From mediocrity to excellence

What makes the best of the best…the best of the best? What differentiates gold medal track Olympians from your run-of-the-mill road runners (i.e., me)? World renown musicians from dedicated hobbyists? Or your top talent from everyone else? A lot of us assume they’re simply in another league: they have something others don’t, something innate – smarts, talent, luck, potential – they have “it,” whatever it is. A lot of us would be wrong. The truer or more complete answer is that excellence, in any arena, is multiply determined. And it has a lot more to do with what we do and how we do it, and not what are come into the world with.

The other week when we talked about luck, we explored how our beliefs determine our expectations which shape our behavior. In the same way, whether or not we believe “it” is available to us determines our trajectory between mediocrity and excellence. This is well-articulated in Carol Dweck’s work on mindset. Specifically, people who have a “fixed” mindset believe our performance is determined by innate factors that cannot be changed. He’s a basketball star because he’s naturally athletic; she’s a Rhodes Scholar because she has naturally high IQ. This is contrasted with the “growth” mindset which believes that our capabilities are malleable and can be developed. He’s a basketball star because he spent every afternoon at the gym for ten years instead of playing video games; she’s a Rhodes Scholar because she pored over books while her friends were at the mall. These beliefs aren’t inert. They determine how we respond to events in our environment. If I believe my performance is due to a stable latent quality, when I fail or meet with an obstacle or get critical feedback, what will I do? I’ll give up. I will avoid challenges. I won’t try harder. I’ll get defensive. But, if I believe my performance can be changed and that is within my control, I am going to embrace challenges as learning opportunities. I’m going to persist and redouble my effort. I’m going to soak up and proactively seek out feedback. I’ll get better.

I’ve been trying to convince my kids of this: You aren’t born good at something. You have to practice and work hard. Potential just gets you access. But it still isn’t just enough to “show up.” What you do when you’re there matters quite a lot too. What we’ve learned is that the people who are performing at the top of their field practice in a unique way. They aren’t just putting in the hours – though they are doing that too – they’re employing a “deliberate practice” approach. Specifically, they begin with a difficult goal – attainable, but which challenges them beyond their current skill level. To practice in this zone requires focused, concentrated attention and immediate feedback, to create in a process of repetition, reflection, and refinement. This process is inherently unpleasant. You have to stretch in uncomfortable ways and focus your attention on your mistakes and missteps. And yet, the best of the best show up and do it over and over again. As Angela Duckworth suggests in her book Grit, it takes passion and perseverance to be willing to exert the kind of effort demanded by deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is one mechanism by which the elite improve their skill level and their performance. But what about the flow state? In case you missed the memo, flow was first coined by Mihalyi Csizentsmihalyi in the 70s to describes a mental state we experience when we are performing in the context of perfectly matched skill level and challenge level – it is characterized by profound presence and deep enjoyment. That sounds a lot more pleasant! Can’t I just experience flow instead? Flow is the reward of hard work and effort and it encourages us to return to the exchange. Unfortunately, some critics say that “flow is the opiate to the mediocre” – that while enjoyable, flow states don’t improve our performance or expand our skill level. To excel, we have to push beyond this zone into the the learning zone, where the challenge outpaces our skill, and where we have to contend with discomfort, failure, and frustration. Flow is rewarding and valuable, but to continue to excel, you have to keep going.

Not everyone is willing to do this. That’s why the best of the best rise to the top and leave the rest of us scratching our heads and insisting that it was that “something special” about them that afforded their rise, not our own failure to put up with discomfort. I would argue (and have, before) that we are hardwired to cycle through phases that encourage us to gradually expand both our skills and the zone in which we are comfortable. My belief is that people who excel have mastered this process and cycle through it efficiently and rigorously. The result is that they spend more time in the choppy water versus coasting in the flow zone. Why do they do that? I think it again comes back to belief – if we trust the process and believe those difficult times are working on us in wondrous ways, that we’ll emerge expanded versus diminished, we aren’t afraid of the discomfort; it can’t hurt us. What do you choose to believe?