I’m not a free thinker. I prefer reading what others have to say, organizing ideas and making connections. So this post isn’t as much original writing as it is highlights from a few books (and one video) that have inspired me.

I particularly like reading about people who are good at what they do. One of the most fascinating things about high performers is how much consistency exists across disciplines. High performers in sports, business, the military and every other field are all the same. Their big secret is there is no big secret; they are regular people who choose to do small things well, day after day, year after year, all pointed in the same direction.

Below are sections from three books that have contributed to the way I understand excellence (or greatness or success):

Champions: The Making of Olympic Swimmers by Daniel Chambliss

Daniel Chambliss wrote Champions after observing the practice habits of Olympic swimmers ahead of the 1988 Olympic Games. A year later, he wrote a follow-up article called “The Mundanity of Excellence.” Both are awesome.

“They become champions by doing what needs to be done, by doing everything right, by concentrating on all the silly details that others overlook. What makes them champions is the knowledge—and the action following from that knowledge—that champions are only real people, not gods, and that all it takes to be a champion is to do what champions do.

The ‘big secret’ that all the visitors around the world came looking for was—that there is no ‘big secret.’ There is only the will to swim for miles and miles, all the turns done correctly, all the strokes done legally, all the practices attended, all the weights lifted, and all the sprints pushed to the point of exhaustion, day after day for years and years.

This is a ‘heroic’ conceit—a literary device, basically—and it actually does a terrible injustice to the athletes, for the heroic conceit mystifies excellence, removing it from the routines of daily life where it must, each day, be lived; it looks back over years and years of small events and tries to explain them in a quick phrase: ‘a career of excellence,’ ‘incredible dedication,’ ‘the will to win.’ So it fails, finally, to do justice to the drab routine of athletic training, and it presents dedication, too, as a gift—as something that one day you just ‘have’ (like ‘talent’). In fact, world-class athletes get to the top level by making a thousand little decisions every morning and night. If you make the right choice on each of these—decide to get up and go to practice, decide to work hard today, decide to volunteer to do an extra event to help your team—then others will say you ‘have’ dedication. But it is only the doing of those little things, all taken together, that makes dedication. Great swimmers aren’t made in the long run; they are made every day.

Doing is the only thing that counts. The truth is simple: most swimmers choose everyday not to do the little things. They choose, in effect, not to win. They say, ‘I could do this workout if I wanted to.’ In some sense, everyone ‘could’ win the Olympic Games, but ‘could’ doesn’t count. The gold medal is reserved for those who do.”

Good to Great by Jim Collins

Good to Great examines key differences between great and mediocre companies. When defining the Flywheel Effect, author Jim Collins asks us to consider the incredible effort required to rotate a 5,000-pound flywheel. He writes:

“Now suppose someone came along and asked, ‘What was the one big push that caused this thing to go so fast?’ You wouldn’t be able to answer; it’s just a nonsensical question. Was it the first push? The second? The fifth? The hundredth? No! It was all of them added together in an overall accumulation of effort applied in a consistent direction. Some pushes may have been bigger than others, but any single heave—no matter how large—reflects a small fraction of the entire cumulative effect upon the flywheel. The flywheel image captures the overall feel of what it was like inside the companies as they went from good to great. No matter how dramatic the end result, the good-to-great transformations never happened in one fell swoop. There was no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no wrenching revolution. Good to great comes about by a cumulative process—step by step, action by action, decision by decision, turn by turn of the flywheel—that adds up to sustained and spectacular results.”

Resilience by Eric Greitens

Resilience is a collection of letters written by former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens to another former SEAL plagued by depression, alcoholism and debilitating lack of purpose. The quotes below are from a chapter called “Habits”:

“The direction of a person’s life is shaped not by a single turning point, but by thousands of days, each filled with small, unspectacular decisions and small, unremarkable acts that make us who we are.

For most people engaged in pursuits of excellence, we are not dealing with a single important day of decision. We are instead dealing with days and weeks and months and years of accumulated effort, consistent practice, and wise habit formation.”

Steph Curry: A Case Study

Steph Curry is a great model of what these guys are describing. Once overlooked by every major college basketball program in the country, Curry is now the best shooter in the NBA and winner of back-to-back MVP awards. Trainer Alan Stein offers great insight into Curry’s transformation:

In the video, Stein describes Curry as the least recognized player at Kobe Bryant’s Nike Skills Camp. But because of Curry’s work habits, Stein labels him the most impressive. Here’s what Stein observed:

Thirty minutes before every single workout, most players were still in their flip-flops and had on their headphones, and Stephen Curry had already started doing some form shooting. He had already started taking game shots from games spots at game speed. By the time the workout officially started, he had probably already made 100, 150 shots and was in a full sweat. When the workout actually started, he was meticulous with everything that he did. He made sure that he had perfect footwork. He made sure that he had perfect shooting form. If he did anything and it wasn’t perfect, he did it over again.”

He continues:

“The moral of that story is that success is not an accident. Success is actually a choice. And Steph Curry is one of the best shooters on the planet today because he has made the choice to create great habits. And my question to you is: are the habits that you have today on par with the dreams that you have for tomorrow? That’s something that you need to ask yourself every single day. Because whatever you do on a regular basis today will determine where you will be tomorrow.”

The Challenge

If Chambliss, Collins, Greitens and Stein (and countless others) are to be believed, excellence is simple. But if excellence is simple, why is excellence so UNCOMMEN? The answer: Excellence costs. Legendary West Point football coach Red Blaik, a mentor of Vince Lombardi’s, preached to his teams: “anything is ours provided we are willing to pay the price.” If you want to achieve excellence—at work, at home, in your faith, in your relationships—you can. But don’t be fooled, you must pay the price. The price of excellence is the price of building healthy habits. The practices that transformed Steph Curry into the superstar he is today were not bought cheaply. They came at the expense of physical comfort, time with friends, sleeping in and looking cool (it’s not cool to workout when your teammates are still in their flip flops). Whatever that means for you, excellence will always cost.

A Word To The Wise

It’s true excellence builds through accumulation. But so does mediocrity. We’ve witnessed the cumulative effect of small things done well. But the cumulative effect little things done poorly is equally powerful—as is the aggregate effect of neglect. So pay attention: be sure the small things you do on a daily basis are taking you where you want to go; good or bad, they are in the driver’s seat.

About the Author: Dan Visser is married with two kids (ages 2 and newborn). His journeyman’s coaching career most recently landed him as assistant coach of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, a professional soccer team playing one level below Major League Soccer. You can follow his blog for more insights about coaching and leadership: danvisser.blogspot.com.

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