The Science Behind Excellence is Known; Why Isn’t, then, Everyone an Expert?

In the mid-1980s Daniel Chambliss, a sociology professor from Hamilton College, endeavored to demystify excellence, defined by him as ”consistent superiority of performance.” His quest lead him to study “competitive swimming” as it offered unambiguous measures of performance (races won, fastest swim). Obviously, it’d be a lot harder to rank pianists, actors, and writers. Over the next six years, he tracked, interviewed, and analyzed around one hundred and twenty swimmers of various levels of ability.

The conclusion he reached was startling. Contrary to the popular belief, athletic excellence isn’t a product of mystical innate ability or accretion of more practice hours, but “qualitative changes” in technique.

Olympic Champions don’t just do much more of the same things that summer-league country-club swimmers do. 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.

Chambliss also posits that talent plays a minor, if any, role in excellence. In fact, what we regard as talent is nothing more than an embodiment of small qualitative changes the person has acquired over the years.

When we are astonishing over the skill of, say, a footballer, what we are seeing is tiny improvements, quite ordinary in themselves, accumulated in the course of his life.

What we call talent is no more than a projected reification of particular things done: hands placed correctly in the water, turns crisply executed, a head held high rather than low in the water. Through the notion of talent, we transform particular actions that a human being does into an object possessed, held in trust for the day when it will be revealed for all to see.

There is no secret ingredient”, as Mr. Ping would say.


But if excellence is within everyone’s reach, why is it rare? Why are good programmers prized like a unicorn? Why is lack of talent in the hiring pool an incessant complaint?

The first instinct would be to believe that most people are apathetic. They are prone to avoid any work more than that’s necessary. But this is suspect and a slippery slope argument. If people are inherently lazy, does that mean there is a genetic factor involved? If yes, what does the distribution of the gene look like in the world?

There has been some research on genetic factors influencing laziness. In an intriguing study, J. Timothy Lightfoot, a kinesiologist, and his team at the University of North Carolina found that running miles for exercise-prone mice were 5-8 miles/day vs. 0.3 miles/day for inactive mice.

However, things are different for human beings. Unlike mice, they can foresee the long-term consequences of their actions. It seems more likely that genes only contribute to the extreme cases of laziness.


The first clue comes from a Chambliss observation of attitudes of world-class swimmers.

The 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 it peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic.

What ordinary swimmers consider a mild entertainment—or, maybe even a bore—great swimmers find it incredibly fulfilling. They are consistent in their routine and strive to push the envelope, every day. Stephen King might seem a gifted storyteller, but he always had an indefatigable attitude when it came to writing.

By the time I was fourteen the nail on my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.

Then, why do some people seek to be challenged, while others remain contended?

The mainstay of the challenge-seeking behavior is a growth mindset—a belief that it’s possible to get better. According to the Stanford psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006), “they (people with growth mindset) believe a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.” They have every incentive to take on tough challenges and seek out opportunities to improve [GatesNotes]. In contrast to this, a fixed-mindset person believes that abilities are fixed from birth.

Of course, this is more likely a continuum than a duality. At one end, people are pushing the bounds to the extreme; at the other, they are unmotivated take even the first step.

In my anecdotal observation, most people never internalize aspects of a growth mindset. And, that’s a huge factor why they fail to make progress. But, things get better when they embrace that challenges lead to growth. In a study conducted with Motion Math, a kids’ educational game, it was found that after showing encouraging growth-mindset messages, kids were less disposed to recede to easier questions when they failed.


There are a couple of other reasons too.

Unvarying Practice

Not all practice is equal. Practice that is repetitive and unchallenging results rarely in betterment. Andres Ericsson, in his distinguished paper, highlighted four major components of effective deliberate practice: “active search for methods to improve performance”, “immediate informative feedback”, “structure, supervision from an expert”, and “close attention to every detail of performance ‘each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit.’” [From: Composition 101]

Lacking Opportunities

Often, a person’s opportunities are heftily limited by factors not under their control. Socio-economic status and geographic location have a large say on who will be a young student’s peers and whether he will be able to dedicate effort towards his interests. Lacking wherewithals can have a disastrous effect on even the most aspiring folks.

We had one student on the edge of homelessness, was $400 short on bills and almost had to quit because of that. I personally loaned him the money, and his income moved from $10/hr to $70k+/yr. It only took $400, but he didn’t have anywhere to get that from. Insane. – Source

Lack of Small Wins

Most swimmers didn’t aspire to compete in Olympics from day one—and if they do, it’s an ineffective motivation.

Viewing “Rocky” or “Chariots of Fire” may inspire one for several days, but the excitement stirred by the film wears off rather quickly when confronted with the day-to-day reality of climbing out of bed to go and jump in the cold water.

Instead, small achievable steps that you can look forward to completing every day is a more effective approach. “Small wins” is a tool that can make everyday routine fulfilling. Often, people get daunted by the insurmountable task ahead and fail to make progress.


Chambliss concludes that excellence is mundane. Given the effort is right, everyone can attain expertise in any field. Behind the failure to realize the potential is a belief that they aren’t cut for it.

We fail to give the most important lesson to our children: that it can be done.

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