I spend a lot of time thinking about how to get better at things. I agree with Aristotle that excellence itself, rather than money or status, is the aim worth pursuing.
Recently, I’ve been thinking that the concept of excellence itself hides a subtle distinction. That is, there are different ways something can be considered great, and knowing which makes a big difference in how you pursue it.
The first is to think of excellence as a universal standard. To get 99% is more excellent than 95%. A+ beats A. Selling a million copies beats a hundred thousand. In each case, we line up everything and measure them against a single yardstick.
An alternative way to think of excellence is like a niche. The evolution of life is like this. A whale isn’t better than a butterfly in any meaningful way. They’re pursuing very different strategies to survive. But to have survived this long, they’re both exquisitely designed—itself a kind of excellence.
Excellence: One or Many Dimensions?
The distinction can be phrased mathematically. A universal standard uses a single dimension to rank everything. Niches, in contrast, can be seen as occupying a high-dimensional abstract space. Every degree of freedom, from body size to blood type, feathers or scales, another possible dimension. Most of the space of possibilities is a desert—nothing useful lives there—but the size is so vast that there are many interesting oases of possible life.
Now what about the excellence you’re trying to pursue? Is it a ranking or a niche?
Taken as a whole, our working lives feel more like niches. There are tens of thousands of professions, each with numerous sub-specialities. Diversity rules the day.
Zoom in, however, and the dimensions of competition start to shrink. For many professions, the path to success is extraordinarily narrow, as candidates in a space are judged on a few limited benchmarks.
Thus the big-picture of life tends to be many-dimensional and have lots of different niches, but the more specific the pursuit, the more its relevant dimension of competition starts to dominate. For highly-defined fields, success may come down to a single metric where all aggressively try to outcompete the others.
Contrasting Modes of Excellence: Exploring and Optimizing
The two different types of excellence also suggest different overall winning strategies.
For big spaces, the problem is exploration. Finding the right combination of elements is more important than ruthlessly optimizing a single one. Excellence here looks more like “finding one’s style” and less about “being the best.”
As the space shrinks down to a line, the problem is on optimization. How can you give the best possible performance, within those constraints. Excellence here is about winning and beating the competition.
The Paradox of Narrow Paths with Plentiful Options
In my recent essay, I shared how many professions have narrower success criteria than one might expect. While this is more severe in some fields than others, it’s also clear that failing to follow the right path is risky.
This may seem overly pessimistic. However, I countered by arguing that while the path to any individual destination is narrow, there are innumerable possible paths. This might feel strange—how can success be both narrow and spacious? But I think with the above metaphor, we can start to see how both can be true.
Zoomed out, there are countless niches you can find success in. However, once you zoom into any particular pursuit, you find there’s usually a few key criteria of excellence that dominate everything else.
Doing well in life then has two contrary modes, depending on how specific you get. At a general level, you’re faced with innumerable options. Since most are bad, the problem seems to be about exploring them effectively to find something that might be good.
Once you’re on a particular path, however, dimensionality reduces, competition heats up and you’re forced to walk a fairly narrow line. How narrow this is, of course, depends on the exact details of the path you’ve chosen. But, the overall trend still applies.
Nature mimics this as well, with both stunning diversity and ruthless competition. Even minuscule advantages in design can result in one species dominating another entirely for each ecological role.
Proof of this can be seen next time you see a rocky shoreline at low-tide. There are usually clear bands of barnacles with mussels lower down. Barnacles need to be submerged less to live, but without that constraint, mussels outgrow the hardier barnacles. Each spot on the rock reveals the ruthless struggle for survival.
The Pursuit of Excellence
I’m being purposely vague in using the word excellence. This is in part because we can see excellence itself on the same continuum of general to specific.
At the most general level you have your values themselves. A Buddhist monk and Olympic athlete aren’t just more or less successful versions of each other, but pursuing completely different philosophies of life.
Excellence at this level has the most variety. The size of the space of possible values is staggering, which is one reason I think culturally traditional options are popular. If you simply take your culture’s values as a given, it’s easier to compress the space of possible pursuits into something you can more meaningfully explore in a limited lifetime.
Taking a particular philosophy of life as a given, there’s still a lot of room to explore. You might decide you want a family, a successful career and a house in the suburbs. But you could still become a doctor, programmer, artist or advertising executive. There are numerous niches to explore.
Within each pursuit, the options narrow further. This is true not only in your profession, but your hobbies and side-pursuits, to the extent that you pursue some kind of excellence within them. Once you aim at being a better chess player, even just as a hobby, you’ve committed to improving on a fairly narrow set of criteria.
Attitudes of Excellence
If there’s a takeaway from all this, I think it’s that there are different attitudes required for excellence, but they crucially depend on the dimensionality of the pursuit being considered. Ruthless rankings require laser focus, a mind for efficiency and courage in the face of competition. Numerous niches require exploration, creativity and experimentation.
Since the attitudes that work for each seem so different, it seems to me that there’s a premium to recognize what kind of space you’re actually in. Some people seem to think they’re in a spacious environment, when the path to success is actually quite claustrophobic. Others view every activity in life as a competition, when it’s more about finding your own way.
Being able to shift attitudes as your pursuits mature also seems important. If the bottleneck is behind you, the difficulty is in learning to explore when everything before in life has felt like an exam. If the bottleneck is ahead of you, the challenge is learning to focus when everything was previously just for fun.