The Top Performer Paradox: Why You Should Acquire Skill From the Less Accomplished

by David · 23 comments

I’ve been obsessed with what sets top performers apart from the rest of the world for as long as I can remember. Part of this obsession is rooted in my desire to be great. I mean, who doesn’t want to be great at something?  You’d be lying if you said you didn’t.

In my search for “secrets” to becoming great I’ve discovered that one of the most effective methods on one’s journey to mastery is to seek guidance from those at the top of their game.

The idea isn’t new. For centuries humans have mastered their trade by learning from people more accomplished than themselves. Aristotle studied philosophy under Plato, Leonardo Davincie studied painting under Andrea del Verrocchio and Mohamed Ali trained with Joe E. Martin. All of the people became great at what they did with the help of great teachers.

It’s easy to conclude that top performers reach their peak because of a natural disposition or an environmental advantage (like having a good teacher). That’s a popular opinion, but from where I’m standing it’s too simplistic. What other explanations could there be?

Dispersed Acquisition 

I’m here to tell you that top performers are not more accomplished because of one or two reason, but hundreds, possibly thousands (that may sound discouraging, but stay with me, this is actually good news).

When you read clear prose from a writer, watch a dancer move gracefully or listen to a musician play flawlessly, there’s an illusion of ease because many parts are put together to create one seamless movement.

How do you learn everything that needs to be learned so you too can perform complicated processes seamlessly? Dispersed acquisition.

Simply put:  to master your craft you have to learn hundreds or thousands of small things. And they are learned from a variety of sources.It’s easy (and common) to attribute a person’s outstanding success to one or maybe two factors, but that’s never the case. Mastery is acquired through dispersion.

It’s not uncommon for people to use phrases like “He’s good because…” “It’s easier for her because…” or “It’s not fair because she…” These phrases often end with one or two justifications as to why the person in question is more capable. But this thought process is way too simplistic.

The more I think about mastery in this way the more I’m reminded of an anime I used to watch when I was in school called Dragon Ball Z. In the short video below one of the characters (Goku) draws energy from every person on the planet to create what’s called a spirit bomb. It’s a great visual example of what average performers need to do to become great.

The Top Performer Paradox

In theory, top performers should be most helpful on our journey to acquiring skill.  After all, they know what challenges we need to overcome, how to overcome them and lots of tricks that can help us on our journey. However, I’ve found that very few people are great at breaking down what they do into bite size chunks for teaching. That requires a different skill set.

Actually, it’s often the case that top performers inspire and discourage. You can probably think of a time when you watched someone demonstrating his or her skill and thinking, “wow, how inspiring, I want to do that! If s/he can do it, why can’t I? Hmm, who am I kidding? I’ll never reach that level of skill!” I’ve had that dialogue go through my mind thousands of times. And through many conversations about the topic, it has been brought to my attention that many people feel both inspired and discouraged by top performers. Is it the same for you?

Your state of mind is one of the most important aspects in determining your success in just about any endeavour. Anything that induces you into a negative mindset is bad for progress. Therefore, looking at top performers for guidance may subconsciously be doing more harm than good.

Perpetual Growth and Acquisition from the Less Accomplished

Performers are around every corner. And this means there are opportunities to learn around each corner. Everyone performs with different levels of skill and it’s probably the case that most performers around you are average - this is good.

Average performers are often overlooked as resources to propel growth. They’re overlooked because people tend to attribute success to one or two things they’ve seen in those at the top of their game. So they fail to acknowledge what can be learned from (the more accessible) average performers. As I wrote above, there are hundreds, sometimes thousands of small things that we need to master on the road to the top.

We acquire knowledge and mastery of skills in different areas, in different orders and at a different pace. If we pay attention to what skills and knowledge our peers possess, which we don’t, and learn from them, we become that bit closer to transforming ourselves into top performers.

For example, imagine you want to learn Spanish. You might admire someone who has reached a very high level in the language. While this person may be an inspiration to you, your belief that this person has some sort of advantage will probably stop you from learning much from them.

This goes back to what I was saying earlier about maintaining a positive mindset. Top performers can be intimidating to those who still have a long way to go. So what do I propose? Hang on; we’re almost there ;)

But first I want to say that I’m yet to meet a top performer who was completely satisfied with his/her level of skill and knowledge. They always want more. They use every possible opportunity to take their knowledge and skills to the next level.

If you apply dispersed acquisition to your approach to development, you’ll maximise your capacity, with the added benefit of not feeling intimidated by those who have reached mastery.

What I’m saying, if it’s not already clear, is that you can learn a lot from those who are just like you. Forget top performers; learn from those who are around you.

