212: The Extra Degree of Bullshit (or Excellence is Asymptotic)

Telecommuting from my mountain hideaway, I’m blessed to be insulated from most biz-speak. I depend on my visits with my brother to tell me about the latest trends in useless business mumbo jumbo. As a former engineer and business strategist and current executive leadership, he hears a lot of it. He’s virtually a certified expert on biz-speak mumbo jumbo.

Anyway, I was telling him something and he made some sarcastic response along the lines of “Yeah, 212!” I had no idea what this was until he explained to me the mathematically and scientifically challenged metaphor behind 212: The Extra Degree. In essence, it goes like this. People muddle along trying to improve, not knowing how close they are to being truly excellent and achieving breakthrough, but they are at 211 degrees. Often they don’t realize that 212 degrees, and massive state change, is just around the corner. If they would push just a little bit more, they would achieve true excellence.

They love to say things like you’ll see in the YouTube video such as:

  • From 2000 to 2006, the average difference in PGA victories was 1.71 strokes.
  • In the 2004 Olympics, the 200m freestyle swim had margin of victory of .43 seconds (hey, in 2008, some swim events had a margin of victory of .01 seconds).

The implication being that these people who came in second were on the very brink of excellence, but they didn’t give that last one degree to get there. The problem is that this is based on a fundamental understanding of the asymptotic nature of excellence. Yes, of course, many people give up just shy of their goal, when it was well within reach. What I have seen more often, however, is people who are very good and pour time, energy and money into becoming excellent, feeling like they are so close, they are at 211 and they need to just push on a little longer to get to 212. Unfortunately, they sacrifice their health, marriage and other things and yet don’t get there. Why not? Because as I said (and we’ll get back to this), excellence is asymptotic. This is fundamental.

I don’t want to discourage people and tell themnot to achieve their best and strive for excellence. I just want people to understand what they are up against when striving for excellence. And I think the 212 thesis, as espoused is a poor metaphor. Boiling water, however, still makes a good, perhaps great metaphor for understanding what it’s going to take to shave that tiny margin between you and Numero Uno, be it Michael Phelps, Lance Armstrong, Google, or Federal Express.

As for 212, the unreasoning goes like this. If you have some water on the stove and you start adding heat, you take it from room cold water right out of the tap to 211 degrees and pretty much nothing happens. But if you go just a little farther, to 212 degrees, there is a state change, the water boils, real action takes place, nothing is the same. That little change makes all the difference. So in your sport/life/business/blog you have to keep pushing because sometimes you’re at 211 degrees without really knowing it and if you can go just a bit farther, success, riches, sex and unlimited ice cream await you.

There is the minor problem with the physics there and I think that the metaphor is even better, indeed much better, if you take the physics of boiling more seriously. When you take water from 211 degrees to 212 degrees, in fact nothing changes under standard, idealized conditions (i.e. the thermodynamic equivalent of the frictionless surface used in mechanics). This then leads us into the major problem of taking water from 212 degrees in liquid form, to 212 degrees in vapor form. Since the latent heat of vaporization is roughly 540 calories per gram, it turns out that the state change effect, which is “just a little farther”, is in fact a hell of a lot of work.  So it is with excellence. That last little bit between Tony Rominger and Miguel Indurain, a tiny difference that dominated cycling for several years, turned out to be insurmountable for Rominger because though there was only one degree between him and Indurain, it would have taken 540 calories per gram to get there, and Rominger didn’t have those 540 calories.  I admired Rominger for the dedication he put into it and he would never have been able to live with himself if he hadn’t given it his all, but it is important to know what one is up against.

To keep it all in metric, if the water out of your tap is 20 degrees, it takes 80 calories per gram to heat it to the boiling point. But, to actually get it to boil takes almost seven times the energy that it took to get it there. So you think you’re almost there, you’ve almost reached that pinnacle of unlimited ice cream, but whatever it took you to get where you are, you now have to be prepared to plow 6.75 times as much energy into it to achieve the state change.

In my experience as a historian, this pretty much correlates with what it really takes to push through to boiling and become one of the best at what you do. I read old manuscripts which can be very difficult to decipher. To get to the point where you can read 90% of the words and get the vague sense takes a couple of months. To be able to read 99% takes perhaps a year or two and you get the meaning right in 99.9% of the cases. To get to the point where you can decipher 99.99% of the words and are considered a leading expert and people come to you for help and advice seems to take some natural apptitude, dogged determination and a decade of focussed effort. If this is what you want more than anything else, then sure, pour yourself into it and see if you can make the cut, see if you have those 540 calories per gram to break through to the top ranks.

