Greatness and mastery always look shrouded in mystery from the outside. But look closely and it is more about mastering the basics and doing them consistently over long periods of time, rather than doing something extraordinary once.

What are the common mistakes and myths, and how can we avoid them on our own journey towards mastery? How can we better set ourselves for success?

Are there deeper, well-researched truths rather than the typical pop psychology mumbo jumbo?


Mastery is pain

Consider your failed efforts at mastering something difficult. In fact, let's pick something easier. Consider where you are at with your new year's resolutions from last year. More than likely you have either forgotten them or abandoned them completely. This includes yours truly.

What happened? Some common explanations are degree of difficulty, lack of talent, and lack of discipline.

On the surface, this sounds true. But all of us have well developed talents in some areas and have demonstrated significant discipline in others. So what gives?

The challenge lies in not understanding the nuances of what we are attempting and thus being underprepared for what it actually takes.

We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don't like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.

—Carol Dweck in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success [9]

Too often, we have grandiose notions about the terms greatness, mastery, or even being good at something. As a result we either don’t attempt it or give up too early.

Dan Pink puts it very bluntly in Drive:

Mastery is pain.

Mastery of sports, music, business requires effort (difficult, painful, excruciating, all-consuming effort) over a long time (not a week or a month, but a decade).

...mastery often involves working and working and showing little improvement, perhaps with a few moments of flow pulling you along, then making a little progress, and then working and working on that new, slightly higher plateau again.

It's grueling, to be sure. But that's not the problem; that's the solution.

David Brooks calls this "digging the damn ditch":

Sometimes, if you are going to be a professional, you just have to dig the damn ditch. … All real work requires a dedication to engage in deliberate practice, the willingness to do the boring things over and over again, just to master a skill.

– David Brooks in The Second Mountain [5]

If we actually had a clearer idea of what's entailed, it would significantly increase our chances of staying in the game longer and increasing our odds of success.

A more thorough grasp on the realities of achieving greatness goes a long way.

So where can we take a closer, more objective look at what constitutes excellence? What does "ditch digging" actually look like and what can we learn from it?

The Mundanity of Excellence

Daniel Chambliss, in a seminal study, examined the routines and results of swimmers at all levels, including Olympic swimmers, in a cross-sectional (across all skill levels) and longitudinal (multi year) study. [1]

His research highlighted counter-intuitive facts and busted myths about excellence and performance at the highest levels. We will examine key findings from the paper and how to apply them to our work and careers.

Chambliss's work from 1989 is a little dated. The field of peak performance and expertise has come a long way since then. Anders Ericcson of 10,000 hours fame was one of the foremost experts in that field. We will use his findings captured in his magnum opus Peak to support our arguments.

What does NOT produce excellence?

Chambliss rules out three common myths about excellence: social deviance, quantitative changes, and talent.

(1) Excellence is not, I find, the product of socially deviant personalities.

You don't need to be a social recluse or go to extraordinary lengths of devotion at the expense of everything else.

(2) 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”... Simply doing more of the same will not lead to moving up a level in the sport.

Excellence is not just about doing more of something or in common parlance just hard work. It's more nuanced than that.

(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 of “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.

Our most common explanation of greatness is that of extraordinary talent. But chalking something up to just talent is a missed opportunity and a misrepresentation of what it actually takes.

Talent can be disempowering and not actionable. In contrast, skill puts the onus on us to figure it out.

What does in fact produce excellence?

What differentiates the pros from the amateurs? Qualitative differences between the pros and the amateurs follow along three "dimensions" of what constitutes excellence : technique, discipline, and attitude.

(1) Technique: The styles of strokes, dives, and turns are dramatically different at different levels.

Their skill is at another level compared to amateurs. Notice the focus on technique rather than talent. Too often we clump highly technical skills into talent.

(2) Discipline: The best swimmers are more likely to be strict with their training, coming to workouts on time, carefully doing the competitive strokes legally, watch what they eat, sleep regular hours, do proper warmups before a meet, and the like. Their energy is carefully channelled.

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. Louganis is never sloppy in practice, and so is never sloppy in meets.

Here discipline is not a moral or an enforced perspective, but rather that of a "practice" that someone undertakes and sticks with over time in line with their long-term goals. Their approach to their practice is at an entirely different level of commitment and dedication.