I like the way dispersed acquisition is expressed in Japanese Kanji. These two symbols together mean teacher (Sensei)>>>先生 The first character means “before”. And the second character means “life” or “birth”. Together these characters mean “teacher”, or to put it another way “Person who has walked down a path before you”.

So you see, you can learn something from everyone because everyone has walked down a path you haven’t.

Direct your focus away from who is on the top, and place more importance on what the people around you can do that you can’t. And then work on lifting yourself higher.

I assure you, this will take you further. And learning from every possible opportunity is exactly what top performers do to become great.

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  • http://www.mylanguagelist.com/ Delali

    Yay! I’m the first!

    I actually experienced this yesterday, and it’s funny how you so eloquently voiced my subconscious thoughts. This example isn’t very profound, but there’s an African dance group that I love, and I was about to sit down and watch some of their videos yesterday when I thought, “Naw, I’ll just feel badly about myself.” I’d rather just take a dance class and do things in manageable chunks.
    Any other day I might have watched the videos and felt completely inspired, but in the frame of mind I was in, I realized I would be inspired and discouraged at the same time, as you put it.

    Great post!

    • http://www.davidmansaray.com/ David Mansaray

      African Dance! I love Africa Dance :D

      I’m glad you could identify with what I wrote!

      And thanks for taking the time to share your experience :)

  • Shawn

    David, I had not heard the term “dispersed acquisition” before but the concept you describe sounds familiar. If we respect each other regardless of position in society or profession it’s likely we could learn valuable insight from each other too. Great article.

    • http://www.davidmansaray.com/ David Mansaray

      “Dispersed acquisition” is my term ;)

      And I agree, we make much better progress when we learn from as many people as possible!

  • Michal Grzeskowiak

    Cool stuff :D

    I’ve completed a few NLP courses and one the most essential things in NLP is the idea of ‘modelling’ the masters. You look for an axcellent person and try to model:
    - behaviours
    - strategies
    - states
    - habits
    etc.

    The idea is fantastic, but there is a big ‘but’ :)

    1) Usually we can’t access these giants

    2) Even If we do, we can’t scan everything that led them to the top

    3) They are using completely different strategies now, than they have used in the beginning, so their tips can be completely useless for a beginner

    4) Huge gap between us can be discouraging

    So you’ve got a point David and I fully agree with your article.

    I really like learning from people who are just a few steps ahead!

    I love finding mentors who are a just few steps before me.

    It’s practical, it’s pleasant, it’s effective :D

    Best regards amigo :D

    Michal

    • http://www.davidmansaray.com/ David Mansaray

      I agree with everything you wrote. Top performers are great to learn from, however they instil fear into many students, and for that reason – like you mentioned – it’s in the interest of most learners to seek out people more like themselves to learn from.
      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!

  • Manuel Bernal

    It sounds like what Steve Jobs said in his famous speech at Stanford University : “It’s all about connecting the dots”.

    PS: Cool that you quote Dragon Ball Z as an example!!! Every latino (like me) born in the late 80′s and early 90′s loves that series !!!

    • http://www.davidmansaray.com/ David Mansaray

      Dragon Ball z is just awesome!

      And yes, Steve Jobs’ Idea about connecting the dots is related to what I wrote here, although different ;)

  • Christopher Bowley

    Time is our biggest enemy. By sifting through learning methods and skills of average performers, we are not using time effectively. I believe we can learn from average performers but that the search time for effective methods from them is wasteful. By following a master, you can copy tried and tested methods. I also often find that it isn’t hard to digest small elements of mastery but I’m speaking solely from a language perspective.
    These are just my thoughts.

    • http://www.davidmansaray.com/ David Mansaray

      I think you’ve missed the point. The idea is that we can learn from anyone. And that focusing on top performers can be discouraging because of the wide gap.
      Also, top performers tend to change their techniques as they became more advanced, so it’s not in the interest of a beginner to imitate their methods because they’re just too dense.

  • Roberto

    Dear David, How are you? I am not sure if I understood your article correctly. I would like to take your argument and transpose it to the world of formal education. I am not acquainted with the British system of higher education, so I will use the American system as my example.

    Many people feel that since a Ph.D degree is a more advanced degree than a Masters degree, it follows that because the person with the Ph.D degree is a better teacher than the person with the Masters degree because a doctoral degree is an indication of one’s knowing more about the subject. As it turns out, however, many times the person with the Masters degree is the better teacher.