But we can only do that in perhaps one area in our lives. Maybe two. For most people, in most areas, it simply isn’t worth it to push form 211 to 212 degrees because of the massive amount of energy it takes to achieve state change.

Put another way, excellence is asymptotic in my experience. An asymptote is a curve that approaches a line, but will never touch it. In other words, the trip from beginner to not bad goes really fast. The trip from not bad to damn good takes quite a while. The trip from damn good to the best takes luck, aptititude and 540 calories per gram. The trip from the best to perfect can’t be attained short of divine intervention.

Now, you might at this point say that I’m missing the point, that the metaphor works in that there’s a point where you break through and stand out from the crowd and magic happens. I understand that, and I do not disagree. All I’m saying is that the temperature increase is not as good a metaphor for becoming the best as the metaphor of the energy required. When you take into account the actual physics of boiling water, the metaphor makes a lot more sense. Not that I care about the metaphor. I care about people understanding what it takes to really break through. The 212 people would have you believe that if you’ve gone from 112 to 211, you’re almost there and you only need to throw another one percent at it and you’ll be there. I would have you believe that it will take little effort to get from being the billionth best skier in the world to being the one hundred thousandth best, but to go from there to the thousandth best is going to be hard. And from the thousandth best to a top 100 skier is not going to happen, even though the difference between a billion and a thousand is a lot more than the difference between a thousand and a hundred. But because excellence is asymptotic, that move from 212 and water to 212 and vapor, the move from good to great, is all-consuming in most areas of life and most of us will, if we’re lucky, fight that battle successfully in one or two areas in our entire lives.

I remember a great magician I used to like to watch on the streets. Someone came up to him and said “You’re really good.” He said, “No, I’m great. Do you know the difference?” The difference is that it only took him 80 calories to be good. But long years of trial and practice, the investment of another 540 calories made him great. From incompetence to competence takes 80 calories. From competence to excellence takes 540 calories.

Marshall Goldsmith sees it altogether differently. He argues that it’s not that the amount of effort required for the state change is massively different, but that more of the same will typically not get you there at all. He’s the author of the top-selling success guide What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful. To stay with the 212 metaphor, Goldsmith thinks that it actually takes different skills to make a huge leap like the one from liquid to gas than the skills it took to get you from cold to hot.

Seth Godin offers what I see as a much more compelling metaphor, that of The Dip in his book The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (And When to Stick). According to Seth, we start something and make rapid progress and get amped up and excited because progress is clear and evident. It’s motivating and encouraging. But then we reach the end of the easy part of the learning curve and we settle into the workaday grind of taking our idea or dream to fruition. At this stage we struggle and the end seems to get further away rather than closer. This is The Dip. At this point, we are faced with a choice: give up or push on.And here’s where I think Seth makes a lot more sense than the 212ers. Seth thinks both paths are reasonable. You have to decide whether or not you’re in The Dip and if you keep pushing through, you’ll bring your dreams to fruition, or you’re in the Cul-De-Sac and you need to cut your losses and move on.

If you aren’t ready to give what it takes (that is, the 540 calories per gram), you’re better off quitting. We only have so much energy and we can’t be the best at everything. Seth says it’s simply wrong to say winners never quit and quitters never win. Rather, those who know when to quit and when to push on will become the big winners. Those who always quit when the going gets tough will never win. But those who never quit when the going gets tough may occasionally have a big win, but they will likely also dissipate much of their lives’ energy driving deeper into the Cul-De-Sacs. The key is knowing when to quit and when not to.

And this is the issue I have with the whole 212 thing. It basically falls into the “winners never quit” model and that’s just plain wrong. The problem with the 212ers is not flawed logic but bad information with the consequence that they don’t know when to give up. They don’t know that they’ve become competent, but they do not know whether they are in The Dip or The Cul-de-Sac.

I sing the praise of mediocrity in most endeavours (alas, that’s another topic, but I am not being facetious), not because I believe people should be mediocre. Rather, I believe they should be excellent, but they need to realize that they have only enough energy for excellence at one or two things, and it is to those things they should give their 540 calories. In other areas, we should strive for mediocrity, not to be mediocre, but to husband our energy for those few projects where we will, where we must, achieve excellence. Mostly, though, I accept mediocrity for the simple reason that I understand how many calories are required for a state change and I know that I can only pour those calories into a few things and I had better be damn sure they really matter. 540 calories hurts! And if Marshall Goldsmith is right, more won’t help anyway. What is required is different.

