SEC Mining Tools for Data Journalists, Investors, & Regulators

As I’ve written about several times, I’m a huge fan web applications at the intersection of open data, information visualization, and accounting/econ/finance. I just found an article via the NYT, titled, A Harvest of Company Details All in One Basket.  This article highlights several tools and companies that I have been tracking for a while. These are tools that I think will be heavily used by data journalists, investors, & regulators in the years to come. Here are some of my favorite finds by category.

Filings – Research & Analysis:

1. Rank&Filed – By Maris Jensen – A tool which is the Sec’s edgar database for humans. Maris has jumped through a lot of hoops to get this working. She reminds me a lot of Michelle Leder of Footnoted. The website is outstanding as it combines data viz using d3 along with sec filings.

2. Open Corporates – By Chris Taggart and Rob McKinnon - It has the aims of creating a URL with such data for every corporate entity in the world, importing government data relating to companies and matching it to specific companies

3. Enigma – Connecting data across various platforms to make sense of the world.

4. Kensho – Intelligent Market Research Assistant that can answer complex financial questions. Think of it as Siri for Finance.

5. BamSec – Helping people track & organize sec filings

Note Taking:

 SECLive:  Think of it as Evernote for sec filings. You can read filings while also taking notes and exporting data directly to excel.

MackeyRMS: Super high end Evernote for investors.

Investment Research & Data Visualization:

ValueOutlook: A tool for helping value investors identify investment opportunities.

Part 2. Genomics, Bioinformatics, & Bio-Hacking

This is the second part of my post on genomics. Let’s start with a recap on whole genome sequencing and move onto comparing dna & technology.

 Whole genome sequencing

Curious about what it’s like to have your genome sequenced? read this piece by Carole Cadwalladr @ Guardian

Skeptical about the promise of cheap sequencing? Several Stanford researchers are also skeptical read about their research highlighting what’s missing from properly studying genes and cheap prices.

 

This brings us to thinking about DNA through the eyes of a computer scientist

Take a look at  DNA Seen Through The Eyes of A Coder. It’s a must read for techies interested in genomics. Here are some awesome quotes from the article.

“Now, DNA is not like a computer programming language. It really isn’t. But there are some whopping analogies. We can view each cell as a CPU, running its own kernel. Each cell has a copy of the entire kernel, but choses to activate only the relevant parts. Which modules or drivers it loads, so to speak.

If a cell needs to do something (‘call a function’), it whips up the right piece of the genome and transcribes it into RNA. The RNA is then translated into a sequence of amino acids, which together make up a protein the DNA coded for. Now for the really cool bit :-)

This protein is tagged with a shipping address. This is a marker consisting of several amino acids which tell the rest of the cell where this protein needs to go. There is machinery which acts on these instructions, and delivers the protein, which is potentially on the outside of the cell.

The delivery instruction is then stripped off and several post processing steps may be performed, possibly activating the protein – which is good, because you may not want to transport an active protein through places where it should not do work.”

Now watch this video on “programming dna” by Drew Endy.

And, we’re done with our adventure.

Oh one more thing,

Click these links for startups at the forefront of bioinformatics & genome sequencing

 

Part 1. Genomics, Bioinformatics, & Bio-Hacking

What I am about to describe is what happens when an extremely curious ex-financial analyst discovers a public company while reading a nerdy periodical (the MIT Tech Review).  My goal is to use my story to highlight some interesting content on gene sequencing, biohacking, open source dna, and bioinformatics.

Introduction:

I’m an avid reader of the MIT Tech Review, recently I came across an article titled, Does Illumina Have the First $1,000 Genome?. The article is about Illumina’s new dna sequencing machine that can supposedly map “whole genomes” for less than $1000. People have been talking about crossing the $1,000.00 sequencing milestone for many years – the idea being that as the costs of dna sequencing decline more genetic data will lead to a better understanding of diseases and genetic variation. What caught my attention while reading this MIT piece was my recall of article I read by Kevin Kelly called “Open Source DNA” and a recent post by hacker who is open sourcing his genetic “code” (repo available here). This hacker was following the footsteps of ManuSporny who was the first person to publish his genetic data to the massively popular GitHub (which is a decentralized source control system used by programmers). You can read about ManuSporny’s motivations for releasing his genome publicly via this blog post. After thinking about all of these connections I started to search the web  to learn about gene sequencing. Below is some of the stuff I learned along the way.

