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The Mundanity of Excellence: Talent Does Not Determine Success and Why That Terrifies People

On the Ordinary Nature of High Performance

There are two groups of people in the world, those who see the following as an opportunity and those who find it absolutely terrifying:

The first group of people read this and say “great, that means there’s nothing stopping me from being successful.” The second group of people say “Uh-oh, that means I can’t use talent as my excuse for not being successful.” People want to believe inherent ability determines success because it absolves them of responsibility for their own low level of performance.

This fixed-mindset view is tempting — if we aren’t born with talent, then we might as well not even try to be high performers — but it’s also wrong. The beliefs of the first group of people — those with a growth mindset (the idea abilities can be developed) —are backed many studies of top achievement in many professions. As described in the paper “The Mundanity of Excellence” by Daniel Chambliss, when we objectively study excellence we discover:

  1. Excellence requires doing small, ordinary things consistently right
  2. Innate talent is not responsible for high achievement
  3. Significant improvement results from qualitative changes in how you practice skills not from doing more of the same

In this article, we’ll delve into these points and see how they apply to top performers and anyone wanting to reach the upper levels of their field. We’ll draw on the above paper and the books: (Ericsson) (Hutchinson)(Duckworth)(Dalio) and (Duhigg)

Success means doing small things right repeatedly.

The phrase “Excellence is Mundane” means there is no extraordinary task that must be done to reach the top of a field. Instead, one must carry out strings of small actions correctly over and over again to achieve high performance. In any profession — athletics, stock investing, programming, writing, school — the little things determine success. Taken in isolation, each of these minor decisions is easy to get right, but we can’t just do them right just once, we have to get them right every single time.

What are some of these supposedly easy choices? It depends on your field, but some examples for a common pursuit, high marks in university, are:

  • Shifting 15 minutes of time spent reading news articles to studying
  • Seeking out the help of a professor after class if you are stuck
  • Going over that final essay one more time
  • Showing up to the optional recitations

None of these actions require much effort at all and they may even seem too obvious. If this is all it takes, why does everyone not get perfect scores in school? The answer is that success means doing correctly every single time. Making the “right” choice once (the right choice is usually obvious) prevents no large obstacle. Making this choice tens of thousands of times with no deviation is what differentiates high achievers.

In the article, Chambliss goes so far as to say the little things are the only things that matter. As described in relation to swimming:

In business, Peter Drucker states that “Effectiveness as an executive demands doing certain — and fairly simple — things.” Ray Dalio makes the same point repeatedly in his when he describes the seemingly minor actions that differentiated Bridgewater Associates. Again, there is no single hidden secret to success, only the execution of the correct practices consistently. Furthermore, these decisions are so small, that they are almost always completely in your control, meaning

In summary, anyone capable of making the right small decision once is capable of achieving excellence in their field. The difference between those who actually make it to the top and those who spend their lives at the bottom is consistency. If there is one commonality to success then, it’s the ability to repeatedly make the positive choice with no deviation.

The Myth of Innate Talent

Talent — an innate physical or mental gift granting one great success in life — does not exist. In fact, talent is the of high achievement, not the of it; when we see a great performer, we label them talented after viewing their success. The achievement leads to the talented descriptor. By attributing success to talent, we mix up the independent and dependent variables.

The talent fallacy comes about because we only witness the end excellence itself and not the countless hours of work that went into producing it. We observe the perfect end product of an individual and trace a straight line back through their life, connecting disparate events into a cohesive narrative. This story always has a single theme: the individual was talented and thus destined for greatness. If we could witness the entirety of actions — the repetition of small tasks — that resulted in the performance, then we would not be so quick to rely on talent as an explanation. Ultimately, using talent to explain top performance prevents us from understanding the very repeatable process that created the success — one which we could follow if we choose to.

In addition to obscuring the ordinary sequence of actions leading to success, talent is used as an excuse for people to justify their own lackluster careers. If successful people all have some innate talent they are born with, then the people without talent will never amount to anything. People decide they have no talent and therefore cannot attain high levels of performance without realizing that talent does not exist. The “innate talent produces success” mindset absolves them of any responsibility for their own achievement.

We would be wise to heed the words of Nietzche who wrote: “To call someone ‘divine’ means ‘here we do not have to compete’.” Labeling an individual as talented puts a barrier between us and their level of performance. Psyiological differences do exist, but the baseline level needed for high performance is remarkably low. What’s much more important is one’s rate of progress. A motivated individual who studies relentlessly will soon surpass someone who started a little ahead if they are not working to improve.

