The Mundanity of Excellence
In the early 1980’s, the sociologist Daniel Chambliss spent five years studying swimmers at every level of ability. He visited learn-to-swim programs, coached a regional swim team, and traveled with the U.S. Olympic Team. Then in 1989, he published his research in a paper titled, “The Mundanity of Excellence.” Essentially, Chambliss found that Olympic champions don’t train more than the average swimmer. Instead, they train differently. In particular, they do “what others see as boring.” Chambliss tells the story of a group of coaches from around the world visiting a U.S. Olympic Team practice. “The visiting coaches were excited at first…then soon they grew bored, walking back and forth, glancing down at their watches, wondering, after the long flight out to California, when something dramatic was going to happen.” “They all have to come to see what we do,” the U.S. Olympic Team coach said. “They think we have some big secret.” There is no secret. There is only the doing of the mundane, boring work, day after day. That’s the theme of this SIX at 6.
Find The Torture You’re Comfortable With
Thirty-eight years into being a stand-up comedian, Jerry Seinfeld was asked how his writing process has evolved over the years. “It’s the exact same,” he said. “I do the exact same now as I did when I was 21 in 1975.” He sits with a yellow legal pad, he says, and “my writing technique is just: You can’t do anything else. You don’t have to write, but you can’t do anything else.” That’s your day? the interviewer asks. That’s what you’ve done every day for thirty-eight years? That, to me, sounds torturous. “It is,” Seinfeld admits. “But you know what? Your blessing in life is when you find the torture you’re comfortable with…Find the torture you’re comfortable with, and you’ll do well.”
A Dividing Line
On December 11, 2021, I picked Robert Greene up from the airport, and we drove forty-five minutes to Bastrop, TX. At one point, Robert told me he’s had more than 20 research assistants since Ryan Holiday and none have been any good. Why weren’t they any good? I asked. He said, “Some didn’t grasp the spirit of the material I look for. Some couldn’t discern what’s interesting from what isn’t. Some melted like an ice cube in the sun at the first piece of constructive criticism. Some…” He paused here to think. As he was thinking, I understood the implication was that those first three reasons didn’t really cut to the core of his troubles with research assistants. “Without exception,” Robert realized, “they weren’t interested in boredom. It’s a dividing line between people who are successful and people who are not.” Mastery, Robert said, requires boredom and tedium. It requires doing the same mundane things over and over and over. It requires sitting with the frustration of putting in work that doesn’t immediately pay off. It requires sitting with the torture of, am I going to spend sixteen hours reading this biography only to discover there’s nothing in it I can use? You have to be able to sit with boredom, Robert said.
The Reality of Creativity
In another conversation, Robert told me he believes one of the reasons people struggle to sit with boredom is that they have a false idea about the word “creativity.” “People have all sorts of illusions about the word that aren’t the reality,” he said. “The reality is that creativity is a function of the previous work you put in. If you put a lot of hours into thinking and researching and reading, hour after hour—a very tedious process—creativity will come to you…It comes to you, but only after hours and hours of tedious work.” Creativity is not some mysterious form of magic. It’s something that is rewarded to those who put in hours and hours of mundane, boring, tedious work.
Where Ideas Come From
Charles Schulz was the creator of two of the best-known cartoon characters in history: Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Over nearly 50 years, Schulz drew and published 17,897 Peanuts strips. “I’m often asked where I get my ideas,” Schulz writes in My Life With Charlie Brown. “They come from sitting in a room alone and drawing seven days a week, as I’ve done for 40 years.” (File next to: The prolific Neil Gaiman’s answer when asked where he gets all his ideas—“From daydreaming…You get ideas from being bored.”) There is no secret. There is only the doing of the mundane, boring work, day after day.
When You Like What Others Find Tedious
“One sign that you’re suited for some kind of work,” Paul Graham writes, “is when you like even the parts that other people find tedious.” Find the mundane, boring, tedious, torturous work you like, and you’ll do well.