The Greatness of the Grind

The Greek legend of Sisyphus starts with a guy earning the ire of one of their Gods, Zeus. The consequence to Sisyphus is being banished to a lifetime of drudgery in Hades. He is tasked with pushing a big rock up a hill only to have it roll back down again each time Sisyphus successfully crests the top of the hill with the rock. His curse is to perform the same fruitless task forever. The legend lives on today in the phrase “a Sisyphean task” which is one which can never be completed.  As in, “Clearing my inbox seems like a Sisyphean task.” For many these types of tasks are considered the definition of hell. It can seem like no worse a fate than to do the same chore over and over for what could only feel like eternity. Sadly, many of us feel this way about our work days. However, a counter-perspective offers that those able to lean into these kinds of repetitive, routine tasks are those that achieve excellence. Boring is beautiful. Perhaps, Bill Murray in Groundhog day isn’t cursed, but blessed? Could it be that viewing every day as Groundhog day in terms of encouraging us to put in the same effort on the same tasks daily in order to develop skills works?

I have had the good fortune to both participate in and coach the sport of Alpine Ski Racing. Several years back, another coach and I were lamenting the languishing enrollment in our sport’s programs. We wondered why kids weren’t enthused about enjoying the great outdoors, majestic scenery, and freedom in the wild mountains. We talked about how swimming programs were enjoying robust enrollments and couldn’t make sense of how it was possible that kids would prefer the monotony of submersing themselves in cold water while doing lap after lap staring down at the solid black line at the bottom of their lane in the pool. How could swimming trump being in the great outdoors admiring Canada’s wonderful mountains? It made no sense to us at all.

A 1989 paper by Daniel Chambliss studied Swimmers in the US. It covered swimmers from childhood programs through to Olympic Champions over a number of years. It offered three factors as being contributors to differences in performance. One of these was Attitude. Chambliss observed that those at the highest levels not just welcomed, but relished the routine of the activity. They loved doing the work and daily grind. Their attitude was diametrically opposed to that reflected in younger athletes and participants whose time with the sport was fleeting. Those that interpreted the effort and repeated routine of going back and forth across the pool as a chore, literally did not have their heart into it. Their results reflected the intensity of effort offered and their commitment languished. Those that were high performers, were happy to dive in to lap after lap, day after day.

Chambliss writes, “The very features of the sport which the “C” swimmer finds unpleasant, the top-level swimmer enjoys. What others see as boring—swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say—they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. They enjoy hard practices, look forward to difficult competitions, try to set difficult goals. Coming into the 5:30am practices at Mission Viejo, many of the swimmers were lively, laughing, talking, enjoying themselves, perhaps appreciating the fact that most people would positively hate doing it. It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.”

To those showing prowess at Swimming (and most that show success in any other endeavor), they’ve found a way to determine that Boring is Beautiful (BIB). They relish their routine. They come to crave what others consider drudgery.

A three time Olympic medallist that was part of Chambliss’ study offered the two greatest contributors to her development were a commitment to be at every practice on time and to be strict with respect to her technique when making turns between lengths. This successful Olympian believed the commitment to never be late led to her valuing each minute of practice. The urgency developed in getting there on time resulted in a sense that being at practice matters. What we’re doing here is important. I need to make the most of each minute, each drill, each everything. The second factor of focusing on strictly executing a certain technique was a separate distinguishing factor. Turns were an area others were sloppy in with training, yet were a critical component of competitions. Swimmers have to perform the turn with both hands touching the wall. There are consequences to them (disqualification) if they fail to execute properly.  She believed that her diligence in practice ensuring no corner was cut on her turns contributed to competitive achievement. Neither of these actions on their own are terribly impressive. There is no “secret” or “special talent” that she had. There was no special gene she was blessed with at birth that encouraged her to want to show up on time. Her fingers weren’t biologically longer or stronger such that she had some inherent capability to touch the wall better on turns. She simply chose to pay attention to two basic, boring areas which were each well within her control.

Another medallist and world record holder chose to allocate his attention to watching starters. He noted that some had certain routines they worked through prior to firing the gun that set off a race. He paid such attention to this action that he became very good at anticipating starts. This effort alone led him to both become a world class performer and to stir up controversy. People couldn’t understand how he was so good at anticipating starts. There were talks of cheating. He was able to create separation between himself and other elite athletes devoted to the sport by paying attention to something others overlooked. This small act led to a large enough difference that it looked “superhuman”. Others just couldn’t appreciate that what this athlete accomplished was within their grasp.

Both the athletes mentioned trained at the same program. The program became world renown. They had nothing to hide and welcomed others’ interest in coming to observe what they were doing. Most that took the time and expense of coming to visit watched intently. They walked the facility, looked around, all the while wondering what the secret of this pool’s success was. When they saw similar folk to their own athletes doing nothing special, they quickly lost interest and left. Because this program’s efforts were so typical, so boring, so mundane, so “nothing to see here, folks”, the scouts learned little and left disappointed.

The author of the study referred to this idea as the “Mundanity of Excellence”.

To further emphasize the point that Excellence is within the grasp of most of us mortals yet we just won’t hear it, Chambliss had started to write a book to expand on the ideas uncovered during his research paper. He offered a few chapters to others to review and their response was, the story won’t sell. Your subjects are just too boring. They are normal people. No one wants to read about this. You need to jazz things up a bit. Make it more entertaining. The entire point was lost on the readers and the idea of the book evaporated.

Maybe Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh did have it figured out. Plodding along perpetually is the path to progress. Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist, offers that “establishing and keeping a routine can be even more important than having a lot of time.” Developing the daily discipline of doing dull things diligently is desirable. What if we worked to make a 100% commitment to being at work five minutes early each day? What if we ensured we were at every meeting five minutes early? How would our mindsets improve? What if we commit to be at each meeting without a phone, but with a pen and notepad? Are these simple choices within our grasp?

If we work to adopt Boring is Beautiful (BIB) as a mantra in our work lives, can it help us? Here are some suggestions of how we may be able to constructively use the idea Boring is Beautiful:

  1. It encourages us to focus on what we can control. It empowers us.
  2. It encourages a long term view. We can Practice Patience.
  3. It helps us understand that there’s a difference between simple and easy. Just because something is simple, doesn’t mean it’s easy. Because something is simple for us to do, doesn’t mean we’ll do it. We’re just as likely to not do it because it seems so simple.
  4. Success stems from W2D WOW. Willing to Do What Others Won’t.

We’ll be introducing some details around each of these ideas in future articles.

In the meantime, we’ll leave you with a quote from French author, Gustave Flaubert:

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

One thought on “The Greatness of the Grind

  1. […] Every day we must sweep.” What Bolelli is talking about and the Rent Axiom reinforces is the Greatness of the Grind. That which is mundane isn’t necessarily a pain; to the contrary, it’s the path to gain. […]

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