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Anyone can reach any level of performance (with the exception of a few athletic pursuits where physical body structure may play a role) in almost any field regardless of where they start. The slope of the line at which you improve is the only important factor as the initial differences in starting level are nearly always smaller than we initially believe. To close the gap only requires putting in the hours doing the right kind of practice.

Don’t Practice More, Practice Better

A crucial finding in the study of top achievers is that simply doing more of the same does not result in significant improvements in performance. High performers implement changes rather than changes.

A quantitative improvement is merely increasing how much you do something, for example, hours of reading a textbook per day or running a few more miles at the same pace on a treadmill. In contrast, a qualitative improvement means altering the task itself, say by quizzing yourself over the material periodically instead of only reading or mixing interval sprints into a workout. It’s possible to make massive improvements in performance without changing how much work you do (the sheer amount of time) by changing the type of work you engage in.

We see the idea of quality > quantity demonstrated at the highest levels of excellence and in our daily life. In Peak, Anders Ericsson decribes the concept of deliberate practice, the most effective form of training, which applies to not only sports, but activities like writing, coding, and even speaking. Deliberate practice goes far beyond what we normally think of as training as it requires constant feedback, pushing beyond one’s current abilities, a specific goal, and complete immersion in the task. This is not watching coding YouTube videos while sitting in class dreaming of being a programmer. It’s sitting alone in front of a console with a textbook, solving problems with complete focus.

A plan for deliberate practice (source).

Deliberate practice represents a profound qualitative shift in training methods. It requires a change in one’s attitude towards practice, one’s discipline to concentrate on a task, and the technique one uses when carrying out the task. This may sound like intensive labor, but the high performers studied often enjoy the act of practicing immensely. They derive great pleasure from repeating a movement with perfect form or playing a piece flawlessly on the 1000th repetition.

Those engaged in deliberate practice may even enter the elusive state of flow (as described in by Csikszentmihalyi), where one is completely lost in a task. They may be under tremendous mental and physical exertion, but in that moment of flow, there is nothing else they would rather be doing. Elite performers are able to experience this not only in competition but every time they get to practice. Deliberate practice can be difficult for those who are used to giving half-effort, but the rewards, in terms of self-improvement and personal enjoyment, make the effort to change one’s training worthwhile.

Most of us tend to think in terms of quantitative changes when they want to improve: I just need to spend 2 more hours at the office, I should just read 30 more pages each night. This is because in a given position, quantitative changes can make small differences. However, to move up to a better position requires qualitative changes in what we do. As many hours as I program, I’ll never become a CEO just by writing more code. Instead, I would have to make changes in the very nature of what I do every day, managing people or starting my own company. When you look around and see people striving to advance by working ever-longer hours, take a step back and ask “can I get further not by spending more time at the office, but by changing what I spend my time doing?” The answer is yes because qualitative changes have far greater leverage than quantitative increases.

Conclusions

When we try to find our way in the world, we tend to look at people who are successful for a secret — a single factor or innate ability. Then, we either try to emulate that exact trait, or give up because we don’t have natural capabilities. Both of these approaches are wrong because there is no single secret to success and natural talent does not exist. Instead, high performance means doing the small things repeatedly the right way, a realization that leads to the conclusion we are each responsible for our own achievement.

There is no hidden route to success. By studying top performers, we are left with three major findings on the nature of excellence:

  1. Small decisions lead to excellence when consistently made correctly
  2. Innate abilities are not the cause of top performance
  3. Significant advancements require doing things differently

It is far too easy to talk about these ideas abstractedly and much harder to put them into practice. You may be motivated to change your study habits or spend time engaged in deliberate coding practice now, but the real test comes when you reach the end of this article and have to implement the change. It’s going to be very difficult, but remember that the highest levels of success are not out of reach for anyone. Focus on the small decisions and adopt a principle to always get them right. When you repeatedly make the correct choices, you’ll start to notice minor improvements — small wins. Eventually, these add up into substantial progress and you’ll see you are in control of the level of excellence you attain. Learning that you are responsible for your own excellence is frightening but it’s also invigorating.

As always, I welcome feedback and constructive criticism. I can be reached on Twitter @koehrsen_will

Data Scientist at Cortex Intel, Data Science Communicator