I began writing this post a few weeks ago, inspired by a book I had found at a used bookstore and read on a recent flight. The book was "The Big Miss", Hank Haney's first-hand account of the years he worked with Tiger Woods. What struck me, personal agendas aside, was Haney's belief that the key to greatness was always being in contention, and the way to do that was to eliminate mistakes, specifically the big one. I could go on and on about the implications of this for investing, life, sport, etc, but my plan was to discuss how it reminded me of Bill Belichick, and the praise he seems to finally be getting this season. The refrain has become that Bilichick's greatness is in his preparation, and always giving his team a chance to win. This viewpoint, though in no ways new, feels so contradictory to our sense of greatness and the illusions of it we hold. This was going to be what I wrote about: the ordinary, everyday things that, when accumulated consistently and effectively may lead to superior performance. "The Banality of Greatness" I was going to call it, that is, until I found a better title right under my nose.
And I mean under my nose, on the page of a book that I happened to have started reading last week on a whim. "Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance" by Angela Duckworth is the type of book I will pick up and flip through, and, if something catches my interest, will read. And while much of it seemed familiar (think "Talent is Overrated"), agreeable, and even inspiring, it was the title of a research paper from the eighties that Duckworth cited that really made its mark: "The Mundanity of Excellence: an Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers" by Hamilton College professor Daniel F. Chabliss. Here was a research paper talking about exactly what I had intended to talk about.
Chabliss uses competitive swimming as the basis for his study on excellence, which he defines as "consistent superiority of performance", because of the relatively ease with which one can measure and differentiate performance in swimming, and because of his familiarity with and access to that world. And the title tells us much, that excellence is the result of something or things mundane, ordinary, dull even. Instead of regurgitating Chabliss' work, I will let it speak for itself, and link the article HERE. Chabliss makes my point far better than I could have in this space.
With that said, I am reminded of a story I once heard about Tiger Woods. The year and the specific tournament are not all that important other than it was just an ordinary tournament and that Tiger had already clearly established himself as the best golfer in the world. That Friday evening, John Daly, who had made the cut earlier that day, headed to the bar to meet some friends. On his way, he passed Tiger on the range, diligently beating balls.
"Tiger," Daly called, "Quit practicing and let's go grab a drink."
"Sorry John," he replied. "We aren't all as talented as you are."