Vivek Haldar

"The Mundanity of Excellence"

I just finished reading this paper1 where the author embeds himself with a group of swimmers and tries to understand how they move up (or not) through the levels.

The overall message has many similarities to Ericsson et al’s famous paper about deliberate practice (of which I wrote a summary), in 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. Hence the title of the paper.

The author concludes that:

  • The levels of achievement (juniors, seniors, nationals, Olympics) are discrete rather than continuous, and the practices and attitudes within each are different enough to make them disjoint parallel worlds.
  • The jump from one level to the next one comes not from quantitative improvements (i.e. doing more of the same thing, or doing it faster), but from qualitative shifts such as new and different techniques, attitudes and practices.
  • Other than that, there is no secret to achieving excellence, and indeed, the primary psychological barrier to achieving it is to get over the sheer mundanity of it.
  • “Talent” is indistinguishable from its effects. We only call someone “talented” if their achievements already make it obvious. The cult of talent is actually harmful because it obscures the true, achievable (but mundane) path to excellence.

  1. The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers. Daniel F. Chambliss. Sociological Theory, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring, 1989), pp. 70-86. (PDF↩︎