The Secret to Success Isn’t What You Think
When most people think of success, they imagine something grand.
They think of their favorite writers, musicians, and athletes, and they reflect on the attention they get, the money they have accumulated, and the level of skill and the quality of work that seems to come so easy to them.
The media tends to focus on visible results, and it leaves us questioning about what it may have taken to get those results. Sometimes, it even creates sensational narratives to amplify such successes.
It’s a romantic image, and it’s no wonder that we live in a culture that obsesses over secrets that promise to help pave our own way there.
Naturally, many such tips and tactics can be useful, and it is worth keeping up with different concepts about how you can improve yourself. That said, the trouble is that we have a tendency to treat such tips and tactics not as supplementary knowledge, but rather as the process itself.
In fact, the idea that there is something different that the people we look up to have discovered almost serves as an anchor to many of our own aspirations because rather than executing, we find ourselves waiting for the next big reveal about a secret idea and how we can implement it.
But is that really what it takes to get what you want? A hidden secret?
The Mundanity of Excellence
Superlative performance is a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole. — Daniel Chambliss
In 1989, Daniel Chambliss published a paper about what he had learned by following different swimmers of varying competency level to figure out what set apart Olympic-caliber competitors from the rest.
He watched how they practiced, what they ate, and he interviewed them.
While coaches and mentors would often attribute differences in the swimmers to things like body-type, Chambliss actually found that most of it came down to how the swimmers approached the idea of their work.
He observed, specifically, that many of the things the elite performers were doing were incredibly boring and mundane. They had the attitude and the discipline to show up, day in and day out, to work on small, tiny movements in a way that allowed them to internalize them into habits.
Even the time spent practicing wasn’t a strong indicator of the differences among them. What mattered was what they did with the time they had in the face of very ordinary and specific actions. It’s easy to mindlessly waste 4 hours. It isn’t easy, however, to stay focused on a single task for 2 hours.
Chambliss aptly titled his paper The Mundanity of Excellence, and it serves an important reminder that many of the people that we label extraordinary don’t do things that are extraordinary. They do a lot of ordinary things right.
In an age of constant distraction where boredom is easily gratified, maybe the solution isn’t to gratify it. Maybe there is no hidden secret, and maybe, just maybe, channeling our boredom productively is how we get ahead.
Mastery or success isn’t an accident. It just takes plain, mundane work.
Compound Interest Works
“Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Day by day, and at the end of the day-if you live long enough-like most people, you will get out of life what you deserve.” — Charlie Munger
It’s important to note that there is a difference between being busy and getting something done. Being able to distinguish between real work and imagined work is critical.
The positive is that it doesn’t have to be complicated. If you focus on a single measurable metric and ensure that this metric records a difference between when you began and when you ended, then you’re on the right track.
For an athlete, this could be the number of reps she gets done in a session or the time it takes for her to complete a lap. For the writer, this may be the number of good words he can produce when he sits down to type.
On a day to day basis, whatever you measure won’t necessarily improve by any meaningful increments, but if you keep it up, this process will built on itself to produce valuable gains. Each effort will compound on the improvement before it, and over time, you will see substantial results.
Hypothetically, if you were to invest $100 at the beginning of a year for a return of just 1% a day, you’d have something in the range of $3800 to your name at the end. Even at such a slow rate of increase, this kind of return is very, very rare in the financial world. But it shows the power of compounding.
The same logic applies to personal endeavors. You don’t have to move the world every time you sit down to work, but if you can consistently take boredom and mundanity and use it to push you in the right direction, you will eventually get somewhere.
That 1% push will slowly turn into something far larger and greater.
It’s both harder than you think and much easier than you think.
Focusing on something for a long time is tough, saying “no” to tempting alternatives is almost never fun, and trusting incremental gains is difficult.
The good news is that none of this is new. We’ve all been doing these things in different contexts for years and years. We just get distracted by the noise and sensationalization of big promises and “overnight success” stories.
Telling somebody to just do the work is both horrible and great advice. It’s horrible because we all know it and that’s not what we want to hear. Still, it’s great because it doesn’t require you to be a superhuman. Granted, work alone isn’t going to help you change the world, but if you just focus on being better today than you were yesterday, you will see results.
Let this be a reminder. Be bored, embrace the mundane, and put in a few focused hours towards whatever it is that you think matters.
Maybe that means writing down the stories you’ve been imaging in your mind. Maybe it’s about the the hours you spend at the gym in the morning.
Whatever it is, it’s within reach if you want it to be.