Part 1. Background & Context

Genomics 101

According to Wikipedia,  genomics is,

“a discipline in genetics that applies recombinant DNA, DNA sequencing methods, and bioinformatics to sequence, assemble, and analyze the function and structure of genomes (the complete set of DNA within a single cell of an organism). The field includes efforts to determine the entire DNA sequence of organisms and fine-scale genetic mapping.”

Let’s follow this with two  introductions to Genomics via Ted.com:


BioInformatics

According to Wikipedia bioinformatics is,

An interdisciplinary scientific field that develops methods for storing, retrieving, organizing and analyzing biological data. A major activity in bioinformatics is to develop software tools to generate useful biological knowledge.

Bioinformatics uses many areas of computer science, statistics, mathematics and engineering to process biological data. Complex machines are used to read in biological data at a much faster rate than before.

Here are three videos covering the basics of bioinformatics.

Biohacking

Biohacking is a movement about engaging biology with the hacker ethic. This relates to Illumina as several do it yourselfers are building machines to sequence genomes for trivial sums (or at least at the cost of building the machine). One of the popular home brew solutions is called OpenPCR which was launched alongside a kickstarter campaign in 2010. From an analytical perspective the diy movement is interesting because it has the potential to challenge Illumina’s pricing power.  Most diagnostic companies make money from closed end systems that work much like expensive printers requiring proprietary ink  (or in this case tests/reagents/etc). To be fair it seems very unlikely that a diy machine will rival the speed, accuracy, and reliability of a high end machine – but you never know.  To learn more about biohacking start with this piece from Wired Magazine followed by this article from Aljazerra.

Below are two ted talks on biohacking:

Here is another example of open source biohacking equipment.

As with most entrepreneurial activities there are now spaces dedicated for biohackers to get together. Below are two videos featuring biohacking spaces. The first video is about BioCurious a hackerspace based in the bay area. The second video is about GenSpace a biohacker lab in NYC.

Open-Source DNA

After reading about biohacking I turned to investigating Open-Source DNA. One of my favorite papers on Open-Source DNA is by Eugene Thacker (you can access it here). One of my favorite paragraph’s from Eugene’s paper is:

“In the same way that open source has contributed to a DIY computer culture and various types of hacker ethics, could the design of innovative bioinformatics software apps, combined with public access to the genome, spawn a DIY biotech culture? Could an increase demand on public access medical data, combined with advances in telemedicine, generate a new type of homeopathic health care? At the furthest reaches of the extreme, how might this “open source DNA” movement affect areas such as media art, education, body performance, regenerative medicine, body art, and wet computing?”

As a follow up to Eugene Thacker’s paper I also recommend reading Keving Kelly’s piece on Open-Source DNA (you can access it here). Some of my favorite bits from Kevin Kelly’s piece are:

“Because DNA is seen as conveying not only paternity, and sexual activity,  but also the blueprints to each person’s persona, the idea of someone else “capturing” it feels wrong.  We currently perceive our DNA to be a personal code that contains our past, present and future. If we could just unlock it, we’d know our destiny. And at the same time, we’d better understand our current identity.”

“Your DNA is not really yours, either. That statement is counterintuitive for some and stake-burning heretical for others. First, we know that 99.99% of the code in your cells is also in mine. We are 99.99% identical.”

“Right now, laws can regulate DNA sequencing because this work must be done by big machines owned by legit companies: the Navigenics of the world. Think gigantic printing presses. But these large, capital-intensive, and easily regulated machines will be disappearing as the price of DNA sequencing keeps dropping. Sequencing is dropping in prices as fast as computer chips (because that is what powers them). The price of gene code is plunging in half every 20 months, which is roughly the 18 months of Moore’s Law. In about 25 years, it will cost only a few cents to get your entire chromosomes done. At first we’ll decipher them once in our life, then once a year and then once a day, in order to detect the effects of environmental  toxins.”

“The only way we’ll decipher genes is through the brute force mapping of genes to bodies and behavior, which will require disclosing and sharing our genetic codes. Mapping genes without tracing their effects upon a body will not be very valuable. But each time a person reveals their genes to the science collective and starts to correlate their genes to their own bodies and behavior, the more valuable their sequence gets. This is the very recipe for the increasing returns and “network effects” that we’ve seen unleash the internet, the web and cell phones. The more who join, the better it gets. The more folks that sequence and share, the more valuable your sequence becomes. Increasing returns and network effects penalize early adopters and favors the late, but once the cycle quietly begins, it can suddenly pass the tipping point and gallop into a stamped”

I also found an interesting video rant about Open Source DNA.