    More specifically, this confusion arises from a basic misconception, Namely. the PhD is a research degree not a teaching degree. And sometimes a person with a Ph.D degree resents enormously the fact that he or she must teach. For example, when I was at the university pursuing an undergraduate degree, I took a course in basic Human Biology, the most simple course in the Biology department. The course was taught, however, by a researcher with a Ph.D in genetics. Aside from the fact that she hated teaching and felt the students were far inferior to her, she taught the course as if we were advanced medical students studying genetics. To say the least, the majority of the class(all but two students) dropped the class after three weeks.

    Thus, from the example above, and I could cite numerous cases in all fields, Many times the person with the Masters degree is the better teacher than the person with the Ph.D degree. When one acquires a Ph.D degree, sometimes one feels as if he or she has “arrived.” Therefore, the motivation to accomplish more is severely lacking. And we all know that motivation is the key to success, especially in the earning foreign languages.

    In fact, I have spent many years both as a teacher and a student, and I have come to the conclusion that motivation is the most reliant predictor of a student’s chance of a successful outcome in a earning endeavor. Or as they say in the word of business, one has to be “hungry” for the sale.

    I sincerely hope that this has something to do with the opinions expressed in your article.

    Thank you for the great article,

    Roberto

    • http://www.davidmansaray.com/ David Mansaray

      Hi Roberto!

      Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. I agree 100% and what you’ve written is pretty close to what I tried to express in my article :)

      Thanks for sharing with me!

      If it’s not too much trouble, I’d love if you posted this message in the comment section of the article so that others can benefit from your perspective.

      Thanks again!

      All the best,

      David

  • http://rishadbharucha.com/ Rishad Bharucha

    I agree with your thoughts, David. I also have personal experience to back it up.

    I am currently coaching football (soccer) at a local academy. I’m specifically working with under-10s and under-11s. We have divided our group into two tiers based on their ability. I have already seen the difference of working without using the tiers and with the tiers, and there is a significant difference. Some of our tier one players are the kind of players who would have to bear the expectation to perform if placed in a tier two team. I’ve already seen this happen in a recent round of friendlies we had before deciding the tiers. If these same kids are placed in their tier one team, they feel less pressure and can share the responsibility. I’ve seen this work out too and they’ve said they are happier in their new teams.

    • Kerstin

      Rishad, I had a very similar observation today at the end of my Zumba class. The motivation in that class comes from within and we persist for the love of fitness and dance, but not because we all share a goal of becoming like the person at the front. This makes it a community which helps people on their way to any goal, but without strict enforcement of progress checks. Being encouraged by sharing the experience is so powerful in learning!

  • http://www.chinease-ebook.com/ Aaron Posehn

    What a great post David. I thoroughly enjoyed it and agree that it’s a great way of altering your thinking in order to actually learn more and become better. Inspiring as always!

  • William

    You are amazing! Keep it up! I got started following you in order to improve my english, however, I follow you as a style of live. Seriously, do not give up!

    Cheers

    • http://www.davidmansaray.com/ David Mansaray

      Thanks for the kind words! I’m glad you liked the article! :D

  • Dimitry Bieliakov

    The idea does make sense. There’s good point in what you’ve said about things impacting on our positive mindset negatively. to my mind anything that has negative influence on our motivation should be kind of detached from our life as far as it’s possible to. I’ve been experiencing that sort of discouragement out of investigating other’s people success stories, so for me your point certainly makes sense.

    All in all the post is reasonable and written with a light touch

    • http://www.davidmansaray.com/ David Mansaray

      Glad you can relate!

  • ThomaS

    I was at a poetry event last week and
    I witnessed a friend getting de-motivated watching the pro’s performing stuff,
    that was just on another level. He was deflated seeing himself compared to
    them; it reminded me of myself with music production.

    It’s crazy, comparing myself to the
    best in the game while inadvertently mucking up my motivation to reach my own
    best, is something I have struggled with since I started to progress in music
    production back in school.

    I started making music on my computer
    in high school. I was inspired by various kinds of music and I had my own ideas
    I wanted to try out (the radio stuff was starting to sound too formulaic). But
    then later when I discovered some artists, whose style I really admired I
    started comparing my productions to theirs.

    I’d compare my progress to theirs, in
    terms of how quickly they progressed in the quality of their productions back
    in their days, and get REALLY depressed about it. These guys are arguably the
    best at what they do; they’re even on the level mastery.

    Since I’m very critical of detail, I
    couldn’t help but notice the quality of their overall productions, I don’t mean
    the compositional value of the song, but rather the actual mixing or
    arrangement and design of sounds, and how they all came together…Then on the
    other hand, I would listen to my own songs, and be too quick to be critical,
    magnifying all my short falls and things I suck at.

