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Striving for Mundanity


Oliva Rissland, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Colorado, read a scientific paper every day for 899 days. At the end of that stretch, she picked her favorite: “The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers,” written in 1989 by Dan Chambliss, the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton.

Rissland says this paper “transformed how I approach science and running a lab,” in an interview with Nature Index, a database collated from research articles published in an independently selected group of 82 high-quality science journals.

The story went viral on Twitter with one individual, David Perell, generating 44 retweets and 245 likes. He wrote, “In 1989, a researcher named D.F. Chambliss published a paper called The Mundanity of Excellence. After studying swimmers for three years, he found that three factors separated top-performing swimmers from average ones. Here’s a one-sentence summary: ‘It is all very mundane.’” Here’s a sampling of other comments:

  • These mundane differentiating factors that help high-performing people outstrip their competitors are so at odds with the way Hollywood biopics present the secrets of sports, music, and business leaders’ success: esoteric routines and mystical techniques.
  • Such a great line ... “Doing more doesn’t equal doing better.”
  • My favorite too. First paper our entering grad students read in required course on classical sociological theory. My first prompt: Why is this published in soc. theory instead of Swimmers World?
  • Oh my goodness!! This is amazing!!! I love your Mundanity article so much! We did a whole lab meeting on this and figured out what we should make mundane in my lab!
  • I heard about it recently on the Hidden Brain episode “Grit” and it has been on my reading list since. Even more excited to read it now.

“The interesting part to me is the natural science community going for it; in the past, attention has come from mostly swimmers and sociologists,” Chambliss writes, citing a quote from his 1988 book Champions: The Making of Olympic Swimmers on the wall at the pool where Michael Phelps trained. That book was named Book of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

In Angela Duckworth’s New York Times bestseller Grit, she spends eight pages discussing Chambliss’ work on excellence. Fermat’s Library, an online repository of “classic articles in science,” includes "Mundanity," and the article is regularly used in undergraduate and graduate courses, especially in sociological theory.  

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