Admiring Excellence, An Ongoing Series

I recently watched two documentaries I highly recommend: Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Being Elmo. Each is about a craftsman and his craft: Jiro, a master sushi maker in Tokyo, and Kevin Clash, the brains and voice behind the muppet Elmo. Both available on Netflix streaming. It reminded of my post last year titled Admiring Excellence, which I’ve re-posted below. It’s a topic I continue to think about almost every day…

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!


From Josh Kaufman, a Craftsman’s Creed.

Via Carlos Miceli, Denis Dutton’s TED talk, which Carlos summarizes as: “Meticulous work, regardless of the field, is beautiful. We find beauty in skilled performances.”

8 comments on “Admiring Excellence, An Ongoing Series
  • Also loved Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I thought the message at the end was that it was really Jiro’s son who was the craftsman…albeit unsung. Based this conclusion on the single, seemingly offhand comment in the last moments of the film, where the journalist mentions that none of the Michelin reviewers had ever been fed by Jiro. Did you have the same take away?

  • Hope it was fun sitting next to Cal, his blog is one of my favourites and looking forward to his new book being released soon.

    You make a couple of great points. Admiring excellence can be inspiring and usually the best make it look so easy you think they can’t be that much better and they inspire a whole new generation of participants. As an investor in my field Buffett makes it look and sound so easy you just think anyone could do it.

    Studying excellence is the starting point to becoming a master. I would think every musician, writer and sportsperson copied their heroes before developing their own style. The worst that can happen is you get better anyway.

    Wish I could watch the documentaries you mention but we don’t have Netflix in Australia.

    Ps And I loved your book and finished it not long ago and it now has lots of markings, highlights, and notes in it I can refer back to .

  • Sometimes, perhaps as we get older, we wonder whether striving for excellence is worth the effort: How likely are we really to be excellent? Will it matter that much anyway?

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