in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: March 9, 2024

Podcast #961: The Mundanity of Excellence

Forty years ago, now retired professor of sociology Daniel Chambliss performed a field study in which he observed an elite swim team to figure out what it was that led to excellence in any endeavor.

As Chambliss shared in a paper entitled “The Mundanity of Excellence,” the secret he discovered is that there really is no secret, and that success is more ordinary than mystical.

As mundane as the factors and qualities that lead to excellence really are, they can still run contrary to what we sometimes think makes for high achievement. Today on the show, I unpack the sometimes unexpected elements of excellence with Daniel. We discuss how desire is more important than discipline, the central role of one’s social group and surrounding yourself with the best of the best, the outsized importance of the small things, why you need to make being good your job, why motivation is mundane, and why you need to keep a sense of mundanity even as you become excellent.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Forty years ago, now retired Professor of Sociology, Daniel Chambliss, performed a field study in which he observed an elite swim team to figure out what it was that led to excellence in any endeavor. As Chambliss shared in a paper entitled The Mundanity of Excellence, the secret he discovered is that there really is no secret, and that success is more ordinary than mystical. As mundane as the factors and qualities that lead to excellence really are, they can still run contrary to what we sometimes think makes for high achievement. Today on the show, I unpack the sometimes unexpected elements of excellence with Daniel. We discuss how desire is more important than discipline, the central role of one social group and surrounding yourself with the best of the best. The outsized importance of the small things. Why you need to make being good your job. Why motivation is mundane and why you need to keep a sense of mundanity even as you become excellent. After the show’s over, check out our show notes

Alright, Daniel Chambliss, welcome to the show.

Daniel Chambliss: Thanks Brett, glad to be here.

Brett McKay: So you are a sociologist, and early in your career, you did a field study of Olympic swimmers to figure out what made excellent swimmers excellent. What was your interest in excellence, and why did you choose to study swimmers… To crack that nut.

Daniel Chambliss: Well, in my academic training, I’m a Social Psychologist of Organizations, which means I’m interested in how people work in organizational settings and what produces high performance and leadership and morale and issues like that. So when I finished my PhD at Yale, I was looking around for another project and this was 40 years ago, and the 1984 Olympics were gonna be in Los Angeles. Now, I had been a competitive swimmer myself in high school. I was not particularly good, but I was really, really into the sport, I just loved it and loved working out and wanted to do better and so on. And I did reasonably well in the local context, but I never made the National Championships or anything like that. So I had always been curious why these other people, including people I knew, were doing so much better than I was. And it was always kind of a mystery. So when the LA Olympics came along, I thought, Well, maybe I could go out there, out to Southern California, which is where the best people were training, and watch them for a while and figure out what made them good. And so I went…

I did that, I lived in Southern California for a while. I lived with a couple of coaches who were working with what was at that point, the best team in the world, really, and tried to understand why they were better. Plus I was also coaching… In the same period of time, I was coaching a little local team in upstate New York where I live, and we were lousy frankly, and I was not a good coach. And again, it was kind of a mystery, I didn’t know why. So I wanted to understand that, that’s how I got into it.

Brett McKay: And the result of that, you wrote a book called Champions, and I picked up a copy, was able to find a used copy. Really great, and you talk about what you observed with these swimmers, with the coaches. And then it also ended up being a paper that you wrote, The Mundanity of Excellence, and we’re gonna talk about. I wanna dig into this ’cause I think a lot of people, they wanna be excellent in whatever they’re doing, and as you said, sometimes it’s a mystery, why is it like… I feel like I’m doing the things that I should be doing, but why aren’t I thriving the way I want? And one of the conclusions that you got from this study that you did for several years, is that different levels of the sport of swimming are qualitatively different from each other. What do you mean by that? What are the differences between C level and A level swimmers?