A common stumbling block is to look at discipline as innate. We somehow assume that “they” have it and we don’t. In reality, they simply have better systems, better support, and a more nuanced understanding of what it actually entails.

But the biggest differentiator is that of better alignment with their intrinsic motivations rather than some outside notion. This could be a result of conscious searching or just happenstance.

Also note that it's easier to be "disciplined" when routines are well defined. Most of work and life happen in the grey and routines are harder to define. But there lies the opportunity.

If we can in fact identify and isolate routines, it's easier to stick with them aka stay disciplined. This moves discipline from a character flaw to be fixed to something that needs more attention and careful engineering.

(3) Attitude: 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.

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.

Here attitude is not the typical pop-psychology version but rather the experience of practice itself.

What  might look like boring practice to the amateur, the professional savors it. The pros enjoy the process as much as the outcome itself.

This is not about being in flow or being easy, it's anything but. It's more in terms of a satisfaction gained from doing the small but important things over and over.

This makes sense because otherwise it would be hard for anyone to maintain effort for such long stretches of time. It has to offer intrinsic satisfaction and engagement.

Researchers who have studied long-distance runners have found that amateurs tend to daydream or think about more pleasant subjects to take their minds off the pain and strain of their running, while elite long-distance runners remain attuned to their bodies so that they can find the optimal pace and make adjustments to maintain the best pace throughout the whole race.

-Anders Ericcson in Peak [2]

Excellence is mundane

Great performance is not boring. The long term execution of what it takes to get there often is.

A great performance on its own might be extraordinary. But the activities, skills, and practice that lead up to it is ordinary. They are ordinary in the sense that anyone could have done those specific activities. What is extraordinary, is that most don't do it long enough or consistently enough to actually get there.

Excellence is mundane. Superlative performance is made 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 those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence.

This is equally true for breakthrough inventions, creativity and innovation.

Researchers who study how the creative geniuses in any field—science, art, music, sports, and so on—come up with their innovations have found that it is always a long, slow, iterative process.

There are no big leaps, only developments that look like big leaps to people from the outside because they haven’t seen all of the little steps that comprise them. Even the famous “aha” moments could not exist without a great deal of work to build an edifice that needs just one more piece to make it complete.

- Anders Ericcson in Peak [2]

Doing mundane things long enough is the biggest challenge

In the pursuit of excellence, maintaining mundanity is the key psychological challenge.

This is perhaps the most obvious yet eye-opening finding.

Our unsuccessful attempts at something probably have more to do with our inability to do mundane things for long periods of time rather than the difficulty of what we are attempting.

Maintaining the mundane routines of day to day practice over long periods of time is what gets someone to Olympic level performance. Most of us cannot cope with the boredom and associated psychological stress that comes with the repetition and mundanity.

To not be otherwise is not automatic and people train for years where the process itself becomes its own reward. But once you get there, it's clearly a competitive advantage.

Staying disciplined is essentially about making hundreds of small choices that get made over the course of days, weeks, and years. The consistency of decision making ends up being a key differentiator.

Every time a decision comes up, the qualitatively "correct"choice will be made. The action, in itself, is nothing special; the care and consistency with which it is made is.

Outcomes are glamorous. Practice is not.

Outcomes are glamorous and inspire us to action. We see the successful author, the athlete, the CEO, or the singer, and decide to reach for the same heights. But what is actually visible is the most glamorous and shortest lasting part of the whole endeavor.

Meanwhile, the processes to get there are equally mundane and require significant investment of time. Perhaps if someone showed us a highlights reel of that reality we might not in fact sign up for it.

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.”

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.

In some ways, it’s good that we don’t see the actual reality. If we did, we might not even try.

Process is hidden

We want the outcome but not the mundanity of what it takes to get there. What makes this dynamic especially insidious is that process tends to be hidden. Meanwhile the outcomes are what we see all the time.

What we don't see is the years of hard practice and the actual day to day mundane things required to actually get there.

In essence, we are process blind. But it’s the process where the athlete or the super star spends the most time at. All that we see is the .01% time spent in the final performance.

... the rubric of "talent" obscures rather than illuminates the sources of athletic excellence.

It's easy to do this, especially if one's only exposure to top athletes comes once every four years while watching the Olympics on television, or if one only sees them in performances rather than in day-to-day training.

