The Mundanity of Excellence #111

Reflecting on a few interesting reads and listens over the past week

I'd like to keep this week's post short and focus on a fairly impactful read. This is a great article by Dan Chambliss that I found on Twitter (h/t Patrick O'Shaughnessy). It really captures a point that many (including myself) overlook in the pursuit of excellence (not to be mistaken with moments of success). This article into the idea of excellence by exploring the world of swimming and what differentiates Olympic vs. 'normal' swimmers. 

Here’s a summary along with a few of my thoughts/reflections.

Excellence Requires Qualitative Differentiation 

Quantitative improvement entails an increase in the number of some one thing one does. A qualitative change involves modifying what is actually being done, not simply doing more of it. 

This often requires having the right combination of technique (how you're actually doing X), discipline (the consistency in which you do X) and attitude (how you feel about doing X).

In reality, this feels rather counterintuitive and quite challenging to explain to others. The logical (and perhaps easier) way to improve your skills is by taking a more quantitative approach where a certain volume of effort will undoubtedly lead to better results. 

Qualitative differentiation forces you to take more of a first-principles approach, build a base of knowledge (often through trial and error) and develop your skills over time. The general vagueness of qualitative differentiation (often due to not paying attention to the details) makes this less achievable. 

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."

The post uses swimming as an example. My personal experience in learning to play the piano was quite similar. Excellence can only be achieved by stitching together several small habits together and doing it over and over again - to the point where it feels routine. This is also perhaps the best way to explain my experience at Constellation. There isn't any single act/special idea that makes the organization great at investing but rather a number of smaller habits that lead to several investments made by a large group of people supported by an appropriate level of control and incentives. 

"In the pursuit of excellence, 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 situation."

The idea of 'maintaining mundanity' is one that I believe comes with experience. This is when it's easy to differentiate those who have relied more on talent vs. spending the time to practice/build their skills. 

While the end product may come off as talent or luck, "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.”

Reading and writing through this reminded me of the talks that Kobe Byrant would share and so I thought I’d end off with this.