Pursuing Excellence Depends On The Pain You Are Willing To Endure

With the waning days of the Olympics (regardless of the controversies, it is still a gathering of the top athletes in the world) and with the privilege of having Dr. Patrick Finn spend a few hours talking with our faculty last Friday, I am mindful of a comment he made to our team. “You are what you repeatedly do.” He was quoting Aristotle.

Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the 10,000 hours rule. The idea that to achieve mastery of something you must practice that something for 10,000 hours. Patrick pointed out that there is an extension to this idea that gets missed. What’s missing is that if you practice mediocre achievement of something, you will become a master of the mediocrity of that something. In order to become excellent at something, you must practice the excellence of that something for 10,000 hours. Merely performing the act at a mediocre level will NEVER lead to excellence in the performance of that act. It is a simple idea, really. Sadly, despite its simplicity, the pursuit of excellence is a rare occurrence.

Patrick’s comments generated some obvious questions that I needed to ponder.

Excellent is a rare occurrence. Why is that? Why do so few people actually pursue the excellence of their passion? Why do so many people accept the pursuit of the mediocrity of their passion?

To me, the answer seems equally simple. Well, part of the answer is simple. The simple part is this: being excellent is painful. The more complex part is this: we can endure pain so long as the payoff is worth it. At some point, being excellent can become too painful. This is where the pursuit of excellence slows down or stops completely.

Think about learning to ride a bike. Many people do it. Few continue the mastery of balance and timing to elevate themselves to the level of acrobatics and bike tricks. Some do. They are excellent cyclists. Others develop speed and endurance and compete in races. They are excellent cyclists. Why do so many of us stop? Our desire to tolerate the pains (physical, mental, social) ceases. We want to learn to ride a bike because there is some form of stimulus that impels us.

Someone close to me, when she was little, wanted to learn to ride a bike. Her father was so paranoid about his daughter injuring herself that he set up an obstacle course that she had to master before she would be allowed to join her friends riding bicycles. This obstacle course was so difficult that she eventually gave up and stopped trying. She never learned to ride a bike. The pains of mastering that skills was greater than the payoff.

I have failed at mastering many things in my life. I have studied guitar, drums, acting, singing, sign language, hackey sack, yo-yo, keyboards, programming, pottery, painting, and many others. Some of these I have developed a mediocre skill level with, others I abandoned too early to develop any discernable skill, and some (one or two) I developed a mastery that could be called excellence. When I reflect on my own experience with pursuing excellence, I realized that pain (in its many flavoured forms) was the primary root of what determined whether I continued or not.

When I reflect on my students, I am often struck by the disconnect that some have between the goals and the level of mastery they wish to achieve and the unwillingness to endure the pain required to achieve that mastery. I also know many teachers who prefer to work with students who have studied a musical instrument or have played a sport at a competitive level. There seems to be a greater tolerance for pain with these types of people.

So, when you start to contemplate a career that requires a mastery of a difficult skill, also consider how much mental, social, and/or physical pain you are willing to endure. We will leave the discussion about good (effective) pain versus bad (ineffective) pain for another post. In the meantime, reflect on this idea and explore your passion. Discover what you repeatedly do. Decide if what you repeatedly is mediocre and ask yourself if you are ready to develop the mastery of what you repeatedly do. Once you understand this, you are ready to answer the call. The call; that, too, is another story.


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