3 Myths About Excellence That I Used to Believe

Mod Note (Andy) - We're reposting the top discussions from 2015, this one ranks #18 and was originally posted 7/8/2015.

This week, I want to share with you one of the sources that inspired my quest to deconstruct excellence. It was a fascinating (but very long) report in Sociological Theory that made me realize that the three things I thought I knew about what makes great people who they are were complete myths. This is what I learned:

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.

This post has been syndicated from DeconstructingExcellence.com.If you learned something from this post, sign up for the Deconstructing Excellence newsletter here.

You can read the entirety of Professor Chambliss' article here.

To read more about our philosophy, refer to The Two Most Common Mistakes of Optimizers.

Comments (46)

Jun 30, 2015

Good stuff! Thanks for sharing.

I think- therefore I fuck

Jun 30, 2015

interesting +1, thanks!

Jun 30, 2015

"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. "

What the fuck does this mean? And how does this happen?

The author says it's simply 'luck,' a random (in the trust sense of the term) series of circumstances. He decouples causality from reality. His universe is one where things simply appear and disappear and no explanation is required.

In other words, another sociologist that's full of shit and who would rather attack reality than explain it. After reading this passage I still don't understand how the explains the phenomenon of excellence.

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Jun 30, 2015

Thanks for the feedback! This was a pretty dense post, so you might want to read it a couple times - I certainly had to re-read the original publication several times before I got it.

The author is actually saying the opposite - excellence has little to do with luck, and is the furthest thing from random. The quote means that top performers have taken dozens of small activities that lead to certain skills, and then practiced them consistently by turning the activities into habits. Because we don't see the dozens of small activities or the way they compound on themselves, we are tempted to explain away top performance with words like "talent."

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Jun 30, 2015
Deconstructing Excellence:

Thanks for the feedback! This was a pretty dense post, so you might want to read it a couple times - I certainly had to re-read the original publication several times before I got it.

The author is actually saying the opposite - excellence has little to do with luck, and is the furthest thing from random. The quote means that top performers have taken dozens of small activities that lead to certain skills, and then practiced them consistently by turning the activities into habits. Because we don't see the dozens of small activities or the way they compound on themselves, we are tempted to explain away top performance with words like "talent."

Okay, that makes sense to me. What I don't understand, however, is how this doesn't contradict his comment that "Excellence... is achieved through qualitative differentiation... not through quantitative increases in activity..." or, as you put it, "PRACTICE DOES NOT MAKE PERFECT - IT MAKES YOU MEDIOCRE."

It appears that, and you highlight this in your response to me, excellence very much relies on quantitative repetition.

Jun 30, 2015

Good article, thanks for posting. Really like points #2 and #3.

I do, to an extent, disagree with point #1 on talent. Some people do just have more natural ability to be good at something with very little effort or practice compared to people whose routine and practice meets points #2 and #3. Think Hendrix on the guitar, or a mathematical genius like John Nash or a chess prodigy like Garry Kasparov. Were they that far ahead of their competitors on points #2 and #3 that there wasn't some talent involved? Absolutely not.

While yes there is still hard work involved, and people with talent will likely enjoy the activity more and the cycle progresses with them improving more and more, I think the article is discounting natural talent a bit too much.

Jun 30, 2015

There is definitely such a thing as talent. I disagree with their point that talent is just an excuse.

Jun 30, 2015

Exactly. In quantitative fields such as mathematics or science talent is definitely apparent.

Jun 30, 2015

So anyone that is 6'6, ~215 lbs and does the exact same things as Michael Jordan will be the best basketball player ever?

Jun 30, 2015

@LeChiffre @jargon223 & @astfin-juki The author is saying that using the blanket term "talent" is unnecessarily vague. People have different IQs, genetics, heights, etc. So yes, some people have a natural ability to be good at something; the author's point is that we can and should look at where that ability comes from.

Jul 1, 2015

I can get on board with some of the genetics argument. If someone is 6'7'' they'll have a leg up on the competition if they're playing basketball. But where do you draw the line with genetics? And isn't IQ part of raw talent?

But the author clearly states: "Excellence does not result from some special inner quality of the athlete." Yeah, that's a lie, I don't care what kind of science he cooked up to come to that conclusion.

You know how some things come naturally to you but not to other people, be it a subject in school, a sport, etc.? That's talent. Yes it needs to be refined in most cases, but some people are born with the right genes to be good at certain things.

The author should have said that we overstate the role talent plays, that is a more reasonable argument.

Jul 2, 2015

Except this post isn't about who has a "leg up" in basketball, or which third grader in the class can do multiplication the quickest. It's about excellence - rising to the pinnacle of human achievement.

Having had a little exposure to the training regimens and environments of a few world-class programs in a different individual sport, I can tell you that there is no end to the infinite variation of these different "worlds" of training. It's not as simple as "pay top dollar for the best facilities and the best personnel." While tiers of quality certainly exist, each "best in the world" training setting is infinitely different in philosophy, practice, attitude, and resources.

