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Metadata of Note

Type: 🍃 Leaf [Nomenclature present here.]

Source: [[Thoughts]] based on literature review for my second book

Tags: #literature review #habits #productivity #life lesson

Date: May 20th, 2022


This paper is a goldmine of thought-provoking information around the idea of “Excellence.” The main message of the paper is that “innate talent” as something that one is born with is a useless concept used to mystify the systematic, methodical and disciplined practice of otherwise mundane habits

To write this paper, the author, [[Daniel Chambliss]], a professor at Hamilton College, attended a series of national and international-class swimming meets between January 1983 and August 1984 conducted by the United States Swimming Inc. He interviewed a total of 120 national and world-class swimmers and coaches. (He also coached a regional-level swimming team ages 7-16 for 5 years).

I’ve captured all the highlights from the paper below along with my own thoughts/comments.


What Excellence is NOT

  • Excellence is not, I find, the product of socially deviant personalities. These swimmers don’t appear to be “oddballs,” nor are they loners (“kids who have given up the normal teenage life.”) If their achievements result from a personality characteristic, that characteristic is not obvious.
  • 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.
  • Excellence is not a result of a special “inner quality” or “talent.” 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.


Excellence Requires Qualitative Differentiation (not Quantitative)

  • Excellence in competitive swimming is achieved 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.
    • Examples of “quantitative” difference: practicing for more hours, swimming more miles/day, increasing stroke speed, etc.
    • Examples of “qualitative” difference: changing the way you do a breaststroke, competing in a regional meet over local meet, eating vegetables over fat/sugar.
  • 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 group 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.
  • The best swimmers are more likely to be strict with their training, coming to workouts on time, carefully doing the competitive strokes legally (i.e., without violating the technical rules of the sport), watch what they eat, sleep regular hours, do proper warmups before a meet, and the like.
    • Diver Greg Louganis, who won two Olympic gold medals in 1984, practices only three hours each day—not a long time—divided up into two or three sessions. But during each session, he tries to do every dive perfectly.
  • At the 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.
  • 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. Instead, 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.
  • I have spoken of the “top” of the sport, and of “levels” within the sport. But these words suggest that all swimmers are, so to speak, climbing a single ladder, aiming towards the same goals, sharing the same values, swimming the same strokes, all looking upwards towards an Olympic gold medal. But they aren’t. Some want gold medals, some want to make the Team, some want to exercise, or have fun with friends, or be out in the sunshine and water. So we should envision not a swimming world, but multiple worlds? (and changing worlds is a major step toward excellence), a horizontal rather than vertical differentiation of the sport.
  • The swimming world is really several different worlds, and the “top” performers are better seen as different than as better.

My thoughts

  • It’s not about working a lot. It’s about working differently. The above emphasizes the importance of spending time to think about how we approach our work instead of letting the mode of autopilot take over and control what we do, which makes sense after we’ve established a good routine, and even then, it’s worth revisiting it from time to time.
  • Second, the importance of viewing excellence in its day-to-day form instead of deifying those who we deem as excellent, or considering them superhuman.
  • Finally, we tend to reify (new word I learned!) the idea of the “top” by thinking about it one-dimensionally. But, there’s a spectrum of what the “top” (aka “success”) means for different people.^^


Why “Talent” Does Not Lead To Excellence

  • “Talent” is perhaps the most pervasive lay explanation we have for athletic success. Great athletes, we seem to believe, are born with a special gift, almost a “thing” inside of them, denied to the rest of us—perhaps physical, genetic, psychological, or physiological.
  • 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.
  • Factors other than talent explain athletic success more precisely. We can, with a little effort, see what these factors are in swimming: geographical location, particularly living in southern California where the sun shines year round and everybody swims; fairly high family income, which allows for the travel to meets and payments of the fees entailed in the sport, not to mention sheer access to swimming pools when one is young; one’s height, weight, and proportions; the luck or choice of having a good coach, who can teach the skills required.
  • Let’s say I turn on the television set and there witness a magnificent figure skating performance by Scott Hamilton. What I see is grace and power and skill all flowing together, seemingly without effort: a single moving picture, rapid and sure, far beyond what I could myself do. In phenomenological terms, I see Hamilton’s performance “monothetically,” at a single glance, all-at-once. His excellence becomes a thing inside of him which he periodically reveals to us, which comes out now and then; his life and habits become reified. “Talent” is merely the word we use to label this reification. But that is no explanation of success.
  • As Jean-Paul Sartre put it, “What people would like is that a coward or a hero be born that way”, knowing that it protects us by degrading the very achievements that it pretends to elevate (Staples 1987); magically separating us from those people who are great athletes, ensuring that we are incomparable to them; and relieving those of us who are not excellent of responsibility for our own condition. “To call someone ‘divine’,” Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “means ‘Here we do not have to compete.’”
  • In the mystified notion of talent, the unanalyzed pseudo-explanation of outstanding performance, we codify our own deep psychological resistance to the simple reality of the world, to the overwhelming mundanity of excellence.


