Excellence and Perfection

Can excellence exist without perfection?

Sign: Wisdom yes; perfectionism, noThe woman presenting a lecture on grit last night claimed that people who exhibit grit focus on the former rather than the latter. That sparked a lively discussion among some of her listeners. Some believe perfection must automatically be excellent. Why wouldn’t we strive for perfection? they asked.

I thought about the writers I’ve worked with over the years. So many get stuck because if they cannot compose the perfect sentence—and, spoiler alert, no one can compose a perfect sentence, certainly not on a first try—they’re afraid to write anything.

I thought about myself, when I’m learning a new skill. It’s much easier to stop trying at all than to confront my mediocre attempts.

In those cases, striving for perfection doesn’t produce excellence, it produces nothing.

As my friend (and not relative) Sam Bennett says: “Get a C.” Do something. Try. And if you fall short of excellence, congratulate yourself on being human. If improvement is important to you, then try again. And again after that (for 10,000 hours, if you believe the statistic Malcolm Gladwell misquoted). That’s grit.

Maybe at some point you’ll stumble onto excellence; maybe not. But perfection—if that’s your goal, you’ll never get anything creative done.

“Our best selves” — Seahawks coach Pete Carroll’s lessons on football and life

Reading made me a baseball fan—thank you, Roger Angell. And it may just make me a football fan, too. Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll’s lessons on football may teach us a thing or two about life.

Angela Duckworth wrote about Carroll’s philosophy in her book Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. And I have to say, I liked what I read.

Pete Carroll's lessons work for football and life
Carroll hugs his quarterback, Richard Sherman, following their 2014 Super Bowl win. Photo: Anthony Quintano – Flickr: Super Bowl XLVIII (48) New York New Jersey

Carroll has only coached one Super Bowl-winning team (so far—Seahawks, 2014), but in the last seven seasons, his teams have made the playoffs six times. That’s no accident.

Also not accidental: the philosophy he instills in his players and coaches. It’s not about winning. It’s about a passion to do your best.

When Carroll invited Angela Duckworth to come watch the Seahawks practice he promised she would see that:

“All we do is help people be great competitors. We teach them how to persevere. We unleash their passion.”

Carroll says it sometimes takes a while for new players to understand his philosophy, so he shares new thoughts about it as they arise:

“If I didn’t talk about it, they wouldn’t know that. They’d be thinking, ‘Am I going to win or am I going to lose?’ But when we talk about it enough, they come to an appreciation of why they compete.”

Pete Carroll’s lessons in etymology

You might guess that a Venn diagram of people who talk about etymology and people who work for football teams would show two completely separate circles. And you would be wrong.

One member of the Seahawks staff talked to Duckworth about the roots of the word “compete”:

“‘Compete comes from the Latin,’ explains Mike Gervais, the competitive-surfer-turned-sports-psychologist who is one of Pete’s partners in culture building. ‘Quite literally, it means strive together. It doesn’t have anything in its origins about another person losing.'”

Duckworth begins to understand the Seahawks ethos:

“…it’s not solely about defeating other teams, it’s about pushing beyond what you can do today so that tomorrow you’re just a little bit better. It’s about excellence…Reach for your best.”

Carroll’s Seahawks made the Super Bowl two years in a row. After winning the first, they lost the second in heartbreaking fashion. Commentators laid the blame squarely at the head coach’s feet, saying he had made “the worst call ever.” Duckworth tells us Carroll reframed that:

“it wasn’t the worst decision, it was ‘the worst possible outcome.’ He explained that like every other negative experience, and every positive one, ‘it becomes part of you. I’m not going to ignore it. I’m going to face it. And when it bubbles up, I’m going to think about it and get on with it. And use it. Use it!‘”

When life is like football

One of Pete Carroll’s lessons offers a different take on the sports cliché that winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Carroll says,

“If you thought of it as who was winning and who was losing, you’d miss the whole point…it’s really the guy across from us that makes us who we are.”

In Duckworth’s translation, “Our opponent…creates challenges that help us become our best selves.”

And that’s really why I turned my attention to Pete Carroll today. Not because football will be inescapable this weekend—with fans critiquing the game and non-fans critiquing the commercials. Well, okay, partly because of that.

