that the “C” swimmer finds unpleasant, the top level swimmer enjoys. What others see as boring—swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say—they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. They enjoy hard practices, look forward to difficult competitions, try to set difficult goals. Coming into the 5:30 A.M. practices at Mission Viejo, many of the swimmers were lively, laughing, talking, enjoying themselves, perhaps appreciating the fact that most people would positively hate doing it. It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.
Prioritize the choosing of your world, and spend your efforts to get there; the repetition will then take care of itself.
The Secret to Excellence is the Degree to Which You Successfully Maintain Mundanity
So what, precisely, is excellence?
Excellence is mundane. Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence.
The winning of a gold medal is nothing more than the synthesis of a countless number of such little things—even if some of them are done unwittingly or by others, and thus called “luck.”
Looking at such subtleties, we can say that not only are the little things important; in some ways, the little things are the only things.
And how, practically, do we get there?
Motivation is mundane, too… even given the longer-term goals, the daily satisfactions need to be there. The mundane social rewards really are crucial. By comparison, the big, dramatic motivations—winning an Olympic gold medal, setting a world record—seem to be ineffective unless translated into shorter-term tasks… [Olympic athletes] found their challenges in small things.
In the author’s observation of various calibers of swimmers, he noticed that the elite treated every practice in exactly the same way they acted in competition. Elite performers are a level above the rest because by the time it counts, they’ve already gone through countless repetitions of precisely the same procedure.
In the pursuit of excellence, maintaining mundanity is the key psychological challenge. In common parlance, winners don’t choke. Faced with what seems to be a tremendous challenge or a strikingly unusual event, such as the Olympic Games, the better athletes take it as a normal, manageable situation… and do what is necessary to deal with it.
The sometimes odd rituals of top performers serve a very practical purpose: maintaining this fluid, unbroken mundanity.
Standard rituals (such as the warmup, the psych, the visualization of the race, the taking off of sweats, and the like) are ways of importing one’s daily habits into the novel situation, to make it as normal an event as possible.
The Meaning and Aim of Deconstructing Excellence
One professor’s observations hardly prove anything, but the more I read from and talk with world-class performers, the more I realize that Dr. Chambliss was both spot-on, and that his findings in relation to swimming are broadly applicable to all areas of life. He sums it up well, so I’ll turn things over to him one last time:
(1) Talent is a useless concept. Varying conceptions of natural ability (“talent,” e.g.) tend to mystify excellence, treating it as the inherent possession of a few; they mask the concrete actions that create outstanding performance; they avoid the work of empirical analysis and logical explanations (clear definitions, separable independent and dependent variables,and at least an attempt at establishing the temporal priority of the cause); and finally, such conceptions perpetuate the sense of innate psychological differences between high performers and other people.
(2) Excellence is a qualitative phenomenon. Doing more does not equal doing better. High performers focus on qualitative, not quantitative, improvements; it is qualitative improvements which produce significant changes in level of achievement; different levels of achievement really are distinct, and in fact reflect vastly different habits, values, and goals.
(3) Excellence is mundane. Excellence is accomplished through the doing of actions, ordinary in themselves, performed consistently and carefully, habitualized, compounded together, added up over time. While these actions are “qualitatively different” from those of performers at other levels, these differences are neither unmanageable nor, taken one step at a time, terribly difficult.
The Greatness Formula
Excellence in any endeavor is simply the accumulation of small techniques, handed over to the subconscious via conversion to habit. The better your world, the better the techniques to which you have access. Here is the formula:
The first priority is to get your world right; and that is the primary argument for the necessity of books. Books enable access to the greatest minds of history – the eminent dead, as Shane Parrish puts it. There are few finer doorways to better worlds so commonly available.
On this foundation, we build a second priority – the identification and selection of techniques to convert into habits.
The third and last critical element, then, is to become a virtuoso in the art of conscious-to-subconscious conversion – in other words, the breaking of old habits and the making of new ones.
And that, my friends, is the meaning, and the aim, of deconstructing excellence. While the newspaper headlines fawn over the latest wunderkind and stand in awe of the revered visionary, we’ll be instead studying their habits, their rituals, their methods, and their techniques. The main difference between these outliers and you is that they have learned to apply this formula. Having said that, the quickest way forward is always to follow those who have gone before you, and use their tools to think better and do better as you blaze your own path.
We hope you’ll come along for the journey.
To read more about our philosophy, refer to The Two Most Common Mistakes of Optimizers.