Daniel Chambliss: Well, and not only in swimming, I think this is true in business or in the arts or any area you pick, is that there are these qualitative levels. In other words, people do things differently, they’re not just doing more in order to be, say, an Olympic class athlete. And it’s not even that they’re just working harder, although that is probably true. But their techniques are different, their attitudes about the sport are different, their goals are totally different. People training for the Olympics wanna win Olympic medals. People at the local level where I was coaching initially the… That never even occurred to them, obviously, I guess, to try to be that good, or even to try to be very good in particular, they were there more… Frankly, it was more like a babysitting service, to be honest about it, when I first started. Yeah, there was swimming involved and people kind of liked doing that, but they weren’t gonna put in anything like the effort needed to win a State Championship, much less go to the Olympics. And again, I think that applies in all sorts of different areas of activity, first off, you gotta wanna do it.

Brett McKay: And so yeah, the qualitative difference is a big thing you found. ‘Cause I think a lot of people, when they think about, “How can I get better?” They think, “Well I just gotta do more.” They think about quantity, I just gotta practice, practice, practice more. The 10,000 hour rule is what they think.

Daniel Chambliss: Funny you should bring that up. Because what’s left out of that… That idea, which Malcolm Gladwell used, actually comes from a guy named Andrews Ericsson, who I knew a little bit. Passed away recently actually. But Andrews Ericsson found that in fact, top level performance in all sorts of areas had to spend at least 10,000 hours practicing before they could get to that level. Ten years is the way he originally framed it. And that’s true, but what’s left out when most people talk about it is, it’s not just the time you have to pay attention during all those hours, it’s deliberate practice is the phrase he used. That is, you have to really concentrate on what you’re doing, while you’re practicing. That’s unusual. A lot of people just go through the motions. Doesn’t work.

Brett McKay: Doesn’t work. So you mentioned one of the things that makes elite level swimmers different from other swimmers in the field. Of course, Elite level swimmers are very disciplined, they’re more disciplined than say the rackley swimmer.

Daniel Chambliss: Yes.

Brett McKay: But one of the surprising things you found in your study and your observation is that the discipline of elite swimmers, it doesn’t seem to be the kind of white-knuckled type of discipline where they’re gritting their teeth and they’re just… They’re hating it. How does the attitude between A level swimmers and C level swimmers differ?

Daniel Chambliss: Yes. Well, I’ll give you an example. One day when I was in California at Mission Viejo, this club I was studying, there were people on that team who were… Well, there were eight people who wound up winning Olympic gold medals. That’s how good the team was. But one day, we came into practice and a group of… It was guys, it was all boys who did this, went out, late teenagers, they went out one day and swam eight links, they raced, eight links of Lake Mission Viejo. That lake is a mile long. They raced eight laps of a mile-long lake, and they came in… Now, if I ever did such a thing, I would probably fall over dead, but a lot of people, that’s not most people’s idea of fun. And they did it, and they came back and they were bouncing up and down and laughing and just joking and just having the best time talking about what they had just done. They enjoy working hard. That’s what it was. They enjoy not just swimming, which was certainly true, but swimming fast and pushing themselves beyond all kinds of limits and so on. They like it.

That’s a big difference from, again, you go to a much lower level team, you see, for instance, coaches who make kids swim butterfly to punish the. That’s a terrible attitude, because it’s supposed to be an enjoyable thing, and you want people to feel like what they’re doing is fulfilling and exciting and fun. And all of that. So one thing I noticed right away was that these swimmers I was studying, who were all national caliber swimmers right from the beginning when they came to the team, they like swimming a lot, and they do it all the time, and it’s not a tedious thing or… It’s not like mom has to make them go to practice, they love it. For the most part, there are exceptions, but for the most part, people love doing it.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you wrote about them. “What others see as boring, swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, they find peaceful, meditative, therapeutic. Coming into the 5:30 AM practices, many of the swimmers are lively, laughing, talking, enjoying themselves, perhaps appreciating the fact that most people would positively hate doing it. It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.”

Daniel Chambliss: Yeah.