Legal Issues & Sequencing

Below is an interesting video via the ACLU on the fight over BRCA gene mapping. BRCA genes are responsible for a large share of hereditary breast cancers and ovarian cancer. A company was granted patents on the discovery and mapping of BRCA genes and was suing for patent infringement.

This concludes part 1 stay tuned for part 2 which will be posted soon.

Tempo: timing, tactics and strategy in narrative-driven decision-making

For years I have been an avid reader of Venkatesh Rao’s blog Ribbon Farm.  In 2011 Venkatesh released a  book called, Tempo: timing, tactics and strategy in narrative-driven decision-making. I consider this book to rank with Nassim Taleb’s books as required reading for multidisciplinary thinkers and strategists.

Here’s Amazon’s blurb about the book:

“Tempo is a modern treatment of decision-making that weaves together concepts and principles from the mathematical decision sciences, cognitive psychology, philosophy and theories of narrative and metaphor. Drawing on examples from familiar domains such as the kitchen and the office, the author, Venkatesh Rao, illustrates the subtleties underlying everyday behavior, and explains how you can strengthen the foundations of your decision-making skills.”

First, let’s start with some context; most decision makers have been taught to think of decision making by focusing on understanding “what, why, and how” (what can be called “calculative rationality). The author turns this assertion on its head emphasizing the importance of thinking about “when, where, and who”  when making decisions.

“Information work also elevates the roles of when, where and who above the roles of what, why and how in decision-making. Most of what has been written about decision-making, both popular and scholarly, has focused on the latter triad. What gives you the study of options. Why gives you the study of causation, motivation, reward and punishment. How leads you to the classic problems of means-ends reasoning, such as planning and scheduling.”

“Risk, learning and information are central to calculative rationality. By contrast, in narrative rationality, mortality is the central concern.relationship among risk, learning and information seems deceptively simple: every decision is based on what you know (information), and risk assessments associated with what you don’t know. Learning helps you increase usable information and lower risk.”

“Calculative rationality focuses on risks (specifically, risks that can be modeled a priori), learning and information primarily because you can bring a great deal of very sophisticated mathematics to bear models to accommodate phenomena that we haven’t encountered before. The open world is a world that includes what Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns” and Nicholas Nassim Taleb calls “black swans” (rare, highly consequential events). This necessarily requires accommodation of periods of high entropy in mental models, while fundamentally new and unexpected information is being incorporated.

“Mortality is the central fact about them. Decision-makers can die in two ways: accidentally, through the impact of unknown-unknowns, or through the accumulation of entropy, as the open world catches up with them. Thinkers such as Taleb have eloquently and elegantly considered the former, but for us, it is the second kind of mortality that is interesting.three laws of thermodynamics are:  You cannot win.  You cannot break even. You cannot quit the game. Some people add a zeroth law: you must play the game.”

So, in my view the book is about becoming a better decision maker  by understanding “tempo” which according to the author results in boosting your narrative rationality. By “tempo” the author means;

“I define tempo as the set of characteristic rhythms of decision-making in the subjective life of an individual or organization, colored by associated patterns of emotion and energy.”

“Tempo has three elements: rhythm, emotion and energy.”

Emotion results when you force yourself, or some part of the environment, to operate at a faster or slower tempo than it likes. To change a tempo you must add or remove energy by applying a force.

“The collection of behaviors involved in managing tempo is what people mean by the phrase sense of timing, and there is a lot going on beneath the sublime moments in comedy or stock trading that they have in mind when they use the phrase.”

By “Narrative Rationality” the author is referring to;

“Narrative rationality is an approach to decision-making that starts with an observation that is at once trivial and profound: all our choices are among life stories that end with our individual deaths… there is no such thing as non-narrative thought, free of possible worlds and ongoing enactments. There are always multiple narratives at work, framing our perceptions, memories, active thoughts, decisions and actions.”

“By relative rationality, I mean that there is no privileged, narrative-independent model of decision-making that can be labeled absolutely rational. Models of rationality lie inside the mental”

“Narrative rationality is the ability to think, make decisions, and act in ways that make sense with respect to the most compelling and elegant story that you can improvise about a developing enactment.”

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book.

“Work is simply whatever we must do to get from one decision to the next.”

“….not to let the unpleasantness of tasks mislead you into overestimating their magnitude.”

