Nature of Excellence and Its Application

What The Mundanity of Excellence Paper By Daniel Chambliss Can Teach Us About Excellence Part 1

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What is excellence in a person’s career or craft and how does a person get this excellence? That’s what I attempt to answer by using the research done by Daniel Chambliss in “The Mundanity Of Excellence By Daniel F Chambliss: An Ethnographic Report On Stratification and Olympic Swimmers”.

It’s a fantastic paper that contains a couple of gems and contrarian points on excellence; Points that those who seek excellence in their field of endeavour can apply. These points on excellence will be covered over a three part series starting with today’s newsletter.

In today’s newsletter, I write about:

  • Why use this research on excellence?

  • What is excellence?

  • What does not produce excellence?

  • Where does excellence come from?

  • How can we apply what we learnt to our careers?

Why Use This Research On Excellence

In his research, Chambliss used the field of competitive swimming in America to study the nature of excellence. Success in sports is well defined especially in a primarily competitive individual sport such as swimming. Clear levels of stratification exist in competitive swimming which made it a logical field for Chambliss to study the nature of excellence.

Chambliss studied swimmers at every level of ability in America closely for almost six years. By studying swimmers at every level, Chambliss avoided the “Sociology of Knowledge problem” which he wrote about below:

I have had the chance to compare athletes within a certain level but between most discrepant levels as well. Thus these findings avoid the usual sociology of knowledge problem of an observer being familiar mainly with athletes at one level. When top-rank coaches, for instance, talk of what makes success, they are often thinking of the differences between athletes whom they see within the top level of the sport. Their ignorance of the day-to-day realities of lower levels prevents them from having a thoroughly comparative view.

Chambliss’s awareness of the sociology of knowledge dictated how the study of competitive swimmers was structured. The design of his study included:

  1. Looking at different levels within the sport.

  2. Starting well in advance of the games when no one knew who would win and not win.

By designing the study in this way, Chambliss ensured that the study was:

  • Cross-sectional: across all levels of swimming.

  • Longitudinal: over a time period.

What is Excellence According to Chambliss?

Chambliss’s own words on the definition of excellence is:

By excellence I mean consistent superiority of performance. The excellent athlete regularly, even routinely, performs better than his or her competitors. Consistency of superior performances tells us that one athlete is indeed better than another, and that the difference between them is not merely the product of chance. This definition can apply at any level of the sport, differentiating athletes. The superiority discussed here may be that of one swimmer over another, or off all athletes at one level over another. By this definition, we need not judge performances against an absolute criterion, but only against other performances.

Chambliss quite clear on his definition of excellence. There are three themes I picked up from the above namely:

  1. Consistency of superior performance.

  2. Some aspect of competition.

  3. Elimination of superiority due to chance.


What Does Not Produce Excellence According to Chambliss?

Photo by Luis Vidal on Unsplash

For Chambliss, it was important to mention the factors or things that do not produce excellence. They are:

  1. Excellence is not a result of socially deviant personalities.

  2. Excellence does not result from quantitative changes in behaviour. For example, increased training time does not make one swim faster. In order words, don’t expect to move up a level in the sport by simply doing more of the same thing.

  3. Excellence is not the result of some innate quality of an athlete. This innate quality is typically called talent or gift.

Where Does Excellence Come From?

According to Chambliss, excellence in competitive swimming was achieved through qualitative differentiation from other swimmers, not through quantitative increases in activity.

By quantity, we mean the number or amount of something. Quantitative improvement entails an increase in the number of some one thing one does. An athlete who practices 2 hours a day and increases that activity to 4 hours a day has made a quantitative change in behaviour.

By quality, though, we mean the characteristic or nature of the thing itself. A qualitative change involves modifying what is actually being done, not simply doing more of it. For a swimmer doing the breaststroke, a qualitative change might be a change from pulling straight back with the arms to sculling them outwards, to the sides.

Different levels of the sport are qualitatively distinct. Let’s take two distinct sets of swimmers: Olympic champions and summer league country club swimmers. One might think that Olympic swimmers are what they are because they: swim more hours and attend more workouts when compared to country club swimmers.

However Chambliss said that the difference in levels between olympic swimmers and amateurs was the doing of things differently. There were three dimensions of differences given by Chambliss namely.

  1. Technique.

  2. Discipline.

  3. Attitude.

The third dimension differentiator, attitude, is gold in my opinion. He says and I quote below:

At higher levels of competitive swimming, an inversion of attitude takes place.

An inversion of attitude is when the top level swimmer enjoys features of swimming that the low level swimmer finds unpleasant. For example, what low level swimmers see as boring is what high level swimmers find as meditative.

How Can We Apply What We Learnt to Our Careers?

Here is a process that you might find useful:

  1. Choose to be excellent. There are no two ways about it. One must intentionally choose excellence. To make this easier, write down why you want to be excellent.

  2. On a fresh page, write down what being excellent in your field means. Be as objective as possible and focus on the right metrics.

  3. On a fresh page, draw three vertical lines and label the sections: Technique, Discipline and Attitude. Proceed to investigate the qualitative factors that make up performance in your field and write them in the appropriate section.

  4. Perform a self reflection to find out your present status in your career. Focus on the qualitative factors.

  5. Note the difference between what qualitative factors you in step 4 and the qualitative factors excellence demands in your field in step 3.

  6. Devise a plan to address the qualitative factors gap in step 5.

  7. Execute the plan in step 6.

I hope you found this newsletter interesting and educative. I would love to hear from you in the comments section below and don’t forget to like this post and subscribe to leverage thoughts.

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The full paper can be found at

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