    It would be exciting initially to
    create the song by inspiration, but then when I listen back at it and listen,
    my mind would be like, ‘Hmm ja but that bassline…the bassline isn’t as smooth
    and heavy as theirs, my kicks aren’t very punchy and present…it doesn’t sound
    together..etc”. I’ve even wanted quit. Then I quit on wanting to quit haha.

    I tried different techniques to try getting
    myself to produce again at a progressive rate. Things like completely stopping
    listening to their music or even incentivizing myself to finish songs and
    rewarding myself with listening to my favourite artists latest song. Haha crazy
    stuff but I actually did that.

    Something else I briefly tried was acknowledging
    the professionals out there for what they’d achieved; and to rather think
    something along the lines of: ‘Their skill level just shows the potential that
    there is out there, when you get yourself to continue improving. They’re there
    because they did their thing and just kept on growing from what they learnt, to
    the level that they are at the moment’

    I read their bio and it showed that
    they’d been doing music together since way back, like the late 90’s, but they
    really started getting serious years later than that. And they also had a
    network of producers around them who were also pushing hard to make quality
    music.ie – a good environment to grow your skills where one is surrounded by
    people around their own skill level.

    I didn’t take that into consideration;
    plus the many other thousands of unknown things that got them to their level.

    I was lazy to get to know other
    producers around where I stay (and still am) – I had the assumption that they
    weren’t any good to the extent in which I could gain anything from them.

    What I’ve also tried before is
    thinking something like: ‘What would this be like performing at a world class
    level?’ Thinking people like David Blaine and Dynamo. I did this when I was
    into doing magic. And I got good pretty quickly.

    But maybe the above can be dangerous
    in the long term; in terms of maybe unconsciously developing (the dreaded)
    perfectionist mindset. Things like trying to get to a certain skill level, by
    comparing yourself to professionals, on the expense of actually enjoying the
    experience of getting there.

    Even recently, I noticed how I’d have
    tendencies to avoid writing blog content. And when I observed my underlying
    emotions; they were usually ones along the lines of “I don’t have the right,
    grammar, or vocabulary yet to write the post on the level in which it will best
    express my thoughts…I must first get better at my writing; so that I can write
    more good posts….etc”.

    This tendency came from, yet again,
    comparing myself to the other highly skilled lot out there, whose blogs I read…With
    their good grammar and use of language…like this one (‘he’s just good because
    he’s from England’…haha jokes).

    I’ve recently been experimenting with
    the philosophy of ‘comparing yourself to your past self’ in terms of the things
    I do daily in my life; rather than learning or skill attainment (well life in
    itself requires skills to play it well right?). And on days that I consciously
    do this; I’ve been feeling good about progress.

    How could this help in mastery?

    Maybe the act of consciously looking
    for proof of progress for the mind to see could help big time too. So in a way
    one can look at this thought process as something they have in common with the
    top performer being – they’re both always moving forward compared to where they
    were.

    I think thought patterns like these
    can help avoid you from getting de-motivated along the way.

    In conclusion

    It could be a combination of.

    Actively looking for the evidence of
    progress (to prove to your mind that the practice is worthwhile) + looking for
    the status quo to surpass + connecting with others within your range of skills
    + be inspired by the greats, keeping in mind that they weren’t born being that
    skilled.

    These are concepts I’m interested in
    experimenting with I wouldn’t call myself a master of any skills yet, except
    for speaking and walking, I trip and stutter my words sometimes so I’m still on
    the path of mastery haha.

    Cool article David, nice to bring in
    something like Goku’s Spirit Bomb to personal development to find creative ways
    to keep getting better instead of…Friezing feeling discouraged of your ability.

    - ThomaS

  • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

    The other day my friend and I were talking about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. (I practiced for a couple years, but not recently. He just started learning.) We both agreed that, in our experiences, when you’re a white belt, you can learn as much from a blue belt as you can from a black belt. You don’t need the best guy to teach you–just someone better than you. In fact, in many ways, it’s better to practice with blue belts, because they can push in practice without utterly demolishing you. Interesting to see that you came up with a similar conclusion regarding skill development.

  • Tipsy Pilgrim

    Good point I suppose— for those who have trouble with motivation and self-confidence. But there’s another reason that it can be useful to learn from the averagely competent as opposed to the stars. Frequently the stars in any given area were exceptionally gifted from the beginning, and as a result (not always, but often) have no concept of the difficulties facing the average or below-average people who want to learn the same skill. The best teachers and the highest performers are almost never the same people. (Almost. The dance instructor I introduced you to Wednesday is a major exception. ;) )

    • http://www.davidmansaray.com/ David Mansaray

      I agree. A top performer and teacher is rarely found in the same person.
      Thanks for stopping by. We must go dancing again sometime :D

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