Brett McKay: I think this is really a powerful idea because I think there’s a popular idea amongst people, if they wanna improve themselves, whether they wanna exercise more, or whatever self-improvement habit they have, they think it’s gotta be unpleasant, it’s gotta be hard. And if it’s not unpleasant and it feels like I’m enjoying myself, then I must be doing something wrong.

Daniel Chambliss: Right.

Brett McKay: Your studies, no, “If it feels hard and unpleasant, then you’re probably doing it wrong.”

Daniel Chambliss: Then you’re probably doing it wrong. No, I think that’s true. And it’s a real important point, you’ve just made. From the outside, it looks like it’s hard. And from the outside, it looks like, “Wow, that takes a lot of self-discipline.” And it certainly does it in a certain sense. But a lot of folks, the key to this is getting together with other people who also like doing it. And so I like to say, “Self-discipline is hard, conformity is easy.” That is, if you’re in a group where everybody is doing it, it makes it feel much easier. Like, Yeah, we’re laughing and joking or whatever, but this is something we’re into, and it becomes a way of bonding with other people, not of separating yourself. And again, I think that’s something you don’t realize often as a spectator, because the TV coverage of the Olympics, for instance, tends to glorify the individuals. And in swimming, swimming is an individual sport for the most part, I mean there’re relays but mostly one, you get up on the blocks and you dive in, you’re on your own, nobody else is helping you. But I have never met an Olympic class swimmer who trained by themselves, they don’t.

It’s a team operation, and they go in every morning and they’re there with 50 or 70 other people, all working towards very similar goals and thinking this is valuable and so on. So yeah, if you’re gonna exercise, find a buddy, find a workout buddy, makes it a lot easier.

Brett McKay: Well, two things that I’ve taken from that idea. Okay, so first is, for me, I find that I stick to things longer and do them more intensely when I enjoy them. So for exercise, I’ve been doing weight lifting for a long time and got really… I got pretty competitive with it, not too competitive, I did some amateur meets. But the reason I did it is ’cause I just loved it. I just enjoyed doing it. If I was sick, I’d even try to find a way to train. Probably reduce things. If I was on vacation, I would train. And people would be like, “Oh, wow, you’re so disciplined.” I’m like, “No, it’s not. I just like doing this”. My son plays video games every day, and I never say to my son, “Man, you were so disciplined that you play Fortnite every day.” It’s like, No, he just… He likes playing Fortnite.

Daniel Chambliss: He likes doing it, right.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so I think a big takeaway is find something you like, with exercise, find a way to make it enjoyable and you’ll stick with it longer. And then going back to this, doing it with other people… We had Bob Bowman on the podcast.

Daniel Chambliss: Yeah, sure. Sure, of course.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so he was Michael Phelps’s coach and shared… He did competitive swimming before he became a coach, and he talked about when he was in college, he was training to become an orchestral conductor, and then he was also on the swim team, and then he had this moment where he had to realize, “I had to choose one or the other, I couldn’t do both.” And he said he chose the swim team ’cause he just enjoyed the camaraderie more. That’s how he… And I think it goes to what you were saying, if you wanna stick with something, find people to do it with that you enjoy being around.

Daniel Chambliss: Right, well, and I actually, when I heard that he felt that he had made that choice… I think I saw an interview with him recently, maybe it was yours, is that I thought he is kind of an orchestra conductor as a coach, that’s what you’re doing is you’re orchestrating a group of people to work together to produce high level performances and getting them to cooperate with each other, for instance, rather than have too much competition between them, or planning out the practices or figuring it… Well figuring out where to get the swimming pool is a big part of it. That’s sort of what conductors do as well is help a group of different talented individuals, let’s say, work together for something, so he’s sort of probably got half his wish anyway.