This is one reason why 99% of goal setting fails in the first 6 months. Most of the goal setting is around outcomes, but not around setting the processes and systems that will ensure that we do in fact get there.

Visualizing processes is also proven in research as being more effective compared to only visualizing outcomes. [3]

Visualizing “how can I do it” rather than “I can do it”. [9]

Amateurs talk about strategy. Professionals talk about logistics.

- Gen Omar Bradley who lead US troops on D-Day)

By only visualizing outcomes, we are setting ourselves up for failure because there is a disconnect between the fantasies of success and the reality of actually getting there.

By also visualizing the process, reality and expectations are more closely aligned. This ensures we stay in the game for the long run rather than naive beginners who quit at the first signs of distress and disconnect from our fantasies.

Qualitative vs Quantitative improvements

Working harder or more starts to become less of a differentiator at higher levels because everyone is. Simply increasing quantity does not translate into increased performance.

Instead what is needed is a qualitative shift in what and how we are doing something. This might mean better execution, better skills, better coaching, more nuance, and so on.

Also, we make the mistake of thinking that top performers are working 10X harder. Not necessarily. What they are doing instead is working differently.

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.

Without such qualitative jumps, no major improvements (movements through levels) will take place.

A new team, coach, or friends are essentially changes in the social setup that surrounds you. Not easy in sports, and even harder elsewhere.

Research has proven out this idea of qualitative and quantitative differences.

Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement.

If anything, the doctor or the teacher or the driver who’s been at it for twenty years is likely to be a bit worse than the one who’s been doing it for only five, and the reason is that these automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.

-Anders Ericcson in Peak, The New Science of Expertise

Motivation is mundane

We think that Olympic performances require olympic levels of motivation. But that's not necessarily true. What they do have instead are better systems and support to sustain their motivation.

Motivation is more ordinary that we think. Simple things that help us keep showing up regularly at bat can go a long way.

Another mistake is to think that the size of the goal is the primary driver of action. Often it's the opposite. Smaller interim achievements and daily mundane targets are much more effective at keeping us motivated than a one time large goal further out in the future.

Karl Weick highlighted this notion in his seminal paper Small Wins. It's easy to shut down thinking about the enormity of the tasks in front of us. Instead, small wins along the way make the end goal more doable and more likely.

A small win is a concrete, complete, implemented 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.

- Karl Weick in Small Wins

Thus designing and engineering small, consistent wins is key.

But this also highlights one of the biggest differences between sports and real life. Sports training can in fact be broken up, whereas life and work are much harder to do so. In sports, the different levels are clearly stratified, identifiable, and can be worked towards. It tends to be less obvious in other domains.

This idea is captured powerfully in the final scene of Hurt Locker, where Jeremy Renner an explosive expert who is back home after several deployments in Iraq, struggles to make the simple decision of picking a brand from the cereal aisle.

From his perspective, working with explosives is easier than picking a cereal brand. The former is well defined with immediate feedback whereas the latter is vague, amorphous, and laden with too many choices.

Movie time versus human time

Viewing Rocky or 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-to-day 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.

- Daniel Chambliss, The Mundanity of Excellence

Most of us have a version of the Rocky montage playing in our head when we think of getting good at something. This is often implicit.

In the 5 minute montage (usually accompanied by inspiring music), Rocky starts off as weak and unskilled. At the end of the montage he emerges strong and highly skilled. Of course we all know it’s not overnight and yet our implicit expectations are often in “movie time” rather than “human time” aka reality.

When our simplistic notions meet head on with hard realities, they get shattered. Perhaps a more useful strategy is to make our notions more robust by keeping them as close to reality as possible.

Top performers as "different" rather than “better”

Here different is not as more talented but rather their ability to stick with the routines and requirements that it takes to build that kind of proficient talent.

While innate talent might be a myth, some people might have an advantage in what it takes to build that kind of talent . We can reduce this gap by educating ourselves more about what it actually takes.

Classifying it as skill also means given enough time and training, one can in fact become significantly better at it.

Two clues from philosophy

Social science research is one place to look for clues about excellence and mastery. Another potent source is philosophy. We examine ideas from two philosophers, 100 years apart.

Mundanity, grit and Nietzsche

Our tendency to glorify talent and peak performance might have some darker reasons. Nietzsche’s writings from the late 1800s capture these notions and were particularly predictive of Chambliss’s research conclusions a 100 years later.