“Your calendar is not an empty container. It is a landscape of invisible energy and emotion associated with all the things that are going on in your life.”

“Well-designed decision-making contexts are full of reasonably rational embedded systems and processes, which chug along, making vast numbers of default decisions for you, or cueing you at appropriate times, for decisions that cannot be automated.”

“Desires evolve in similar ways: a preference can turn into an aversion; new tastes can be acquired. New desires can change the order of preference among old ones.Each is a special kind of possible world, made up of a history and an expectation. A history is a possible world that you claim might be true, while an expectation is a possible world that might become a history, in part as a consequence of your actions.”

“Procrastination occurs when we delay a context switch by adding more momentum to our current mental model, thereby making it harder to displace.Procrastination usually takes the form of displacement, which allows us a safe outlet for the emotions we are trying to avoid.”

“Your most stable beliefs, the ones that actually modulate your behavior, aren’t about life purposes; they are about momentum management. You are more likely to switch religions than to switch from an impatient to a patient temperament.”

“Mental models are made of beliefs, desires, and intentions”

“Beliefs create or constrain possibilities, desires lead to preferences among them, and intentions represent commitments to specific courses of action.”

“As we age, we become more doctrinaire and less capable of open-world learning. Narrative-rational decision-makers necessarily age over time.”

“In most situations, you can learn a lot faster by doing than by watching, but unfortunately, action also exposes you to more near-term risk than watching. This is because most environments, even dangerously unstable ones, are relatively quiescent unless disturbed. They do not reveal much under normal circumstances. You typically have to do something in order to provoke a reaction from the environment. Such provocation reveals useful information that can drive an enactment forward.”

“Note two features of natural exploratory behaviors: they are fundamentally iterative (the actions are designed to produce feedback, which triggers further actions), and they involve a certain amount of anxiety, which implies stress. Exploratory behaviors are naturally correlated with high-energy defensive behaviors (fight-or-flight) as a high-probability follow-on, and therefore involve anticipatory stress.”

“A conceptual metaphor is a systematic structuring of meaning in one domain in terms of our understanding of another domain.”

“Strategy is about the big picture/long-term; tactics are about the details/short-term.”

“Strategy is about what you want to do; tactics are about how you do it.”

“Strategy is about winning the war; tactics about winning individual battles.”

“Tactics is about what to do; strategy is about why you should do it.”

“Amateurs worry about strategy and tactics while professionals worry about operations.”

“You could therefore describe normal human thought as a balancing act between sensing realistically, and seeing through simplified platonic abstractions.”

“When we create, our work usually reveals a bias towards one side or the other. The more we desire control and comprehension, the greater the extent to which the realities we see are simplified by the platonic categories of our mind, before emerging as creations at the other end.”

“Many people fail when they attempt to get organized because they make the mistake of striving for legibility and meaningfulness to an external eye, by imposing conventional or received social meanings onto personal realities. They may strive for external legibility consciously: I want my boss to see how organized I am.” This means they focus on the peripheral (filing, labeling, stacking things geometrically). These aspects of organization are secondary and subservient to meaning. They may even be counter-productive when they don’t align with the meanings in the significant mental models. The externalizations of your mental models only have to be legible and meaningful to others to the extent that you must share meaning with them.”

“System-process thinking is a specific kind of authoritarian high modernism usually known as Taylorism, after the ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor. He was a neurotic genius, management pioneer and author of the seminal 1919 book, The Principle of Scientific Management. Taylor’s influence led to some of the worst authoritarian high-modernist debacles of the twentieth century, and as a result his ideas are commonly demonized today.”

“Shared mental models must include organizational self-archetypes and doctrines, just as individual mental models must include individual-level self-archetypes and doctrines.”

“Where complex realities are to be grown rather than constructed, the role of the individual orchestrator is limited to catalyzing the emergence of the right shared mental models in the early stages. This includes planting the seed of an organizational self-archetype and doctrine that is appropriate to the raison d’etre of the organization. Once the process is underway, the orchestrators can do little: the organization dances itself into existence and self-awareness.”

“Of the many conceits with which we humans burden ourselves, perhaps none is deeper than the conceit that our lives, unlike those of other animals, must be meaningful.so we conclude that the unexamined life is not worth living. Equally, most of us conclude, the unlived life is not worth examining. If there is an overarching theme to this book, it is ultimately this tension between action and contemplation.”

