The 3 Secrets to Becoming ‘Awesomely, Amazingly, World-Class Excellent’

August/September 2014

The 3 Secrets to Becoming ‘Awesomely, Amazingly, World-Class Excellent’


Austin Lin, E.I.T.Max Fischer was on 18 extracurricular teams, ranging from fencing and debate to the skeet shooting team and beekeepers club.

As the high-schooler in the Wes Anderson film Rushmore, the contradictory Max (played by Jason Schwartzman) was an overachieving go-getter and, at the same time, the least motivated, lowest performing scholar at Rushmore Academy.

Work can sometimes feel like a life of Max: We serve multiple clients at a time; we’re heavily involved in a variety of projects; we’re held accountable for timelines and results while leading a multitude of interdisciplinary teams. Yet even for the best achievers, being truly great at something can still be very elusive, stressful, and disillusioning.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that average Americans between the ages of 25 and 55 spend 30% of their lifetimes working weekends on top of already heavily loaded work weeks. In total, Americans spend almost three times the amount of waking hours at work than at home.

But what do we get as a result of all this overachievement?

For the majority of people, writes author Geoff Colvin, the answer is: not much.

Colvin, author of Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, writes that while many people are decent at what they do, not many become “outstandingly good.” Citing a study of physicians showing that highly experienced surgeons were no better at predicting the length of post-surgery hospital stays than freshly minted residents, Colvin argues that there’s little evidence that people who are “good” become outstandingly great—no matter how much time is spent at pursuing a skill or task.

But is this due to effort in achieving new heights or how that effort is expended? Andy Hargadon at the University of California-Davis framed it another way: When looking at our careers, do we have 20 years of experience or is it just one year of the same experience repeated 20 times?

Colvin says it’s not just about time, whether one decade or two decades. Experience alone or innate talent by itself will not make someone “awesomely, amazingly, world-class excellent.” Rather, it’s how we learn to confront the challenges that emerge while we’re in the midst of obtaining those experiences, what Colvin refers to as “deliberate practice.”

Deliberate practice is not just repetition, but cognitively challenging practice that incrementally grows in intensity and difficulty. So once a new skill is obtained, the effort expended to get there will not alone be sufficient in reaching that next level of excellence.

Engineering students go through academic curricula that ferment technical skills through ongoing challenging practice. Intermediate courses build on foundational ones and accordingly, early jobs and professional assignments further layer additional complexity and learning challenges. Taking the path toward becoming a “world-class excellent” engineer is a continuation of that deliberateness. Work experience and learning on the job is best leveraged when linkages to those technical skills can start to become more visibly present in the decisions we make and the projects we tackle.

The path from EIT to PE and from PE to licensure renewal also pushes us to make deliberate choices in our lifelong learning in a constantly changing field. It’s not the laws of physics that change. It’s how we apply those laws in new and innovative ways. While it sounds contradictory at first, the more deliberate our learning, the better prepared engineers can be at adapting to the rapidly changing technologies and methods that we use to improve our work and ultimately, our results that benefit the greater public. We get technologically better and our mental “toughness” becomes accustomed to pushing the boundaries of additional learning.

Sports psychologist Jim Afremow, Ph.D., in The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train and Thrive, says that even after certain skills are gained, an overall mental toughness can still be trained to optimize your performance under stress since “your mind is susceptible to performance pressures and situational demands…just as you can build physical strength through training, you can also build mental strength through training.”

What he calls developing a champion’s mind-set refers not just to world-class athletes, but to professionals performing at the peak of their field, industry, or discipline.

So what are the three secrets to becoming awesomely, amazingly, world-class excellent?

  1. EIT/PE licensure is not an endpoint, but a starting point. Continue to learn challenging ideas in challenging ways.

  2. Once you approach mastery in an area, look for lateral areas where that mastery can be reapplied. You’ve spent your career establishing mastery, but sustaining mastery includes applying your knowledge in new, untested ways.

  3. Go from better to best: Lean on your peers and colleagues and keep inspiring each other to keep going. As Afremow states, “Admiration and envy are common psychological responses when watching extremely successful people perform at extremely difficult times.” Redirect admiration and envy into inspiration and enthusiastic engagement with your work. Or to rephrase it in the popular proverb, “just as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

NSPE member Austin Lin, E.I.T., is the author of NSPE’s Young Engineers Blog.