Becoming Exceptional

Joe Louis

I’ve been reading a number of blogs on productivity, organization, and life improvement recently.  While many are interchangeable, and tout similar, if not the same, platitudes, some shine forth either for the organization, explanations, or new content.  Study Hacks is one of those blogs that provides all three.  While I normally find myself scrolling through posts, hoping for new information, I find myself taking the time to read what he presents, and feeling more informed because of it.

I can’t help but wonder if spending so much time reading is counterproductive to my long term goals, but until I start lagging at my objectives because of time spent reading, I will continue to invest time in perusing his wonderful blog.

In his article, Does Being Exceptional Require an Exceptional Amount of Work?, Cal Newport discusses exactly what is takes to stand out.  His words?  “I claim that for most exceptional endeavors, an exceptional amount of work is not required.” Inborn talent isn’t the key either.  What matters instead, according to researchers, is how you practice.

Geoff Colvin, senior editor at Fortune Magazine, broke down what is called Deliberative Practice in to 5 key components:

  1. It must be challenging. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice. At the driving range or at the piano, most of us are just doing what we’ve done before and hoping to maintain the level of performance that we probably reached long ago.”
  2. Repetition, repetition, repetition. “Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent.”
  3. Have someone to call you on your shit. “[Y]ou may believe you played that bar of the Brahms violin concerto perfectly, but can you really trust your own judgment? In many important situations, a teacher, coach, or mentor is vital for providing crucial feedback.”
  4. Your brain will hurt. “Continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one’s hardest to make them better places enormous strains on anyone’s mental abilities…no one can sustain it for very long.”
  5. It’s not always going to be fun. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”

All of that sounds like a lot of time and effort.  The good news is that, for the most part, it’s more of the latter than the former.  Mr. Colvin, further explaining point number four, had this to say,

“Nathan Milstein, one of the 20th century’s greatest violinists, was a student of the famous teacher Leopold Auer. As the story goes, Milstein asked Auer if he was practicing enough. Auer responded, “Practice with your fingers, and you need all day. Practice with your mind, and you will do as much in 1-1/2 hours.” What Auer didn’t add is that it’s a good thing 1-1/2 hours are enough, because if you’re truly practicing with your mind, you couldn’t possibly keep it up all day.”

This is important to me, because at this point, I have a rather cramped schedule.

So, back to Cal Newport.  Cal ends his article with summation of the principles, combining the five in to two.

Here’s my conclusion. For most endeavors, the path to becoming exceptional requires that:

  1. You focus on one thing and commit to it over a long period of time.
  2. During this period, you consistently engage in deliberative practice, again and again, to cause a rapid rise in your ability.

A note on one of the words used by Colvin on point number 2.  “Stultifying.” That’s a 25 cent word if I’ve ever read one.  A Google search of the word reveals this:

stultifying  present participle of stul·ti·fy (Verb)


1. Cause to lose enthusiasm and initiative, esp. as a result of a tedious or restrictive routine.

2. Cause (someone) to appear foolish or absurd.

The implications of his word choice are telling, though not particularly surprising.  There will be times that one has to fight through the arduous practice that is necessary to truly become exceptional.  I believe that it is this particular quality that leaves people, myself included, stuck in the clutches of mediocrity.

I’d like to be exceptional.  With this information I have the framework, the how of the matter, but I’m still figuring out the what. I think that I have a pretty good idea of how to go about it.  I don’t see much of a point in becoming exceptional at something that I’m not interested in, and moreover, it loads the odds against my already suspect attention span and focus reserves.  So, that leaves things that I’m very interested in:

  • Guitar (specifically blues guitar)
  • Dancing (specifically Latin dancing and Texas Two Step)
  • Writing
  • Social interaction
  • Academics
  • Electrical work
  • Athleticism (specifically the ability to comfortably and agilely move my body)
  • Hand work (specifically carpentry)
  • Singing

There we many things that I left off of the list, notably ukulele, welding, working on cars, mixed martial arts, piano, metallurgy, steel craft using a forge and anvil, camping and bush craft, stone sharpening knives, and theology.  The only reason that this list isn’t longer is because the coffee has worn off and I’m crashing.  The list goes on forever, which is another challenge in and of itself.

Of the list, I hope to break down what I’m comfortable being “hobbyist good” at, and what I’d like to be exceptional at, this week.

Do yall have anything that you’d like to be exceptional at?



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