You don't often hear people say they are striving for mediocrity. But even though most of us want to achieve excellence in what we do, it is easy to struggle on the journey to figuring out how to get there.
The truth is, each of us has the capacity to achieve excellence in whatever skill we so choose. And it turns out it isn't as hard to achieve as we might have previously believed.
Sociology professor Dan Chambliss spent years studying Olympic swimmers and what separated them from swimmers at other levels. His research revealed three major areas of difference that enabled these elite athletes to consistently outperform the others.
If you apply these findings to your own work, excellence in your field will be within reach too:
I started dancing Argentine tango a few years back. Although I have progressed in my ability, anytime I look at some of the couples on the dance floor, I realize much more I need to learn.
One of my tango instructors summed up what I need to do if I want to improve: "work on your technique."
There lies a major difference between those who dabble, and get by with "good enough," versus others who consistently perform at a high-level.
Dan Chambliss found this to be true in his study of Olympic swimmers.
"The styles of strokes, dives and turns are dramatically different at different levels...Not only are the strokes different, they are so different that the "C" swimmer may be amazed to see how the "AAAA" swimmer looks when swimming. The appearance alone is dramatically different, as is the speed with which they swim."
If you want to improve your skills, it isn't about the number hours you put in. It's the quality of your technique that will set you apart.
Thus, you've got to spend time working on the individual elements of your craft, learning which adjustments you need to make that will improve your performance. Engage in deliberate practice on the various components of the skills. In time you will notice a dramatic difference in your results.
A lot of times we think about what drives excellence purely as what we see when watching others perform. But a big part of the fuel that enables them to deliver, is the discipline with which they go about their work behind the scenes.
Here's Chambliss again on his observations about Olympic swimmers.
"The best swimmers are more likely to be strict with their training, coming to workouts on time, carefully doing the competitive strokes legally...watch what they eat, sleep regular hours, do proper warmups before a meet, and the like. Their energy is carefully channeled."
As you think about what is necessary to improve in your specific area of work, what other areas of your life need to come together to support your performing at a higher level? Your activities and your way of living often need to work in harmony to support you in achieving your goals.
Best-selling author Cal Newport is insanely prolific in what he produces, while rarely working past 5 or 6 p.m. How does he do it? He's extremely disciplined in his approach to deep work, three to four hours a day of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration. That means he spends little time on social media, and batches shallow work into small bursts of time at the peripheries of the day.
When I started playing basketball in junior high, our coach gave us t-shirts that said "attitude is everything." Your view of a task has a significant impact on how you perform it.
Here are Chambliss's findings in this area:
"At the higher levels of competitive swimming, something like an inversion of attitude takes place. The very 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 peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. They enjoy hard practices, look forward to difficult competitions, try to set difficult goals."
As you work through the mundane elements that make up the larger core of the skills you want to improve, adjust your perspective.
Embrace the non-glamorous parts of getting prepared. Find a way to put a positive spin on the activities that aren't your favorite, rather than thinking of them as a chore.
You can become world-class in your craft. But you've got to commit yourself to embodying the traits that have been proven to separate the elite from everyone else.