Is it worth it to try to make the water boil?

[UPDATE. This article seems to piss off a lot of people. Go ahead and vent here, but let me ask you for a couple of favors.

  1. Yes, I understand, nobody cares about the physics. I don’t either. I care about the messages we send to people. I care about selling false dreams. I care about encouraging people to pour unlimited energy into chasing chimera. I propose a different metaphor not because I care about the metaphor, but because I care about people living fulfulling lives. See my response to “212”.
  2. Before you tell me I have taken this literally and have twisted and misunderstood this simple message, please read my response to Mike.
  3. Before you say I don’t understand and you should just keep pushing for that last little bit, see my response to “is it worth it”.
  4. Have a look at Trevor’s comment, just because it’s really good and he’s obviously a lot smarter than I am.
  5. Also, check out Wayne’s perceptive criticism of this article — the best counter argument so far to what I present here. Essentially, Wayne says the sports examples, which are what I key into, are just unfortunate and if you take those away and look at it in more normal contexts, the whole thing makes more sense. I can buy that.
  6. Finally, I will say that I’m surrounded by people who are driven. My friends include noted researchers, pro athletes, top physicians, pro photographers and writers. This is probably not typical, but I tend to see people who hang on too long, rather than people who give up too easily. That conditions my view and some who are teachers, dealing with people who give up too easily may justifiably have a different reaction to the 212.

57 Responses to “212: The Extra Degree of Bullshit (or Excellence is Asymptotic)”

  1. This is a live example of success. And from the story it is for sure that more the people think motivately they taste the fruits of success very soon. Thus to succeed in life and become successful entrepreneur great guidance and help is very essential.

  2. i really like this article it urges me not to give up and to go forward in everything i undertake to do.It really motivates me.Thank you for this article

  3. Glad to hear it Mirado! I don’t intend to demotivate people, though many have read it that way. I simply want people to know how difficult it is to break through to excellence, know what they are up against, and make their decisions strategically. You need to choose your battles, know when to quit and when to push on through.

  4. anonymous

    Had to sit through this ‘training’ today. Got a big grin out of this site – thanks!

  5. Well, I’m glad you’re all trained up on this. Watch out world! Anonymous knows how to dominate now!

  6. is it worth it

    If you ask at the end of your writing that “Is it worth it to try to make the water boil?”. Then you’re telling me that it MIGHT not be the one thing you’re looking for. If, and I say if, the thing is what you’ve been looking for all these years, would you rather give it a miss? Or will you do anything to burn that extra 540 calories? Think about it.

  7. Yeah, that’s exactly my point “is it worth it”. If

    1. It’s the thing that will really move you and the payoff, in whatever form it takes, is worth it
    2. It’s something that you can actually achieve

    But you MUST understand that it isn’t “that last little bit” that separates really good from the best, very good from great. It’s actually that HUGE effort that takes you from good to great, from competence to Mastery.

    In many areas of life, we only want Good or Competence (in my case, cooking, for example).

    What I object to is telling people that when you’ve reached the 211 degree level, you’re almost there. You’re not!

    Think about a professional sport. There are millions of tennis players. Let’s say that worldwide, 212 million people play tennis. That means that if you’re at the 211 degree level, there are one million people who are as good as you. Now, if you’re reasonably athletic, it isn’t *that* hard to reach the 99th percentile in performance. But the 212 degree level, the level that makes you good enough to become a pro takes TREMENDOUS effort and probably good genetics. It isn’t just that one little bit. It’s that huge extra bit.

    So my point is that expertise, mastery, greatness are ASYMPTOTIC. That last bit is not just one more degree.In fact, it’s harder to achieve than everything that went before. I’m not saying don’t go for it. I’m saying understand what it implies to go for it. It’s rarely what you’ve been doing plus a little bit. The 212 video implies that 0.43 seconds is just a little bit in the 200m freestyle, but again, it’s asymptotic. The world record for that event is currently 1:42.00, but it took the best swimmers in the world 37 years to bring it down from 1:52.78. Meanwhile, to go from 2:30 to 2:20 took only ten years. As we approach the asymptote, it gets harder and harder and 0.43 is not an insignificant amount of time. Whereas I could probably take a minute off my 200 meter time without great effort.

    That’s why I think this whole 212 thing misleads people about what it really takes to be excellent.