Brett McKay: So do you see this qualitative difference in attitude in other fields like education or…

Daniel Chambliss: Oh, absolutely. I mean, education is a great example because… Well, take myself as an example. I grew up in a home where my parents were both readers, like my dad was just a voracious reader of anything, and we had a lot of books in the house, and that was something people did for fun when I grew up, in our family, it was just a big thing. And my brother wound up being a newspaper editor, and another one was writing training manuals for the army, and another was a bookstore owner. We’re academic literate type people, and so when people talk to me about reading books like in school, that was nothing to me. It was just, I thought that’s just what people did all the time. So I tend to read a lot more than most people. It’s not because I’m better in any way. It’s just the way I grew up. And a lot of the athletes I talked to, a lot of the swimmers came from very seriously athletic families in different sports, but they grew up in this frame of mind that sports is a good thing to do, and it’s valuable and important and enjoyable and there are methods to use for doing it, and so on.

Actually, a different sort of example, people always say, Mozart, what a great musical genius and talent he was, Wolfgang Mozart. And yeah, that’s true. But he also grew up in a family where his dad was a world class composer and his sister was a world class pianist. That makes it a lot more easy in a sense. You still have to work, but it gives you a big advantage if you grow up in an atmosphere where that’s what people are doing.

Brett McKay: Well, speaking about this idea of attitude towards what you do to be successful. You wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal a few years ago entitled, Go Ahead. Drop My Course. And you talk about how you’re actually happy when a student comes to you and says, “Hey, Professor, I wanna drop your course.” Why is that?

Daniel Chambliss: Well, it’s not exactly that I’m happy about it, but I think it’s a perfectly okay thing for them to do. Usually if students come and wanna drop a class that I’m teaching, they’ll make a lot of excuses and say, “Well, I have to do this other thing,” and they want me to know that it’s not me, it’s not they’re somehow upset with me. But it’s fine with me if they’re not interested in Sociology, the field that I teach. It’s fine, in a sense, I don’t care, I want them to have good lives. And it’s just not for everybody. And the op-ed I wrote, because I’d been coaching a girl in swimming who was 12 years old, and she was a great swimmer, there was no question. Excellent technique, and she was big and strong and smart and knew how to compete and things like that. And I kept trying to get her to train harder and aim for big championships and she just wasn’t interested. And so I didn’t know what to do, and I called up a friend who has coached Olympians and told him the situation. He sort of laughed, he said, “You want this more than she does.”

And I was like, “Oh yeah, that might be true. That might be true” And he said, “Dan, there’s nothing morally wrong with not wanting to swim, you know, you can be a perfectly good person and not care about this sport, and just because I care about it, that doesn’t mean she has to.” And the same was true in school, a lot of people aren’t interested in going to school, and that’s fine, and they can live happy, productive lives and be good citizens and everything. And I hadn’t thought about it quite that way before. So again, when students wanna drop my course, I’ll try to find out why and if it’s something I’m doing wrong, I’ll try to fix it. But if they’re just not interested in the subject and that’s not gonna change, I’m like, “Well, God bless you, good luck.”

Brett McKay: That’s an interesting point too, ’cause I think a lot of people in organizations, could be teachers or managers or CEOs, they spend a lot of time thinking about, “How can I motivate other people. How can I get people to want the goals that I want?” There’s a lot of books and courses you can do, but you’re talking about it, like in the end, you can’t control what someone wants. If they don’t wanna do it, then they’re not gonna do it.

Daniel Chambliss: Well, right, you can’t make somebody be motivated that… That door we say is locked from the inside. Now, having said that, I also think that there are frequently ways of motivating people that you just haven’t thought about. Because we all want different things, and some people say, wanna swim fast, right? And other people wanna have friends and other people want the coach to like them, and other people love the travel involved, and there are different elements of a sport or an activity of any sort that can appeal to people. And as a coach or a teacher or a mentor, a lot of your work is figuring out what fires up this particular person, what are they looking for? And I think that frequently works well, but not always. Again, sometimes they just don’t wanna be there. And that’s fine.

Brett McKay: Okay, so to excel at something, you have to want to excel at something. You gotta have a desire for it.

