Admiring Excellence

At a San Francisco Giants game a couple months ago, I joked to Cal Newport, who was sitting next to me, that the Newportian analysis of the game had nothing to do with bases and balls and everything to do with the years of deliberate practice that rocketed each player to the peak of their profession. Cal sees remarkable talent as the product of years of craftsmanship.

I thought about that moment at the ballpark with Cal the other week when I was listening to a commentator who, after reporting that the Houston Astros (one of the worst teams in baseball this season) beat the Giants, said that it doesn’t matter how bad the opposing team is–when you’re competing against professional athletes, it is always hard work to win. The worst player on the worst team in the major leagues is still one of the best athletes in the world. When you see a National League pitcher go to bat and hack at balls way off the plate, he looks like he’s never swung a bat before. Yet, that hitter was probably the best hitter on his high school team by far. When professional pitchers are made to look silly at the plate, it’s a reminder of how good major league pitching is. Only those who devote their professional careers to hitting stand a chance–and full-time pitchers, obviously, do not.

You don’t need to be a pro at the craft to admire it in others. In the baseball example, if you don’t know the rules of baseball you won’t appreciate the players’ talents. You need a base level of knowledge. But you can be an amateur and still be awed by the pros, if you let yourself.

Why admire excellence? First, admiring excellence is part of appreciative thinking. In a terrific, packed restaurant, admiring excellence becomes appreciating the myriad details the restauranteur has nailed to make the dining experience flawless. Purchasing a product on Amazon becomes appreciating the data analysts who processed billions of bits of data in order to optimize the shopping cart process. This appreciative, admiring mentality is also a backdoor entrance–in the house of feelings–to gratitude. “I’m grateful to be in the presence of someone who’s world class at their craft.”

Second, consciously admiring and recognizing the excellence of someone is the first step to becoming a master yourself. If the key to mastery of any skill is deconstructing what current masters did to get to where they are, then step one is knowing when you’re around professionals–and letting yourself admire them!

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From Josh Kaufman, a Craftsman’s Creed.

4 Responses to Admiring Excellence

  1. Carlos says:

    Reminds me of Denis dutton’s talk on TED about what we consider beautiful: link to ted.com

    Summary: meticulous work, regardless of the field, is beautiful. We find beauty in skilled performances, in excellence as you well put it.

  2. Carlos says:

    Reminds me of Denis Dutton’s talk on TED about what we consider beautiful: link to ted.com

    Summary: meticulous work, regardless of the field, is beautiful. We find beauty in skilled performances, in excellence as you well put it.

  3. Very good point.

    I have often observed that “the pros” seems almost immune to jealousy — they are always talking about how great the other guys are. Perhaps this is the security that comes from having made it, but I think it is also a key factor to their rise to the top.

    Amateurs, on the other hand, often are crippled by a jealousy that allows them to learn nothing from the masters.

  4. Ryan says:

    The old saying “practice makes perfect” isn’t just a saying.

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