  8. You are completely missing the point. In order to get to 212 degrees, you have to be at 211 degrees at a certain stage. That means that you have to have that will, drive, and motivation to keep the water hot at 211. That one extra degree, that one extra push of determination, will decide if the water remains hot or boiling. So you have to remain consistent and then have the will and focus(f)ollow (o)ne (c)ourse (u)ntil (s)uccessful) to reach 212 degrees. I will give you an example. Here in NYC we had a major snow storm. My father had to pick up my mom from work and we had to shovel his car out of the snow. Along the way(a block away) on the road, his car got stuck…his tires wouldn’t move…we had to literally push his car out..in the middle of the road..it toke me and my bother 2 minutes and we were pushing the back of car non stop and then we gave that extra push and the car was able to get out of the snow. It toke drive, consistently and determination. Be we got it done. 212 degrees! Understand the message!

  9. 212 degrees remind us of what usually separates those who are successful from those who are not. . . the ability to keep going and moving forward in the face of difficult odds or lack of visible results. Often the results we seek are “just around the corner” if we persist and don’t give up!
    A perfect analogy is water. At 212 degrees Fahrenheit, water will boil. But if you stop heating water at 211 degrees, you will not reach the goal of boiling. . . THAT is the difference a single degree more can make!

  10. No, you are missing the point. The difference between water boiling and not boiling is not one small degree. This claptrap is both misunderstanding the physics of boiling water and the difficulty of achieving excellence.

    One degree makes no difference. If I add one calorie to one gram of water, I take it from 211 to 212 and NOT boiling. If I then want to get that water to actually boil, I need to add another 540 calories.

    So it is with excellence. Going from looking almost like the person who has achieved breakthrough, to actually achieving it yourself takes 540 calories, not just one.

    I have seen many people waste their lives thinking breakthrough was just around the corner, unable to see that the one degree of difference between them and the person they are chasing, actually takes 541 calories of energy to achieve.

  11. Annette

    If it were easy, everyone would be in the top 90%. How’s THAT for statistical logic.

    Lottery Winners are few, the Lottery-Winner-wannabes are many.

  12. At 212 degrees, the liquid begins to turn into gas (aka boil). At >212 degrees, all of the liquid is now in gas form. Therefore, you could see it as attaining perfection all the time (all liquid goes to vapor) takes a lot more energy.

  13. Michelle

    You missed the point!

    I teach 6th graders and shared the video and the theology of this thinking to them this year on their level where they could grasp it! Let me tell you, they are running with it in ways that makes me proud to spend my day with them. 50 kids who have historically not met the standard in their educational careers are motivated, encouraged and optimistic! This 212 thinking put everything right there where they could understand it and it give us a “home-base” of thinking to return to everyday, in every aspect of what we do!
    They are thinking about their effort everyday when they didn’t before. They are encouraging each other and believing that the choices they make today will have great effect on their tomorrow!
    I love this program! I love my principal for allowing me to bring it to my campus and I love people who are creative enough to make motivation so easily communicated!! Sorry you missed the point! It’s so wonderful that I thought everyone could get it!

  14. I’m happy for your sixth graders, but I did NOT miss the point. I think this is claptrap bullshit. If it motivates sixth graders to go from underperforming to really good students, great! But the whole premise that there is a tiny difference between 211-degree water and 212-degree vapor, or between really good and the best, is just plain idiotic. The difference between really, really good and the best is, in fact, huge because those differences are asymptotic.

  15. Look…nobody cares about the physics and how much energy it takes to raise the temperature of water from 211 to 212 degrees. The point is that everyone understands the difference in 1 degree and everyone understands the difference between hot water and boiling water. Furthermore, no one is saying that it is easy to get that last degree. Actually its quite the contrary. The message is that it may take lots of extra work to get you to greatness, but dont give up and dont quit. Keep working hard because you never know when you will get there. Yes, you did completely miss the point, and no you cant heat water to 212F WITHOUT it boiling under standard conditions. You would actually have to remove energy from it to stop it from boiling.

  16. Hey “dude”, I know I’m not going to convince you, but I do have a question for all the people who are arguing with me. Have you ever been the internationally recognized for being one of the top people in the world at something? Have you then tried to become internationally recognized in a second thing?

    Anyway, let’s look at a few of your points.

    1. “nobody cares about the physics”.
    Exactly, we live in culture of innumeracy and people don’t care about or understand the physics. That’s why facile and misleading metaphors like this claptrap get pawned off on people and they think it’s meaningful.