Daniel Chambliss: Yeah. No, I think that’s pretty clear.

Brett McKay: Yeah, but where does this desire come from? Is it innate or is it something that you develop from your environment? Have you figured that out?

Daniel Chambliss: Well, that’s kind of a million dollar question. I think there are two parts to it. I think there’s the innate and there’s the developed. So innate, I’ve got a couple of local grandchildren here right now, one’s three and one’s eight months old, I guess. And these two little boys, you can already see they have very different interests and different skills, and one of them is very adept with his fingers and the other one isn’t, one’s interested in music a lot, and the other one isn’t real sure. And there are a lot of innate differences between people, there’s no… I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. And different innate abilities. If you’re gonna be a basketball player, it really does help to be tall, but that said, the desire is kind of a mystery. Now, maybe it’s ’cause you’re good at something when you’re young, and that’s fulfilling. Maybe… Who knows? I think it varies all over the place. Although again, I do think family and your immediate surroundings play a big role because they allow you to do things or don’t. Like I said, I grew up in kind of an academic, bookish sort of family, and so doing well in school was approved.

Right, my parents thought that was a… I mean, they didn’t care about my grade exactly, but they thought it was good to study and learn things and so on. And I had plenty of classmates who just didn’t care about school. And that’s, again, that’s fine too, but they’re not likely to do well at it if their parents don’t support it, and you need… In sports, you’re a little kid, you need somebody to drive you to all those practices and pay for them, and live in a place where it’s available. I mean swimming… Swimming pools are expensive. Right? You’ve gotta live in a neighborhood that’s got… Or a city or whatever. At least it’s got good swimming pools and be close enough then… Whatever way you can get to the thing.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I feel like a lot of desire is innate, ’cause I’ve seen the same thing with my own kids that you see with your grandkids. They got the same parents, but they’ve got very different personalities, different interests, so I think it’s important as a parent to expose them to different things, so they can figure out, so they can find the things that they have unique interest in, an intrinsic motivation to pursue and become excellent at. And then also, I think also it help develop that desire, just putting yourself around people that have that desire to. Just being around friends, I think that’s what happens, what I’ve noticed in my life is I see a friend doing something that they enjoy and they’re excelling at, and I’m like, “Oh, I wanna do that too.” Is the idea of mimetic desire. You observe people and you wanna be like them.

Daniel Chambliss: That’s a good way to put it. Yeah.

Brett McKay: I’m curious, in your study of Olympic athletes, did you encounter anyone who, they were training for the Olympics, but they didn’t really want to? Maybe they had fooled themselves into thinking they wanted it. But they actually didn’t want it.

Daniel Chambliss: Well, yes. I don’t think it’s that common. But there are certainly cases. Andre Agassi in tennis was the famous case of this, that he didn’t really like doing it. But what happens is if you grow up in an activity like that, which is what usually happens, if you’re gonna be top of the world level, you grow up in it and you’ve got a lot of commitments. Right, your friends are all there and your parents approve of it probably, and you’ve moved very likely geographically to be in a place where you can do it, and you’ve sunk a lot of costs into this thing, and so… “Gosh, how can I quit now?” That’s hard to do. This is the old thing about how people never drop out of Harvard, and there’s pretty good evidence that some of that is not that the students actually enjoy being there so much, although obviously a lot of them do, but by the time you’ve put in the effort to get there, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, you know, everybody would be disappointed, or people would think I’m crazy if I left,” or something like that.

And so they have a very high retention rate for a college, people don’t drop out. And some chunk of that is again, because people have made commitments. So the same thing certainly operates in sports, is once you’ve spent 10 years trying to become really good at something or 20, it’s gonna be hard to leave. Even if you’re not really interested in anymore.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna say a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show.

So you’ve been talking about this social world that elite level swimmers find them in, find themselves in. So they’re around other swimmers who are also really good, they enjoy being around them. But also in the book, Champions, you talk about how the coach you followed, this guy named Mark Schubert, he created a social world at Mission Viejo that reinforced this idea of excellence. What did Mark Schubert do differently from other coaches?

