Efficiency and excellence are contradictory goals

Here’s something I think more people need to understand.  In a fast-paced society, busy people value efficiency.  Getting the most effect out of the smallest investment of resources (money and, more importantly, time).  This approach is all well and good, unless you want to be truly great in any endeavor.

Greatness requires more of a Malcolm Gladwell (author of Outliers) approach than a Tim Ferris (author of 4 Hour Body) approach.  The difference between the two – one of Gladwell’s basic theses is that to be truly elite at something, you need to be willing to invest about 10,000 hours in your craft.  Ferris, on the other hand, basically argues that you can achieve great results with a very small investment of effort and resources.

Ultimately, both are right.  You CAN achieve great results without a ton of effort.  Stick to a diet of whole foods, lift 2-3 times a week, jog, ride a bike, swim, or play sports a few times a week, and you’ll be able to get pretty lean, pretty strong (relative to the general population), and quite healthy.

If you want to go a step beyond that though, your expectations about the required effort need to shift.  Refer to the 80/20 rule:  you achieve 80% of the results for 20% of the input.  If you have modest goals, that means you really only need to focus on the 20% effort that gives you the best bang for your buck.  If you want to be great at anything, though, that other 80% becomes crucial.

If you’re training for strength, that means more time in the gym, more time working on mobility, more time smoothing out imbalances that hinder performance, more time devoted to recovery modalities, more time carved out of your schedule for sleep, more time devoted to preparing the food you need to fuel the machine, etc.  If you’re training for a bodybuilding or physique stage, that means more time working on the little muscles that will make your physique “flow,” a LOT more time prepping food and dialing in your diet (because 12% bodyfat is pretty easy to achieve.  5% not so much), more time devoted to boring pre-contest cardio, time to practice posing, etc.  If you’re an athlete, it means more time spent honing specific skills, more time watching game film, more time devoted to ensuring a proper mental state for competition, etc.

It’s frustrating, honestly.  You’re not stupid.  You know you’re experiencing diminishing returns.  But that doesn’t matter.  The first 20% you invested got you 80% of the results.  The last 20% may get you 2%.  But, in elite competition, 2% is a big deal.  2% of a 2000 pound total is a 40 pound swing.  In a 100m sprint, 2% is about .2 second – maybe the difference between gold and missing the podium entirely.  And every hour you spend on that last 20% can feel like a waste of time because you get so little for it.

But, at the end of the day, if you want to be great, you need to come to peace with the fact that it’s all necessary.  I think, ultimately, what can separate the best from the second-tier competitors in any endeavor is that the best are the people who can find that peace and accept the cost, and who learn to love the process, not just the outcomes.

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