I highly recommend you pick up a copy of this book on Amazon

The Nature of Excellence: The Importance Of Mastering The Mundane

I recently stumbled across an ethnographic study written by Daniel Chambliss in the journal of sociological theory, titled, “The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers”. The paper examines the stratification (i.e. grouping) that emerges in the sport of competitive swimming. The paper highlights the importance of proper practice in becoming excellent (i.e. top of your field).  I find this paper particularly compelling because many of the findings are (metaphorically ) applicable across a variety of fields. If you are fan of books like Talent Is Overrated, Outliers,  or Anders Ericsson’s work you will really enjoy this paper. Personally, I think it’s a must read for analysts and investors.  Below are some of notes I took while reading the research paper.

Let’s start with the author’s definition of excellence:

“By excellence I mean consistent superiority of performance. The excellent athlete regularly, even routinely, performs better than his or her competitors. Consistency of superior performance tells us that one athlete is indeed better than another and that the difference between them is not merely the product of chance.”

The author then goes on to define the negative definition of excellence as follows (pay particular to attention to the third negative definition):

1. “Excellence is not, I find, the product of socially deviant personalities. These swimmers don’t appear to be oddballs nor are they loners. If their achievements result from a personality characteristic, that characteristic is not obvious. Perhaps it is true as the mythology of sports has it, that hte bests athletes are more self confident; but such confidence could be an effect of achievement not the cause of it.”

 

2. “Excellence does not result from quantitative changes in behavior. Increased training time, per se, does not make on  swim fast; nor does increase “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.”

 

3. “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 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.

So, how should we think about excellence (especially in the field of competitive swimming)?

“Excellence in competitive swimming is achieve through qualitative differentiation from other swimmers, not through quantitative increases in activity. This means in brief, that levels of the sport are qualitatively distinct; that stratification is discrete, not continuous; and that because of these factors, the swimming world is best conceived of not as a single entity but as multiple worlds, each with its own patterns of conduct.”

So, you have to change the quality of what you are doing to move from one level of mastery to another.

“By quality, though, we mean the character or nature of the thing itself. A qualitative change involves modifying what is actually being done, not simply doing more of it…[it] involves doing things differently than before, not necessarily doing more. Qualitative improvement involve doing different kinds of things.”

As an example:

“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….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.

According to the author there are 3 dimensions of difference in competitive swimming:

1. Technique: “Styles of strokes, dives, and turns are different at different levels…. they are so different that the “C” swimmer maybe amazed to see how the “AAAA” swimmer looks when swimming.  The appearance alone is dramatically different, as is the speed with which they swim.”

 

2. Discipline: “The best swimmers are more likely to be strict with their training, coming to workouts on time, carefully doing the strokes legally, watch what they eat, sleep regular hours, do proper warmups before a meet, and the like. Their energy is carefully channeled.”

 

3. Attitude: “At higher levels of competitive swimming, something like an inversion of attitude takes place. The very features of the sport which 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…. 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. “

Let’s jump back to understanding the idea of stratification (that is the different worlds/levels of mastery) and excellence.

“There are significant, qualitative breaks – discontinuities- between levels of the sport. These include differences in attitude, discipline, and technique which in turn lead to small but consistent quantitative difference in speed. ”

 

“I am suggesting here that athletes do not reach the top level by a simple process of working their way up, by accumulating sheer time in the sport; improvements across levels of the sport are not generated through quantitative changes. No amount of extra work per se will transform a “C” swimmer into a “AAAA” swimmer without a concurrent qualitative change in how that work is done. It is not by doing increasing amounts of work that one becomes excellent, but rather by changing the kinds of work.”

 

The author interjects with a fascinating quote from Clausewitz:

“The most distinguished generals have never risen from the very learned or really erudite class of officers, but have been mostly men who, from the circumstances of their position, could not have attained to any great amount of knowledge…the only question therefore is, of what kind should these ideas be…”

“Clausewitz notes that great generals rise quickly. Especially in wartime, when battlefield performance is the vital need, there is no long period of apprenticeship before one achieves the highest ranks, no tedious accumulation of knowledge or skills.”

But doesn’t just doing more (i.e. increasing quantitative practice) lead us to moving form one level of excellence to another?

“The fact is, when people around us do more, they do tend to do better…The fact is, quantitative changes do bring success – but only within levels of the sport. Doing more of the same pays off, but only in very limited, locally visible ways. Having seen that “more is better within local situations, we tend to extrapolate.”

This extrapolation is what leads us to thinking that superstar athletes have godlike abilities.