Daniel Chambliss: Well, he started out in Ohio, and he was very successful in a four-lane, 20-yard pool, a very small pool, not much of a facility at all, and in a location that’s not famous for great swimming. I mean there are… I don’t wanna… Okay, there are some great swimming teams in Ohio, don’t get me wrong, some great swimming teams. But at the time, and in the town he lived in, there wasn’t much there, and he wanted to be a top coach. So he started out with goals, he wanted to be a top tier coach, he wanted to have the best program in the country, is what he said. And so what he did is he moved to California, he moved to Southern California, which was the mecca for top notch swimming at that point, and he took with him several of his most serious athletes that he had coached in high school, so that he would have a core of people right from the outset. And he got out to California and a long story short, he pulled together a group of top notch athletes, because what he did was, the way he put it, he built around the best.

Most teams are not really built around the best athletes, they’re built around the large group of athletes. “Well, most of our kids are like this, and that’s who I’ve gotta please and aim for and keep in the program and stuff.” And Schubert, he built around the top athletes, he built a program that satisfied teenagers who wanted to win World Championships. And that’s hard to do in various ways, but he was able to do it and he pulled together this group, and there was a commitment from the people who owned the pool, that that’s what they wanted too. And you get together the people and you can do it.

Brett McKay: I imagine it can be hard to do because building a team or an organization around the best, that requires excluding people saying, “No, you’re not… You can’t do it.”

Daniel Chambliss: Right, that’s a killer. It turns out people love watching the Olympics and talk about, “Oh, I wanna win a gold medal,” but it turns out in real life, there are some unpleasant things that go on getting there, or difficult things, and most people just don’t wanna do it.

Brett McKay: Or they think they wanna do it, but then they really… They really don’t… They like… I think a lot of people, they like the idea of excellence, but they don’t like doing the stuff that actually gets you to excellence.

Daniel Chambliss: Right, exactly. Exactly. Yeah, I mean, great writers. A lot of people say, “Oh, I wanna write a book. I’m gonna write a book some day,” and so on, but they don’t wanna actually do the writing, which is the hard part, right? That’s what I mean by the Mundanity of Excellence, is if you wanna be really good at something, you’ve gotta treat it like an ordinary part of life, in a sense, you make it a job. So again, great writers, mostly, not everybody, but they get up in the morning and they work on their book for four hours, and that’s the first half of the day, and that’s gotta be a routine, it’s gotta be built in. And it’s just what you do, it’s who you are. You can’t just fiddle around with it and hope something great is gonna happen.

Brett McKay: Well, okay, continuing with this idea of Mundanity of Excellence. At the time, Mission Viejo, where Mark Schubert was coaching, it was the best in the world, spitting out Olympic champions, and so you’d have coaches from all around the world come to Mission Viejo, ’cause they’d be like, “I wanna come in and watch what this guy is doing and see what they’re doing differently, and maybe we can implement their training and their programming.” And you said that all these coaches, they’d come, they’d be there for a few days and they would leave disappointed. Why did they leave disappointed?

Daniel Chambliss: And get bored. They’d get bored a lot of times. Because, I talked with Mark Schubert, the coach about this at one point, ’cause some people had come and they come all the way from Hawaii no less. And they’re gonna watch these kids train and stuff, and they got visibly bored. You’re just watching people go back and forth in a swimming pool, after a while, it’s not that exciting. And Mark said, “They think we have some secret,” which really struck me. And he was right, people would come and visit and think, “There’s something magical going on here, there’s something we can’t understand or don’t know about it, they’re using some tricks or techniques we don’t know.” And I used to go to coaching clinics all the time and take a lot of notes as big time coaches talk about what they did. And I realized after a while, we know what they do, there are books and lectures and so on, you can go to and learn what you have to do. The problem is most people don’t do it. And what those coaches didn’t see is that the whole trick, the whole secret is there’s no secret, you just have to be willing to do the stuff that actually makes you, in that case, fast.

