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Daniel Chambliss: defining excellence

The Mundanity of Excellence is a 1989 paper by sociologist Daniel Chambliss. In it he draws on his ethnographic research among elite swimmers – and his wider experiences as a swimming coach – to explore the meaning and causes of excellence, and particularly to question the role (indeed, the existence) that talent plays in outstanding performance.

Although by no means watertight (it should probably be read alongside something like The Sports Gene), it’s a tightly written, very enjoyable read, and quite convincing.

For a start, here’s Chambliss’ definition of excellence:

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 of all athletes at one level (say, Olympic class) over another. By this definition, we need not judge performance against an absolute criterion, but only against other performances.There are acknowledged leaders on every team, as well as teams widely recognized as dominant.

Daniel F. Chambliss – The Mundanity of Excellence

What does “consistently superior performance” mean for you, in your role, and for your team or organisation as a whole?

What would it look like for you to be good – “superior” – among your peers?

When is your work already “superior”, and are you consistent?

Are there people or organisations that share your aims and values but are recognisably an entire class above you?

What do you imagine your work would look like if you joined them there? How would your experience of work change?
What do they do differently?

More from Chambliss tomorrow.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...