Tapping Your Reservoir of Excellence

Olympic Swimming
“Practice makes perfect” sure sounds right. If you want to get better at something, what better way than to just do more of it? So, you decide to put 10,000 hours into something in order to become a master. You undertake challenges like NaNoWriMo or Game a Week, or sketch something every day. Gradually, your skills improve.

The role of practice as the key to improvement is a simple concept that most people intuitively understand. But it isn’t the whole story.

From 1983 to 1984, sociologist Daniel F. Chambliss set out to research the very nature of excellence in order to discover what really makes some people better than others. Because of their easily quantifiable results, he chose to study Olympic swimmers and their habits.

After attending numerous national and international-class swimming meets and spending years interviewing coaches, swimmers and officials, he concluded that the thing that separated the Olympic-caliber athletes from the rest of the swimmers wasn’t any one innate aspect of talent or drive, but a culmination of many little decisions taken along the way.

Little decisions, like consciously deciding to come to every practice on time, or committing to making small, continual adjustments to their swimming form, all enabled them to shave valuable seconds from their times during meets – seconds that added up to victories.

Chambliss went as far as to dismiss the very idea of talent, calling it “a useless concept.” Talent, he said, falsely mystifies the notion of excellence instead of grounding it in the numerous advantages inherent in the person’s habits, family, genetics, circumstances and atmosphere that all contribute to high performance.

Only by doing actions “ordinary in themselves” that add up over time to be qualitatively superior to others, Chambliss noted, do people ascend to the highest levels. Simply put, excellence is mundane.

Mundanity in Coding

There’s an old joke about programming. “If you have a problem, give it to an American Engineer. If you have a hard problem, give it to an Indian Engineer. If you have an impossible problem, give it to a Russian Engineer.”

Indeed, Russia has a strong reputation for producing top software engineers. But aside from the hard push from the government for math and science education during the Soviet era, there are other factors to consider.

When I asked a Russian programmer I worked with why this was, he told me that when he was in school, the computers used in Russian computer science courses were actually very outmoded. So much so that debugging took such an ungodly amount of time that it forced the students to develop an increased awareness of their code as they wrote it in order to reduce careless errors and minimize mistakes that would take hours to fix.

The unique challenges posed by their learning environment instilled in them such a rigorous attention to detail early on that it became a career-long habit, naturally making them superior programmers to those who didn’t face the same obstacle.

“But of course there is no secret; there is only the doing of all of those little things, each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of one’s everyday life.”
– Daniel F. Chambliss, The Mundanity of Excellence

Mundanity in Performing

Singer/songwriter Andy Grammer isn’t quite a household name, but he’s getting there. He’s toured with Natasha Bedingfield and Colbie Caillat, filmed music videos with Rainn Wilson and recorded songs you’d recognize from the radio. He’s living every musician’s dream – but he didn’t start out that way.

When I was in college at SUNY Binghamton, Andy was a fellow undergrad student. I would watch him sing at the occasional open mic night and on-campus event. Whenever he sang, it was immediately obvious that his abilities dwarfed the other amateurs there – but in the few times I saw him, he never hung around after performances with the other singers and students.

Andy Grammer in performance.

Andy Grammer performing at the Nokia Theater L.A. in Los Angeles. Photo: CelebMagnet

For him, every open mic was an opportunity to refine his craft, to refocus on his rapport with the audience. It was work that he took seriously – aided by insight gained from observing his father, musician Red Grammer, put in the work to create a successful career as a performer.

“The most important thing I learned from my father about being a musician was the work ethic,” Grammer says. “He worked really hard, he traveled all across the country. I saw his respect for his audience, respect for himself. I saw him take days off where he wouldn’t talk to rest his voice. I saw the work it takes to cultivate an artist’s career.” –AndyGrammer.com

When he later moved to Santa Monica, he put in significant time busking on the pier and the promenade. Seeing that his songs alone weren’t drawing enough attention, he taught himself to beatbox, and continually reinvented his performance – until an agent caught his new act on the street and eventually signed him to a record deal.

For Andy, music was his life, and he was serious enough about it to constantly push himself forward.

Excellence Comes From Meaning

If Chambliss’s findings are to be believed, excellence in any field is a combination of persistence, motivation, and the ability and affordance to clearly establish a goal, stake out the path to it, then simply follow the path you’ve laid out for yourself.

Rather than despairing that you’ll never be as good as your heroes or being frustrated with your seemingly inadequate abilities, excellence lies in the stark decision to consciously use every decision point that comes your way as an opportunity to help you become what you want to be.

In this way, the secret to excellence lies in one simple decision you must consciously make: the decision to live for something.

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