I’ll give you one easy example is, one day I was out there and for a week, all the team did was work on push-offs, that is the way you push off a wall when you turn in swimming. And I’m thinking, “Push offs, really? That’s like, Yeah, you know, you can gain a couple of tenths of a second or something, but wow.” And that’s what they do, and they work on their push-offs, and every time they hit a turn, they’d gain a couple of tenths of a second, and you know it adds up fast. And so it was the concentrate, the detail of relentless, consistent, concentration on details.

Brett McKay: And they’re not just focusing on the details and doing more of it, they’re really intense with it. They’re gonna make sure they get it perfect.

Daniel Chambliss: You do it exactly right. And the coach, in part, what the coach does is enforce doing that every time, all day. You’ve gotta not let your concentration lapse in a sense. And it’s not that people are perfect at it or anything, but enforcing proper technique all the time was a major part of it.

Brett McKay: And talking about just the small things making a difference and being fastidious about this. You talked about Rowdy Gaines. One thing he did that gave him success at one meet was, he would watch the guy shooting the firing, the starter, the starter pistol, and every starter had a different timing, the way their body language let them know they’re about to pull the trigger. No one else was watching that, but because Rowdy Gaines was, he knew when he could make the jump so he could get in before everyone else but still be legal.

Daniel Chambliss: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, and you’ve got… That’s a significant amount of effort to pay attention to the different starters who are in a sport, and people do this. He’s not the only elite athlete who does this, but he hit it exactly right with that start in the 100 meter freestyle in the Olympics. He knew this particular starter had a tendency to fire the gun fast, and so he just took a chance and he rolled with the start and he won the race because of it, basically.

Brett McKay: Something else you talk about is, and this goes back to what we were talking about earlier, you not only say that success or excellence is mundane, but that the motivation that leads to excellence is also mundane. What do you mean by that? How is motivation mundane?

Daniel Chambliss: I mean that the motivation doesn’t have to be huge. Like to win an Olympic gold medal in our example here, it’s not like you have to have Olympic size motivation. You need to get up and go to practice in the morning. You need to work hard on this thing or that thing, you need daily interest, not just at the four-year span. So you need to want to pay attention to what you’re doing. So a lot of that has to do with, again, the coaches and the people you’re hanging around with, the people you’re training with, having friends who are working on the same sorts of things, obviously is big. Motivation can work at a very small level. I think of… Okay, so when I was a kid and I was swimming, there were different pools, right, and I could name for you half a dozen different pools I swam in, I trained in, I mean, with teams really working out. And one of them in particular was kind of grungy and not well kept, and they had way too much chlorine in it, which was a problem in those days, and it burned your eyes and it sort of smelled bad and there was a draft, you know. I didn’t wanna go to practice because the pool was gross.

Whereas others, you know, I go out to Southern California, and there are palm trees and beautiful sunset, and these gorgeous 50-meter Olympic-sized pool. It was meticulously clean. And you wanna get in the water. That’s a mundane motivation. That’s what I mean. And a lot of what coaches do is create those conditions, so it’s gonna be pleasant, say, to be at the workout, or if it’s not pleasant, that’s for a real reason, they deliberately make certain things hard or something, but that’s a different situation.

Brett McKay: So yeah, find ways to make it enjoyable on a daily basis on the short term.

Daniel Chambliss: Absolutely. Absolutely And if you’re coaching, if you’re coaching children, you have to do this, you’re not gonna… I mean you can tell them, “Well, we could win the state championships,” and maybe that gets them pumped up for a day or two, but really they need the day-to-day situation to be good. I once asked a group of kids I was coaching, this was early in my career, they were talking about some teacher they liked in school, and I said, “What makes him a good teacher?” And they looked at each other and they said,”He doesn’t yell at us.” And I’m like, “That’s it?” right. It turned out a lot of teachers yell at kids, a lot of coaches yell at kids. And I thought, “No, they don’t like that. So stop yelling.” So I stopped yelling and it worked, it was better. It’s a little thing.