Angela Duckworth puts it this way in Grit:

“With everything perfect,” Nietzsche wrote, “we do not ask how it came to be.” Instead, “we rejoice in the present fact as though it came out of the ground by magic.”

“No one can see in the work of the artist how it has become,” Nietzsche said. “That is its advantage, for wherever one can see the act of becoming one grows somewhat cool.”

In other words, we want to believe that Mark Spitz was born to swim in a way that none of us were and that none of us could. We don’t want to sit on the pool deck and watch him progress from amateur to expert. We prefer our excellence fully formed. We prefer mystery to mundanity.

But why? What’s the reason for fooling ourselves into thinking Mark Spitz didn’t earn his mastery?

“Our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of the genius,” Nietzsche said. “For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking. . . . To call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘here there is no need to compete.

In other words, mythologizing natural talent lets us all off the hook. It lets us relax into the status quo. …

So what is the reality of greatness? Nietzsche came to the same conclusion Dan Chambliss did.  

Great things are accomplished by those “people whose thinking is active in one direction, who employ everything as material, who always zealously observe their own inner life and that of others, who perceive everywhere models and incentives, who never tire of combining together the means available to them.”

And what about talent? Nietzsche implored us to consider exemplars to be, above all else, craftsmen:

“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became ‘geniuses’ (as we put it). . . . They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.”

- Angela Duckworth citing Neitzsche(Human, all too Human) in Grit [6,7]

The Stockdale Paradox

Admiral James Stockdale was a Vietnam era fighter pilot who endured 8 years of torture. What helped him endure and survive this ordeal was his insistence on combining two seemingly opposing ideals: unflagging optimism + clear recognition of the realities of his situation.

Jim Collins calls this the Stockdale Paradox:

Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith):

... a former prisoner of war had more to teach us about what it takes to find a path to greatness than most books on corporate strategy. Every good-to-great company embraced what we came to call the Stockdale Paradox:

You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

- Jim Collins in Good to Great [8]

For our discussion, the brutal facts means taking good stock of what we are attempting and being intimately familar with the mundane routines for what it will take to get there.

Facing the reality of the situation is as much a requirement of success as it is with being an optimist. Being optimistic without a realistic assessment of the situation does not prepare us well for the journey.

One should…be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald

Too often we spend more time on figuring out the destination, instead of really understanding what it entails.

Unlike vacations, journeys in life require us to spend most of our time in “getting there” — the process and its mundane realities. The “there”, our target or destination is the shortest part of the journey.

Applying it to careers and workplaces


How can we apply these core concepts to the realm of work? Here are some ideas:

Put yourself in situations and circumstances that require a higher level of performance. No amount of prepping can simulate real world conditions. Preparation cannot compensate for a lack of experience in high stakes situations.

In careers, this means getting on rocket ships as early as you can and to keep looking for experiences and roles that push you to the limits. For most, this happens by accident rather than by design. If you can seek out and engineer opportunities, it will only be a matter of time before your career takes off.

Is there a higher chance of failure? Absolutely. But without that you are guaranteed to stay in your current range of performance. Qualitative leaps required qualitative changes in systems and environments.

Figure out the mundane activities required to get to your desired outcomes. If it's not something you will enjoy doing day in and day out, you do not stand a chance to compete at the highest levels. What are the routines and practices you need to develop in order to crack that next level?

I don’t think mundanity is the issue here. Mundanity is a given, as we have already seen. Thinking otherwise is naivette or plain ignorance. The real question is, what kind of mundanity can we choose to do that we can get good at and want to keep doing?

If everything is in fact mundane, doing something that we actually do not like doing is clearly stacking the odds against us. The day to day routines are going to be hard regardless. If we do not want to do those mundane activities or if they are out of alignment with our strengths, we are making it unnecessarily harder.

Recognize that the different outcomes you are gunning for require different levels of dedication. In addition to you this includes your family, and everyone else around you. Assuming that everyone is going for the same is not helpful.

You have to clearly recognize what you are going for, and what you are willing to sacrifice in your pursuit of that ideal. Not having clarity in this produces confusion, frustration, and false starts. In short, clearly identify the game you are playing and what it takes.

Work is a social domain. Compared to swimming, the standards are more arbitrary and prone to human misjudgment. So play and adjust accordingly.

