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

About Miguel Barbosa

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12. March 2014 by Miguel Barbosa
Categories: Curated Readings, Wisdom Seeking | Leave a comment

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