The Mundanity of Excellence
July 30, 2012 8:59 AM   Subscribe

Excellence is mundane. Excellence is accomplished through the doing of actions, ordinary in themselves, performed consistently and carefully, habitualized, compounded together, added up over time.: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers (1989)

Via Jessie Daniels' twitter.
posted by latkes (9 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
Must be why I cannot be bothered by the pursuit of excellence. Just too damned boring.
posted by Danf at 9:55 AM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's interesting how much stress the article puts on the importance of coming to practice on time, not for increased practice time (which turns out not to be that important) but for the effect it has on motivation, because forcing herself to be on time at 5:30 AM makes herself feel like every moment in the pool matters. Showing up isn't 90% of everything, but wanting to show up might be.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:13 AM on July 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


The concept of talent hinders a clear understanding of excellence. By providing a quick...“explanation” of athletic success, it satisfies our casual curiosity while requiring neither an empirical analysis nor a critical questioning of our tacit assumptions about top athletes.

"Talented" people also happen to be the ones who work insanely hard at making qualitative improvements over time. He makes that point exceedingly well, using swimmers as his examples, but I've found this applies to more than just sport. Great read.
posted by ancillary at 1:43 PM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Well, there will always be two schools of thought about this. There always have been; jargon changes, but plus ça change.

Reductionists think that you can know everything that there is to know about something (how an excellent swimmer acquires and maintains his own-body model and his fluid mechanics model) by studying its component parts up until you have a complete explanation. Emergentists think that the resultant process is more than the mere sum of its parts -- that there's something about how each morsel of knowledge interlocks with others that sparks "emergent behavior". I personally stand on the latter camp, but there's at least one reason to side with the reductionists: by definition you can't explicitly account for emergent behavior -- if you could be providing the missing component.

What really bothers me about that excerpt, however, is the reification of "excellence". It's not self-evident at all that excellence in swimming is similar to excellence in judo, let alone mathematics, business, sex. It's just a word, but it glimmers so beautifully that we start worrying about "excellence" losing ground with the real stuff at hand.

There's nothing wrong about abstraction, but abstraction that freezes the dynamical processes that in actuality make "excellence in swimming" happen, i.e. early selection, training regimens, the neurology of own-body models and of pattern-learning fluid mechanics, how each athlete crosses the structure of the competitive swimming world at every sphere and so on. All of this happens along a temporal dimension, and that's why reification is an ugly vice of thought: if you make "excellence" a "thing" and accumulate enough platitudes about its apparent phenomenology, you're deadening language, stifling your own thought and possibly others, should you become a motivational speaker.

Now, seriously. Dude's an ethnographer. An ethnographer is like a sociologist who treats his subject matter as if it was a human zoo. Ethnography reifies behavior by its own methods.

Does his account of excellence apply to matters other than sports? Possibly, but not for the reasons you may be thinking. Evidently some of the underlying processes are homologous but some are necessarily not, and generalizing from reification is a vice doubled.
posted by syntaxfree at 7:28 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


So how does this relate to Gladwell's 10,000 hour theory? The author makes some good points, but I think he (and Gladwell) underplay talent somewhat, at least in certain areas. No matter how much you practice, and no matter how you practice, some people are never going to be good, never mind great, singers.
posted by blue shadows at 7:38 PM on July 30, 2012


Shortly put, Gladwell's 10K hour theory is a dynamic theory about how talent forms in time, not a static decomposition of "talent" in its component parts. It's a rather poor theory in that talent accumulation is very different across disciplines -- in music, you lose your talent without practice (I used to play fast guitar solos) in other areas, talent acquired is talent kept, because it doesn't depend so much on self-reinforcing memory loops ("muscle memory" and so forth), but rather breakthrough insight.

It's not a dumb theory. It's oversimplifying, as everything Gladwell does, but at least it's a theory about a process, not a description of a "thing".
posted by syntaxfree at 7:55 PM on July 30, 2012


If this is interesting, you might also check out How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. It's similar to the fpp in its discussion of "excellence," though in the book its labeled as "mastery" instead.

I've been reading a bit on the topic (though it sounds like not as much as syntaxfree) and the takeaway for me has been the importance of metacognition. Thinking about how you are learning, what is effective, setting goals and gauging your progress, etc. is the key to making your practice more qualitative rather than quantitative. Maybe it seems like common sense, but when it's spelled out so clearly and seen as a goal in itself, metacognition makes learning somewhat more systematic and thus simpler and less scary.

As far as this is related to what syntaxfree is saying (but correct me if I'm wrong!), making a conscious effort to make practice more qualitative will increase the odds that you will pick up the right processes required for whatever you are doing. While excellence in math might not require building muscle memory like it does in guitar or some other physical activity, if you're being metacognitive about your learning, you still ought to be actively pursuing the proper dynamical processes that make excellence happen in whatever skill that you're trying to master.

Sorry if this is incoherent.
posted by meows at 9:02 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm talking about something more general. Getting to be a swimmer or a guitar player involves metacognition, but is not reducible to metacognition, and you can't just talk about "excellence" as if it could be factored out as a static, universal thing. It's not in Tha Bible, you know.
posted by syntaxfree at 4:02 AM on July 31, 2012


syntaxfree: if you read the full article, Chambliss does define excellence: he says it is "consistent superiority of performance," and with that he is referring to results in competitive swim meets. Furthermore, he doesn't really try to draw the conclusions you seem to think he does: he explicitly states that in many other fields of accomplishment or competition, defining excellence isn't as easy as it is in swimming, where it is a matter of how quickly you finish a race. The payoff, according to Chambliss, is in understanding "stratification," that very sociological term for how groups establish hierarchies. His assertion is therefore not so much a general approach to "excellence," but rather, to view swimming performance as an example of how social groups settle into various "strata" of who is more vs. less meritorious. Whether he really accomplishes that by finding the general patterns in how the most consistently successful swimmers differ in their training from the less successful ones, I am less confident. But at the very least, he does offer in his paper some of the concreteness and specificity you seemed to find lacking, which for me render his crimes of reification much more minor and acceptable than you took them to be.

I used to assign this paper when teaching MIT undergrads basic social science research methods because I found that it violated their general sensibilities at so many levels: it's qualitative, based on a somewhat muddy data set (though Chambliss clearly has a very competent background and extensive firsthand knowledge of swimming as a competitive sport), somewhat evasive with many of its conclusions, and mixes understatement with overstatement throughout. In other words, very antithetical to a reductionist engineer's approach. Those students who liked the paper took it on as something to challenge their assumptions and offer ideas for new approaches to an old, and commonly-tackled topic. For more or less these same reasons I consider it a personal "cult fave" of social science research.

Re: the Gladwell comparison, I think it bears noticing, but what I liked was that Chambliss had a fair amount to say about an individual's approach to practice; Gladwell, to my knowledge, thought he had stumbled on a special insight related only to the notion that duration of practice matters, especially when the opportunity to practice may be scarce.
posted by LoneWolfMcQuade at 6:24 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


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