You'd be surprised at the level of toxicity and incompetency that somehow manages to slip through the cracks at some of these top places, especially those that are just a rung or two below the top. You'd also be surprised at how many of the high-performing competitors themselves are either slackers (relatively) or just don't do those extra things to go above-and-beyond despite their opportunity of having one of the best training environments in the world. These are the people who end up "second tier" (excuse my use of elitist terms, this is about excellence and "bests in the world" after all), or may end up snatching that No. 1 title only to give it away quickly.

It's not as simple as "join the best possible world and you succeed." Reciprocal determinism is also at play - the quality of the work you put in as well as that of your peers also influences the quality of the training "world" you're in. It's possible for an individual to excel in a "subpar" training environment, but only to a certain extent, to which they are limiting their growth by not being in a better setting.

In professional tennis, there's sometimes mention of the term "maxing your talent". This implies that many who are the best in the world right now have achieved this level. Yet, I would wager that if the top 25 tennis players in the world all lived and trained together every day with the best coaches, physical trainers, sports psychologists, nutritionists, and tennis mentors available, the quality of tennis would still rise as they immerse themselves in a "world" still superior to their current ones.

Someone else mentioned skill in a quantitative field as an example. Sure, someone with a quantitative IQ 3 standard deviations above the mean has huge advantages learning concepts and performing computations over someone with a purely average IQ. But when it comes to achieving excellence, I'd take the average person every single time if they are diligently learning thought patterns, shortcuts, and conceptualizations from a training "world" with the "best and brightest" while the genius conducts self-study from a few books or just takes a few classes.

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Jun 30, 2015

Sociology enjoys bastardising scientific and quantitative concepts and then whacking on a label of 'qualitative' because it cannot find any evidence to support the abstractions of these in the 'social' domain.

Frankly - the 'ideas' produced by the post are interesting, in fact this would be great at cocktail parties. However I disagree that this information has any substance to it. There is no measurement of something measureable, simply a theoretical expose on his 'observations'. In other words, his own opinions, as informed by the anecdotal evidence of a swimming team is apparently inducible to the entire domain of the concept of 'excellence'. This is dangerous.

Don't take the critique against yourself as a poster, I applaud your effort in researching this, writing it up and then syndicating it for a website - your effort is substantial and impressive. I only take issue with the content of the post, which is aimed at the researcher.

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Jul 1, 2015

Thanks for the commentary! It really is incredibly helpful to me to be able to see where my explanations or summaries break down or fall short.

Perhaps one thing that I didn't sufficiently stress is that this research was backed by an enormous amount of data. The author observed and interviewed hundreds of swimmers across all levels of the sport, rather than relying on the anecdotal evidence of one team. One top of that, the individual performance of thousands of swimmers on thousands of dates at every level of the sport has been recorded to a fraction of a second - and that data is highly correlated to performance, because there are few variables involved other than the athlete's individual ability. (Contrast this with American football, for example, where many things affect outcomes - a coin toss, wind conditions, inflation of the ball, dozens of other team members, etc.)

It's certainly arguable that the findings can be extrapolated to "excellence" (a pretty vague term) in other fields. Like I mentioned,

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.

I didn't fully understand what the author was saying until I saw the same principles repeated ad nauseam in everything I studied about outliers.

Jul 3, 2015

Unfortunately I've based my comments on the article itself (which you linked), and still stand by the critique.

Specifically I draw your attention to Page 71 of the article, paragraph 3 - "In short, this report draws on extended experience with swimmers at ever level of ability, over some half a dozen years"

Whilst I concede it is not necessarily 'one team' - I disagree that the dataset is 'enormous' in the sense that is applicable to any other field beyond swimming. I further disagree that on the basis of observation, interviews and correlation that one is able to isolate factors CAUSING excellence.

I guess personally my standard of evidence does not allow me to pay much attention to the results.

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Jun 30, 2015

This reminds me of the book Bounce by Matthew Syed. Not sure if you read it yet, but backs up everything in your post and more.

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Jul 1, 2015

I actually don't remember ever hearing of it, but I'm definitely adding it to my reading list now. I've heard these things over and over again from many sources, which helped me understand what the author was saying even though it didn't make sense at first.

Thanks for the recommendation!

Jul 1, 2015

Great post!

"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."

I think this quote summarizes what success is. You have to be intrinsically motivated to do whatever it is you are chasing, otherwise the day to day motions will be overbearing and you will quit or not give it your all.

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Jul 4, 2015

For anyone interested in learning more about the psychology of excellence highly recommend Dweck's Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential. Transforming book and Amazon bestseller.

The way Ah see it, is that it took a revolution f a bihllion people for your darn short to work out!

Jul 4, 2015

I am doing everything possible to become an offensive lineman in the NFL. I feel like I am doing everything right, but amazingly being 5'10" and 165 lbs seems to be holding me back.

This reminds me of the Saturday Night Live skit a number of years ago with Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze battling it out for a spot on a Chippendale's squad. Both were good dancers and giving it their all, but ultimately, Farley was just way too fat. Granted, if Farley really wanted it he could have exercised, done less drugs, and not eaten like a hippo, but the concept still stands. A person who struggles with basic math, is never going to win a Nobel prize in the sciences.