“We believe, extrapolating from what we learn about success at our own level, that they must work unbelievable hard, must feel incredible pressure, must sacrifice more and more to become successful.”

When we think like this, we make think of excellence as being continuous vs stratified (i.e. as separate spheres).

Here are some interesting points on moving between levels of excellence.

“Less, obvious, though, is that sliding back down [from a high level of excellence to a lower one] is empirically difficult indeed. For one thing, techniques once learned and habitualized don’t deteriorate overnight. Quite a few swimmers, years past retirement from the sport, can come out and with a few month’s practice do quite well…. Then too, there seem to be a permanent or at least persistent effects of hard training; attitudes of competitiveness and strategies for racing once learned are rarely forgotten.

“Some people don’t even begin to shine, that is, until they reach the higher levels.”

Next the author talks about how talent does not lead to excellence.

“I am suggesting that athletic excellence is widely attainable, if usually unsought. Many people – let us say, hundreds of thousands in this country – have the physical wherewithal to belong to the Olympic class. While there maybe an “entry level” of physical characteristics necessary for Olympic performances, that level may be quite low, and in any case is not measurable.”

“Talent is perhaps the most pervasive lay explanation we have for athletic success…. 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.”

Talent is an inadequate predictor of excellence for at least 3 reasons.

1. “Factors other than talent explain athletic success more precisely.”

2. “Talent is indistinguishable from its effects. One cannot see that talent exists until after its effects become obvious.”

3. “The amount of talent needed for athletic success seems to be strikingly low…. 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, hanging from minor inconveniences in getting up and going to work, to accidents and injuries, to gross physical impairments.”

So, then what 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.”

 Here’s more on the importance of doing little things well.

“So the little things really do count. 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.”

“At the lowest levels of competitive swimming, simply showing up for regular practices produces the greatest single speed improvement the athlete will ever experience, and at the lower levels of academia, the sheer willingness to put arguments down on paper and send it away to a journal distinguishes one from the mass of one’s colleagues in the discipline.”

“…the simple doing of certain small tasks can generate huge results. Excellence is mundane.”

Along with being willing to do little things well motivation is a core component of excellence but motivation is also mundane.

” Swimmers go to practice to see their friends, to exercise, to feel strong afterwards, to impress the coach, to work towards bettering a time they swam in the last meet. Sometimes, the older ones, with a longer view of the future, will aim towards a meet that is still several months away. But even given the longer-term goals, the daily satisfactions need to be there.  The mundane social rewards really are crucial.”

Even more on inspiration.

“Viewing “Rocky” or “Chariots of The 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 achieve almost in spit of themselves.

According to the author motivation isn’t that much about being long term oriented.  In fact, here’s an example of motivation consisting of a series of small goals rather than a large one (by athlete Mary T Meagher).

” I never looked beyond the next year, and I never looked beyond the next level. I never thought about the Olympics when I was ten; at that time I was thinking about the state Championships…..I can’t even think about the Olympics right now…Things can overwhelm you if you think to far ahead.”

More on small challenges.

“While many of them were working towards the Olympic Games, they divided the work along the way into achievable steps, no one of which was too big. They found their challenges in small things: working on a better start this week, polishing up their backstroke technique next week, focusing on better sleep habits, planning how to pace their swim.”

These small challenges lead to “small wins” a concept popularized by Karl Weick.

“A small win is a concrete, complete, implement outcome of moderate importance. By itself, one small win may seem unimportant. A series of wins at small but significant tasks, however, reveals a pattern that may attract allies, deter opponents, and lower resistance to subsequent proposals. Small wins are controllable opportunities that produce visible results.”

Everything we have covered so far leads to the Chambliss’s final point.

“In the pursuit of excellence, maintaining mundanity is the key psychological challenge. 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. Standard rituals are ways of importing one’s daily habits into novel situations, to make it as a normal an event as possible.”

This means however that people who train hard have an advantage, here’s why.

“Swimmers…who train at competition level intensity therefore have an advantage: arriving at a meet, they are already accustomed to doing turns correctly, taking legal starts, doing a proper warmup, and being aggressive from the outset of the competition. If each day of the season is approached with a seriousness of purpose, then the big meet will not come as a shock….The task then is to have training closely approximate competition conditions.”

Which brings us to the ending remarks on excellence.

“But of course 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 one’s everyday life.”

I highly recommend reading this paper. Click here to access it directly as a pdf