The Mundanity of Excellence

Below are my notes from the academic essay named The Mundanity of Excellence, which was written by Daniel Chambliss. The essay drew on his years of studying swimmers on different levels to understand the sources of excellence. And as you can see below, the lessons aren’t only applicable to swimming. They can be very useful to us all in every walk of life.

What are NOT the sources of excellence

Excellence is not, I find, the product of socially deviant personalities. These swimmers don’t appear to be “oddballs,” nor are they loners.

Excellence does not result from quantitative changes in behavior. Increased training time, per se, does not make one swim fast; nor does increased “psyching up,” nor does moving the arms faster. Simply doing more of the same will not lead to moving up a level in the sport.

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.”

I agree with Daniel that socially deviant personalities, quantitive changes or innate talent ALONE does NOT explain excellence. There are plenty of world class athletes who seem very socially friendly such as Kobe Bryant (Rest in Power, Mamba), Roger Federer, Leo Messi or Lewis Hamilton. If the amount of practice alone was the determinant of excellence, why wouldn’t we have more world class competitors? Why would people have different skill levels even at the same age and likely the same amount of practice? If the innate talent could determine excellence, then why did we have several 1st draft pick players in NBA fail to meet expectations? Why did we have the likes of Ravel Morrison, who people at Manchester United labelled as genius, fail to reach the heights that seemed destined for them?

On the last point, the author expanded on why he didn’t think talent alone doesn’t lead to excellence

Talent is indistinguishable from its effects. One cannot see that talent exists until after its effects become obvious. One of the more startling discoveries of our study has been that it takes a while to recognize swimming talent. Indeed, it usually takes being successful at a regional level, and more often, at a national level (in AAU swimming) before the child is identified as talented. 

It seems initially plausible that one must have a certain level of natural ability in order to succeed in sports (or music or academics). But upon empirical examination, it becomes very difficult to say exactly what that physical minimum is. Most Olympic champions, when their history is studied, seem to have overcome sharp adversity in their pursuit of success. Automobile accidents, shin splints, twisted ankles, shoulder surgery are common in such tales. In fact, they are common in life generally. While some necessary minimum of physical strength, heart/lung capacity, or nerve density may well be required for athletic achievement (again, I am not denying differential advantages), that mini- mum seems both difficult to define and markedly low, at least in many cases. Perhaps the crucial factor is not natural ability at all, but the willingness to overcome natural or unnatural disabilities of the sort that most of us face, ranging from minor inconveniences in getting up and going to work, to accidents and injuries, to gross physical impairments.

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.

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

All the world class put in thousands of hours in practice before they burst into fame. Not only do they train as hard as anyone else, but they are almost maniacal about improving their craft. The late Kobe Bryant studied cheetahs to improve his fade away shots. He called up Hakeem to learn about post-up moves. He talked to Michael Jackson to become a better athlete. LeBron James and Cristiano Ronaldo have taken care of their body and skills so well that they are still performing exceptionally at the age of 36.

Motivation is mundane, too

But 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. Viewing “Rocky” or “Chariots of Fire” may inspire one for several days, but the excitement stirred by a film wears off rather quickly when confronted with the day- to-day reality of climbing out of bed to go and jump in cold water. If, on the other hand, that day-to-day reality is itself fun, rewarding, challenging; if the water is nice and friends are supportive, the longer-term goals may well be achieved almost in spite of themselves. 

You see the effect of short-term goals and daily satisfactions every often in reality. Fitness apps have leaderboards so that you can compare yourself with friends or strangers. The confidence and satisfaction boost derived from seeing your name on the top of the leaderboard makes you likely committed in the long run. Personally, when I started to learn English, the road to fluency wasn’t easy. First, I needed to reach some local certificates that were proof of the mastery of the language in Vietnam and the stepping stones for international tests such as IELTS or TOEFL. After I achieved those certificates, then came the preparation for IELTS. Even after I got my IELTS, I still needed to practice a lot to use English comfortably. Without the small wins, I am not sure I would have persisted for years to learn a second language.

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 situation18 (“It’s just another swim meet,” is a phrase sometimes used by top swimmers at a major event such as the Games) and do what is necessary to deal with it. 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

Rafael Nadal is famous for his rituals on the tennis court. He always takes a cold shower before every game. He walks into a court with his bags on one shoulder and a racquet in the other hand. He never steps on the court lines. He has two bottles, one is water and the other can be juice. They have to be placed in a certain order and the labels always face the side that he is on. There is no scientific explanation for his behavior, except that doing these little things make him focused and at ease.

One of my favorite movies is Burnt, which stars Bradley Cooper as a 2-star Michelin chef named Adam striving for his 3rd. Adam is infamous for his short temper, ridiculously high standards and lack of patience. He kept pushing his team to the limit every day and wore out everybody in the process. After a betrayal of his Sous Chef, sorting out his personal problems and with the help of his new girlfriend, Adam became more relaxed in his pursuit of the 3rd Michelin star. This scene below is what he got his chance. At 0:22 when being informed that the judges arrived, Adam nonchalantly said “We do what we do”. Everybody looked shocked because it wasn’t what they expected from him. But it’s exactly that attitude that helped him and his team psychologically in their triumph.

The biggest take-away for me from this article is that in addition to putting the work in, I need to spend more time on thinking about how to improve myself qualitatively and how to be smarter and more disciplined with my practices.

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