Brett McKay: The little things, right. And you also talk about, not only is it important to, as you’re training for success or training or trying to achieve excellence, keep your motivation, mundane, keep the things that you do small and mundane, but you also talk about you have to maintain that mundanity, even as you become excellent. What do you mean by that?

Daniel Chambliss: Well, that’s just something I noticed with a lot of top performers is they would say things before a competition, like before the Olympics, “Well, it’s another swim meet.” Now they… Don’t get me wrong, they understand it’s the Olympics and it’s a big deal and a lot rides on it and so on, but they would try to remind themselves that, “Hey, I’ve done this a million times. I know what I’m doing, I’ve practiced millions of times and just keep it ordinary in the sense of I can do this.” You don’t wanna be blown away by the situation. You know, there’s… The example I gave in the article, I think was Abraham Lincoln, you know, gave the Gettysburg Address, and we now think, Wow, that’s a big deal. And impressive and important, and what a beautiful speech and so on. But at the time, he even said in the speech, “The world will little note nor long remember what we do here.” In other words, he treated it like it’s a speech. It’s an ordinary thing. I’m not freaking out over it or anything like that. So you gotta be able to keep things in perspective, I suppose the way to put it.

And again, top performers, they practice at a very high level of performance, so that when they get in a competition or a major performance or something, they can treat it as, here we are and we’re doing things, and I’m doing this and… Yeah, I’m really good at it.

Brett McKay: You talked about Schubert, he’d actually relax more around the big meets right around the Olympic. During the training season, he’d be really a stickler for things.

Daniel Chambliss: He was intense.

Brett McKay: He was intense. Then at the Olympics, he’d kinda let his hair down and he’d actually relax and make jokes and have fun, ’cause he just thought, “Okay, well, we’ve done all we could, so this is just another thing we’re gonna do.”

Daniel Chambliss: Right, right, exactly. And if you’ve done that preparation, you can do that, and it’s a big advantage because being uptight is not good for performance, you don’t wanna be real nervous and self-conscious and stuff about what you’re doing. I’m trying to think there’s a woman right now from Belgium, I think, who’s a great 400 meter hurdler. She’s fabulous, god, I just saw her the other day. And 400 meter hurdles is a really hard event, it’s really physically quite painful, and staying relaxed is a large part of the race, and she… She’s beautiful, she comes into the final stretch, final hundred meters, and she’s just as relaxed, looks like, “Hey, another day at the park, just running right along.” But keeping that, and the commentators talked about it, and being able to stay calm under pressure and focus on your technique and you know what you’re doing, that’s a valuable, valuable skill. And I just call that maintaining mundanity. In other words, keeping it relatively ordinary, not like something you have to do super human things.

Brett McKay: Well, Daniel, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about what you do?

Daniel Chambliss: You know, Brett, I would say the easiest, believe it or not, is just Google me. Last name is Chambliss, C-H-A-M. And then bliss like happiness, Chambliss, Dan Chambliss, or Hamilton College website. I think I’ve got a page on the. I retired two years ago, so I don’t know how up to date it is, but… Yeah, no, you just… I like Google.

Brett McKay: Okay, sounds good.

I’m on there. I’ve written several books and they’re on different topics, ones about hospitals, one’s about higher education, but they really deal with a lot of these same themes.

Right, that small things matter.

Daniel Chambliss: Yeah, and the importance of being in a group that approves of what you’re doing, the role of social support in performance, things like that, and yes, paying attention to details.

Brett McKay: Well, Daniel Chambliss, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Daniel Chambliss: Thank you, Brett. I’ve enjoyed it.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Daniel Chambliss. He’s the author of several books, including the paper, the Mundanity of Excellence. Check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AoM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. And until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AoM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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