Recently on Twitter, I came across one of the best academic papers I have ever read — “The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers”. Published in 1989 and authored by Daniel F. Chambliss from Hamilton College, the paper is profound because its findings are so easy to understand, practically applicable and above all, give empirical answers to that important question we all keep asking — what’s the secret of excellence?
The paper studies the sport of competitive swimming (particularly in the Olympics) to better understand the nature of excellence. Why swimming? ‘Cos 1) success in swimming is clear and well-defined (medals, plaques etc.) and 2) the sport has clearly stratified ‘levels’ (Country Club, Junior Nationals, Senior Nationals, Olympics etc.) that allow the study of excellence via movement across levels. Between Jan’83 and Aug’84, the author studied a cross-section of non-Olympic and Olympic swimmers, with a specific objective of seeing how the eventual winners drove excellence, and consequently their Olympics success, prior to the actual competition itself.
Here are the key sections, and their respective insights, from the paper:
- What DOESN’T create excellence?
Excellence meaning “consistent superiority of performance” over competitors. The Author found that the following, often-cited drivers of excellence, actually aren’t true:
1.1 “Excellence is NOT the product of socially-deviant personalities”— excellent swimmers weren’t oddballs, loners or possessing some other kinds of non-conventional personality traits.
1.2 “Excellence does NOT result from quantitative changes in behavior “— eg. putting more hours of the same swimming practice. Simply doing more won’t result in moving up a level in the sport.
1.3 “Excellence does NOT result from some special inner quality of the athlete” — usually referred to as “talent”, “gift” or “natural ability”.
2. What DOES create excellence?
The Author found that the single biggest driver of excellence in competitive swimming was achieving “qualitative differentiation”, and NOT purely quantitive increases in “doing more of the same” (eg. increasing daily practice time from 2 hrs to 4 hrs, or swimming 7 miles everyday instead of 4).
Now, am sure you are thinking — what exactly is qualitative differentiation? I love this line from the paper that neatly defines it:
“A qualitative change involves modifying what is actually being done, not simply doing more of it”.
This includes things like changing your arm-pull technique in a breaststroke, competing in regional meets instead of local ones, eating complex carbs and veggies instead of fats and sugars etc. (PS: for cricket fans, I think the Indian captain Virat Kohli has pretty much done qualitative changes on multiple fronts to take his game to the next level. Same is the case with Novak Djokovic in tennis; see this awesome article on his regimen, published a few years back).
3. How do Olympic swimmers manifest qualitative differentiation?
This para from the paper captures the difference between Olympic swimmers and country-club swimmers really well:
“…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”.
Three specific elements where qualitative differentiation gets manifested in competitive swimming:
3.1 Technique — “not only are the strokes different, they are so different that the ‘C’ swimmer may be amazed to see how the ‘AAAA’ swimmer looks while swimming”.
3.2 Discipline — “…(Olympics swimmer) is never sloppy in practice, so is never sloppy in meets”.
3.3 Attitude — “what others see as boring — swimming back-and-forth over a black line for 2 hours, say — they find peaceful, even meditative”.
4. Stratification in the sport is discrete, not continuous
Few key ideas from the paper on this concept:
4.1 “A rather small quantitative difference produces a huge qualitative difference”
4.2 “…certain teams are easily seen to be stuck at the same level”
4.3 Athletes don’t “work their way up” through levels; instead they move to higher levels via “qualitative jumps” created via a change in settings
5. Calling out our collective blindspot on “hard-work”
The paper argues that just achieving quantitative change does bring success, but only within the level of sport the swimmer is currently at. There is a behavioral bias at play here around extrapolating value of hard-work using only your own limited, visible and localized experience (“If I worked this hard to get to my level, how hard must Olympic swimmers work?”).
6. Not everyone is running the same “excellence” race anyway
The paper argues that not all competitive swimmers are running the same proverbial race of winning the Olympic gold. Some are just looking to exercise, or have fun with friends, or escape their parents. The Author calls it “horizontal differentiation — of separate worlds in competitive swimming, rather than a hierarchy”, and asks for top performers to be seen as “different”, rather than “better”.
7. Why talent doesn’t lead to success
I am preferring to just give you this takeaway here as I believe that’s more important to know, than the ‘why’ of it. However, the paper does present some fascinating arguments on it.
8. THE MOST IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY — Excellence is mundane
This para really captures the essence of this paper:
“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 super-human in any one of these actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence”.
Related point: motivation is mundane too, and focusing on “small wins” — more than the long-term goal of an Olympics gold medal, champion swimmers divided this into small daily tasks, and focused on motivating themselves towards these daily goals and achieving these “small wins”, which eventually combine together to create the long-term win.
MY LEARNING FROM A BUSINESS/ PROFESSIONAL/ PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE:
A. Focus on ‘qualitative change’ — don’t do dumb hard work, relook at the way you are doing things, change your “settings”, do things differently.
B. Check what ‘excellence race’ you are running — very often, there is no alignment between 1) what we want out of our careers and life, 2) what race we choose to run (should flow from point 1) and 3) what prep we put in to win the race (should flow from point 2). Proactively create this alignment. PS: to manage the human tendency of benchmarking against peers, first check what excellence race is each person running and whether they are even comparable.
C. Do the small things correctly and consistently — true competitive advantage comes from creating a mesh of habits that are just impossible to replicate as a group by other individuals/ organizations. Focus on the “boring, small, daily wins” and you will win long term.
Would love to hear your take on this paper.
Note: direct excerpts from the paper are presented in inverted quotes.