To make the point even more dramatic, a person with Down Syndrome is never going to win a Nobel Prize in science and a person who has no arms is not going to win Wimbledon. Not sure why these basics truths are so offensive. Not everyone has the same potential in every field. You don't need to conduct a study to realize this.

This does not mean that people should not try to maximize their potential. It does mean that people should try to maximize their potential where they have some degree of talent, given that time does not allow people to maximize their potential in everything.

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Jul 4, 2015
DickFuld:

This does not mean that people should not try to maximize their potential. It does mean that people should try to maximize their potential where they have some degree of talent, given that time does not allow people to maximize their potential in everything.

This, can't just go around trying to be superman

Jul 5, 2015

You can't augment your height, but if you're only 165 lbs., you're not doing everything possible to become an NFL o-lineman.

Again, this is about excellence, not winning a one-off TV competition. Of course there's a certain baseline of physical and mental attributes required. However, we're talking about the best 100 or 1000 people in the world at a particular skill (who all have that baseline) and why some are better than others by the smallest of margins.

The more complex and learnable the skill is, the more derivative any translation of superior genetics to superior performance is, and the greater the explanatory power of training, preparation, and attitude over genetics is.

Jul 7, 2015

Math and sports shouldnt be intertwine together..

Sports have both physical (simple speed and strength) and mental (pattern recognition and sophisticated motor) requirements

Whereas math have only the latter.

I feel like the point is to state that given the right "world" circumstances, and alot of effort, anyone can become excellent in anything.

Einstein, Mozart, Serena/ Venus Williams, David Beckham, Tiger Woods were not born with any spectacular talent/ abilities. They worked hard and happened to have the right circumstances, which helped propel them to a level of mastery in their respective craft.

I agree that talent is not transferable. Desmond Douglas, regarded as one of the greatest table tennis player in UK with lightning reflexes, had one of the slowest reaction time when compared to his teammates. The lightning reflexes he acquired in table tennis was learned and acquired through rigorous practice--that quickness is not transferable.

-- reference from "Bounce" by Matthew Syed

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Jul 9, 2015

Great points about skill transfer. I would add a point to Syed's argument, though - while skill (which I'm using in place of "talent" for clarity) is often not transferable, particularly at the higher levels of any domain, many skills can indeed be transferred from one arena to another. My next book summary will be The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, who leveraged the skills he gained as a world champion chess player to then become a world champion in tai chi. In certain situations, practice in one arena can lead to breakthroughs in others, a phenomenon that Waitzkin calls "parallel learning."

The issue is that at the higher levels, people have integrated a great deal of pattern recognition into their subconscious. If some of those same patterns are applicable to another arena, the skill may be transferable, but more often than not, those patterns are highly specific to a certain field.

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Jul 9, 2015
LeverageMill:

Math and sports shouldnt be intertwine together..

Einstein, Mozart, Serena/ Venus Williams, David Beckham, Tiger Woods were not born with any spectacular talent/ abilities. They worked hard and happened to have the right circumstances, which helped propel them to a level of mastery in their respective craft.

-- reference from "Bounce" by Matthew Syed

I respectfully disagree completely. Do we really believe the people that are true greats in their field (Einstein, Tiger, etc.) really got there strictly on hard work? No chance in hell. Was hard work involved? Yes. Was inclination also involved? Yes. Some people can pick something up and be good at it, that's inclination.

And yes people can have natural talent, or inclination, to be good at things besides sports and math (which this thread has honed in on, with the addition of science). Some may have an inclination for the hard and soft skills to be a good investment banker, investor, and so on. Will they have to work hard? Yes. But, their talents will take them far.

To say natural talent and genes only apply to certain fields (sports, math, etc.) is a weak argument. Some in this thread have said that, not directed at you specifically.

Find what you're good at and enjoy and work on that. Talent and strong work ethic will take you farther than the work ethic with no talent.

I believe we can forge our own paths, but a big part of that is determined by what natural ability we have.

Jul 5, 2015

"Practice makes permanent", "Practice smarter, not harder", "You are who you surround yourself with", "Give it your all" and "Persistence is key".

There we go, a tl;dr version.

Jul 6, 2015

Problem is, most of us operate in the real world (not in sports).

In sports, the most successful are the ones that are excellent (for the most part). In sports, success and excellence are synonymous.

In the real world, where subjectivity rules the land, this is far from the case. You can attain great success in the business, politics, etc. without being excellent. So this dogma isnt really that helpful for most of us sitting in front of a PC at the moment.

Jul 7, 2015

I disagree.
I am sure there are many skills that are necessary to become successful; I guarantee you need to have excellent writing/ communication skills. Its probably easier to attain some sort of success, since we are all competing with millions of amateurs. But if you are a company, trying to take on the big boys.. well lol.

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Jul 21, 2015
Comment

"It is better to have a friendship based on business, than a business based on friendship." - Rockefeller.

"Live fast, die hard. Leave a good looking body." - Navy SEAL

Aug 5, 2015