But also because in the U.S. right now, it seems like “opponents” are everywhere. And we have a choice. We can vilify them, mock them, and cause them to dig further into their illogical ideological foxholes. Or we can recognize that while it’s no fun to be challenged, those challenges can “help us become our best selves.”

That’s what I’m striving for. In the face of “the worst possible outcome,” we must “compete”—strive together. As one of my favorite signs from the march put it:

“They tried to bury us. But they didn’t know we’re seeds.”

Be your best self as a writer. Strengthen your skills and discover how to use them effectively. My Writing Unbound program starts February 2nd. More information here.

Greatness and Grit: the payoff of deliberate practice

William Shakespeare articulated his theory of greatness more than 300 years ago:

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Angela Duckworth focuses on the middle path in her book Grit: the power of passion and perseverance.

If you missed out on being born great and no one’s lining up to “thrust greatness upon” you, no worries. Duckworth and the experts she’s assembled argue that you can still excel.

“Greatness is many, many individual feats, and each of them is doable.”

That’s Dan Chambliss. He’s not just a sociologist, he’s also a swimmer. And he combined his two passions by doing in-depth research on how swimmers improve. When Duckworth spoke with him about the intersection of talent and persistence, he pointed her to the 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche‘s writing on “the cult of the genius”

“For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking….To call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘here there is no need to compete.'”

Greatness: gift or endurance?

If you’re not the “best” at something—and I use the annoying quotation marks because unless you’re running a race or something, best really is a subjective judgment—should you just stop?

Nietzsche would call you a quitter. But, hey, he’s been dead for over 100 years, so nobody’s going to pay much attention.

Greatness is attainable, Duckworth contends, if you have “grit.” But what is “grit”? Look at the subtitle of her book again: the power of passion and perseverance.

Perseverance has gotten all the ink; we Americans do like our so-called Protestant work ethic. And it’s even been quantified in Anders Ericsson’s so-called 10,000-hour rule. It’s an easy formula to believe in: we can tick the 10,000 hours off on our calendars. But you can’t just bang on a drum for 10,000 hours and expect to become Ringo Starr. (Actually, maybe you can…) Ericsson specified that you have to engage in “deliberate practice”—setting new goals for yourself all the time, challenging yourself to make incremental improvements.

This isn’t the kind of thing they make movies about. As Duckworth writes:

“…the most dazzling human achievements are, in fact, the aggregate of countless individual elements, each of which is, in a sense, ordinary.”

A passion to improve

But who has the capacity to stick to something, through hours (maybe even 10,000 hours) of “ordinary” actions producing at best incremental gains?

That’s where the other word in Duckworth’s subtitle comes in—passion. Duckworth has professed to be surprised at how the “perseverance” part of her title has overshadowed the equally important element of passion.

You have to work hard. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, one hour can seem like 10,000—as any youngster who’s been forced to practice a musical instrument can tell you. (Or maybe that was just me.) But if you’re passionate about your pursuit, you hardly notice the time.

If you’re passionate about improvement, it’s easy to pile up the “countless individual elements,” the incremental gains that lead to greatness.

I was so fired up a couple of weeks ago during my Jumpstart 2017 five-day writing challenge that I routinely worked until 9 or 10 at night, stopping only when my dog insisted. Twelve-hour days during a holiday week? I should have entered the new year exhausted and worn out. But I loved what I was doing, supporting my hardy group of writers—and I loved what they were doing, too. Their energy and enthusiasm proved infectious. I was in the flow.

But I understand—and they learned—that a daily writing practice is the surest route to improvement. So they wrote for five days in a row and many have continued to write daily, which absolutely thrills me.

As for my own streak, today’s Day 257. Some days I write better than others. But I write. Because I love words. And because ideas are too important to express haphazardly. Especially these days, we need to communicate clearly, authentically, memorably.

The Challenge was so much fun that I’m offering it again, from January 23rd through 27th. Write for a minimum of 15 minutes a day during each of those five days and I’ll donate your $15 registration fee to charity. The vast majority of folks who started the first challenge finished; I’m hoping for the same outcome this time. Join us.

deliberate practice leads to greatness