The excellence in what we don't see

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This cartoon by @officeguycartoons.com recently floated around the “office” at Award Force (Slack 😊). Since we are a company that develops software to help organisations recognise excellence in their field, the cartoon was both apt and thought-provoking.

The cartoon is a wonderful insight into human achievement. The winner’s podium shows us reward, elation, and success but hidden in a pyramid of adversity below is the effort required to get there.

It’s a great piece of artistic commentary that confirms many clichés - “hard work pays off”, “experience takes you to the top” and “positive work life balance” - as crucial reasons for success, achievement, and excellence. No-one makes it to the top without effort. It requires hard work and - to use another cliche - 10,000 hours.

The neurologist, Daniel Levitin, once said, “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number [10,000 hours] comes up again and again”. It’s a stark reminder of how much grunt and effort go into reaching the top.

It’s easy to look at high performers and underestimate the effort they’ve put in and instead blanket-brush them with black and white descriptors: “He is smart, that’s why he is successful”, “her dad helped her start her company” or “he is well-connected”, and so on.  

It’s not as simple as that. To achieve the extraordinary, humans do anything but ordinary.  Even the most brilliant minds must write dissertations and spend countless hours studying for exams. Athletes - including Usain Bolt - train long and hard day after day. Musicians and artists practise, practise, practise to sharpen their skills and perfect their craft.  On the path of luck or old money you might get away with shirking the hard stuff. But the path to excellence requires mental fortitude, physical discomfort and personal sacrifice.

If you want to do something worthwhile, add to the current and future human experience, or even just master the art of something small and insignificant – it will take a mountain of hard work. In recognising extraordinary human achievement, we need to acknowledge this mountain and all the unseen challenges beneath the podium. Let’s never forget that and never stop recognising the people who deal with it on a daily basis in their efforts to excel. Extraordinary achievements benefit all of humanity.