My thoughts

It’s almost as if we deify others as an excuse to not do the work ourselves. By making someone out to be superhuman with unattainable talent, we excuse ourselves (or more so deprive ourselves) of the need to work towards a goal, to become a great writer / swimmer / artist. This ties into what [[Rishabh]] wrote in [[🌰 Rishabh’s Essay on The Imposter Syndrome]]. And sadly in this process, we also exclude others from trying by obscuring the true, achievable (mundane) path to excellence. Following are relevant quotations from Rishabh’s essay:

Fueled by a mainstream media that celebrates the cult of the individual messiah, particularly within capitalistic constraints, young, bright and high-achieving minds are obsessed with the bold idea of “changing the world.” The grandiosity of this mission necessitates that the vehicle of such a voyage be virtually incomparable in ability.

We systematically perpetuate high achievement as the only mode of celebrated existence. Perfect GPAs, dozens of extracurriculars, athletic achievement, musical dexterity — it isn’t an or dilemma any more. One must do this and that, and that, and another thing.

The weight of these unspoken expectations intensifies as we ascend the academic ladder: a stress on “all-round” abilities begins with the college application process. These narratives of excellence are then further tightened in elite colleges. In fact, we now expect college to be a humbling experience. The narrative of the unattainable genius extends to elite universities: no matter what you’ve accomplished, you are always outmatched. The young graduate, then, lies in the middle of this circus, wide-eyed and wishful.


The Mundanity of Excellence

  • 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.
  • In his widely-read books, especially The Effective Executive (1985), Drucker emphasizes that it is not magic, but rather the faithful execution of particular practices that leads to success in business: “ be effective also does not require special gifts, special aptitude, or special training. Effectiveness as an executive demands doing certain—and fairly simple— things. It consists of a small number of practices.”
  • A willingness to spend ten minutes a year writing a Christmas card can maintain an old friendship for decades; a faulty telephone system, which cuts off one-quarter (or even one-tenth) of all incoming calls can ruin a travel agency or mail-order house; a president who simply walks around the plant once in a while, talking with the workers, can dramatically improve an organization’s morale — and its product.
  • Again, the conclusion: the simple doing of certain small tasks can generate huge results. Excellence is mundane.
  • Viewing “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-today 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.
  • While many swimmers 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.
    • This ties into the concept of [[The Flow]] state, and how incremental improvement is what matters. For e.g. I couldn’t do even 5 half-pushups when I began a few months ago, but with consistent practice, now I can do 20 of them in a row, and 80 spread across 4 laps.
  • The mundanity of excellence is typically unrecognized. I think the reason is fairly simple. Usually we see great athletes only after they have become great — after the years of learning the new methods, gaining the habits of competitiveness and consistency, after becoming comfortable in their world. They have long since perfected the myriad of techniques that together constitute excellence. Ignorant of all of the specific steps that have led to the performance and to the confidence, we think that somehow excellence sprang full grown from this person, and we say he or she “has talent” or “is gifted.”
  • Finally, in pursuing excellence, maintaining mundanity is the key psychological challenge.


My thoughts

This entire section is a condensed version of what [[James Clear]] talks about in [[Atomic Habits]]. It’s about incremental improvements and rewards. It’s about making the process easy, making the habit doable. And it’s also about accepting that excellence is mundane, that it’s about deriving pleasure from the daily activities by setting up reward systems around it.

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.