This means understanding the rules of the game of your particular organization. If you look at your organization as a social world unto itself, what are the “rules of the game” that define how it operates. You will not find this in any company handbook, but they exist regardless.

All organizations have unsaid rules. None of these rules are captured in books. You learn these only by participation, careful observations, and conversations. If what you see is not something you would do, then change the organization. You can change yourself, but you cannot change the organization overnight.

How do you figure out the “rules of the game”? By conversing with people already playing the game and participating in the game. This is much easier and visible in sports. In real life and workplaces this is much harder because the rules and stratifications are not as visible or clean cut as in sports. But they exist regardless.

Think back in your own experience of workplaces, and you can think of people who appeared predestined in their careers. Usually there are patterns to this, often invisible, but present regardless. Regime changes at the top can often affect how these patterns affect you overnight. But without the tailwind of these patterns behind you, it’s extremely hard to rise up through the organization.

Workplace effectiveness as greatness

Consider what mundane aspects of your work can be turned into a deliberate practice.

In an organizational context, greatness can be equated to effectiveness. The equivalent of an elite athlete is what Peter Drucker calls “the effective executive" and the required skills as “practices”.

. . . to 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.

I have not come across a single “natural”: an executive who was born effec- tive. All the effective ones have had to learn to be effective. And all of them then had to practice effectiveness until it became habit.

- Peter Drucker in The Effective Executive

One of Drucker's 9 practices is of making meetings productive. Writing followup memos is one way to do so. On the surface this is pretty basic and mundane. But approaching it as a practice gives it a completely different tone and meaning.

He gives an example:

Good follow-up is just as important as the meeting itself. The great master of follow-up was Alfred Sloan, the most effective business executive I have ever known.

Sloan, who headed General Motors from the 1920s until the 1950s, spent most of his six working days a week in meetings-three days a week in formal committee meetings with a set membership, the other three days in ad hoc meetings with individual GM executives or with a small group of executives.

At the beginning of a formal meeting, Sloan announced the meeting’s purpose. He then listened. He never took notes and he rarely spoke except to clarify a confusing point. At the end he summed up, thanked the participants, and left.

Then he immediately wrote a short memo addressed to one attendee of the meeting. In that note, he summarized the discussion and its conclusions and spelled out any work assignment decided upon in the meeting (including a decision to hold another meeting on the subject or to study an issue). He specified the deadline and the executive who was to be accountable for the assignment. He sent a copy of the memo to everyone who’d been present at the meeting.

It was through these memos-each a small masterpiece- that Sloan made himself into an outstandingly effective executive.

- Peter Drucker in What Makes an Effective Executive

Many clients who have ambitions to become a CEO do not consider memo-writing a critical piece of their strategy. But from a mastery perspective, it’s one important skill that adds up to a masterful performance.

Just like the swimmers executing multiple skills simultaneously, writing effective memos can be thought of as a skill that executives have to master.

The point is not whether memo writing will get you to the C-suite or not. Rather that the path towards the C-suite is laden with mundane, non-glamorous actions, that add up over time and eventually give you the competitive advantage.


Our work has both its high points and low points. Masters turn even the mundane into a game to be mastered.

What aspect of your work looks mundane? How can you turn it into a game to be mastered?

Further Reading

Effective conversations are a critical aspect of leadership. But they are often perceived as mundane. Here’s one way to turn it into a deliberate practice.

Goal setting is one of the most researched areas in the social sciences but most of us are limited to the SMART framework. In this article I explore the 14 most important dimensions of goals.

Drucker's 9 practices of the effective executive are here.


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References

  1. The Mundanity of Excellence by Daniel Chambliss. This paper is a true gem and worthy of a close read in its entirety. You can find it here.
  2. Peak by Anders Ericcson.
  3. Decoding Greatness by Ron Friedman.
  4. The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker.
  5. The Second Mountain by David Brooks.
  6. Grit by Angela Duckworth.
  7. Human, All too Human by Friedrich Nietzsche.
  8. Good to Great by Jim Collins.
  9. Mindset by Carol Dweck
  10. From Thought to Action: Effects of Process- Versus Outcome-Based Mental Simulations on Performance by Lien Pham, Shelley Taylor
  11. Hurt Locker supermarket scene :

12. Rocky training montage:

Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various leadership and management positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
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