    2. “You can’t heat water to 212F without it boiling under standard conditions.” Yes, you can. The phase change occurs at 100C and water can exist as either liquid or vapor at that temperature. A pot of boiling water is mostly liquid and only a small bit is vapor. This is precisely because water can exist in both states at 212. The difference between boiling and not boiling is NOT one small degree, it is 540 calories per gram, or 5.4 times as much energy as it took to get it from the freezing point to the boiling point. This isn’t just pedantic physics, it’s actually a more accurate metaphor of what greatness takes.

    3. “No one is saying that it is easy to get that last degree”.
    Oh really? Acutally, they portray the whole thing as being just that “last little bit” that separates the great from the almost great. But that just simply IS NOT TRUE. Sorry dude, but I repeat, it IS NOT TRUE. The difference between Michael Phelps and everyone else in the Olympics is huge, but the perpetrators of this claptrap emphasize that the margin of victory in Olympic swimming is “small”. But that’s only if you believe that to go from liquid to boiling takes just one small degree. That is true, but it also takes a HUGE amount of energy. In a “skills” context rather than a huge amount of energy it takes time and, in most cases, inborn ability that you may or may not have, and probably some luck.

    4. “Don’t give up and don’t quit.”
    This is where I think this claptrap is dangerous. I see people who are obsessed with being great, or even really good at something where they just aren’t that talented. They go to the rock climbing gym every night. They go climbing every weekend. They hardly see their kids grow up. They get divorced. They suffer in other ways. And yet, they persist, because they think they’re going to get there. But they won’t. They don’t have the talent. If they decided to be mediocre rock climbers, they would have more balanced and fulfilled lives. I’ve seen people in academia bounce form job to job, scrambling to publish always feeling like they’re “just one degree” from a breakthrough to a permanent academic job. In fact, roughly half in humanities will not get that job and I’ve seen some put in incredible effort for a dozen years without making it happen. They would have been happier if they had recognized how the cards lay and moved on.

    I hear young people constantly advised to “do what you love and the money will follow.” No, IT WILL NOT. If I love writing novels, the chances are less than 1000 to 1 that the money will *ever* follow. If I love to write poetry, the chances drop to a million to one. It isn’t a matter of not giving up, of pushing that one last degree. It’s literally a matter of adding that last 540 calories, which is more calories than you have in your calorie bank. You may be the exception, but I can say with near certainty: YOU ARE NOT GOING TO MAKE A LIVING AS A POET NO MATTER HOW MUCH 212 DEGREE SELF-HELP CLAPTRAP YOU READ. Sorry, but those are the facts.

    I find Seth Godin’s idea of the dip vastly more compelling. Seth basically says that any time we try something new, we will have a euphoric beginning where we’re in the fast learning phase. Then it starts to get hard and we have to decide whether or not to persevere. Sometimes it makes sense to push through the dip and get to the point where one has “made it”, but sometimes it simply does not make sense. You see in the dip that you do not have the skills, resources, talent, innate ability, time, motivation or whatever it would take to push through the dip. At that point, you need to cut the cord, recognize that you have a sunk cost, and move on.

  17. First time I heard the 212 concept, saw the video, I was inspired by the idea, didn’t cross my mind that the physics were wrong because it didn’t cross my mind that it was trying to be literal! There may be a few half truths here and there in it, which makes it more of a “belief” than a science – and I don’t think that just because it flashes a few statistics that it’s trying to pass itself off as a science, so I’m siding with belief. And with every belief, you have a choice to subsribe to it or not, or be inspired from it, or take away your own personal ideas from it, or in your case… dissect it literally. I don’t think this “claptrap” is trying to herd sheep the way that “the law of attraction” is, I think its just a simple concept to illustrate human potential – take it or leave it. Maybe your seminar went into excruciating and unnecassary detail, I don’t know. Or maybe I’m too passive, who knows..

    Ending your game of golf with a few less strokes every year hardly burns more calories… strategically stepping on the gas pedal and brake pedal, etc of a race car hardly burns more calories..

    Ben Zander has a wonderful speech on Ted.com about the Art of Possibility. He’s a musician and at one point, he talks about Children learning music and how many give up when they think they plateau and get frustrated, little do they know, that just a little while longer could lead to a giant leap in musical ability. Also read this book “The Biology of Belief” – can’t say I agree with all of it, but what I did find interesting is that we have a biochemical response to that moment when we feel like we “can” win, actually its demonstrated well here.. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D4szSGuWH6g.
    These concepts and more are what I have gleaned from this metaphor, that we have persist consistently, practice, repeat, analyse, and if we want excellence (key is IF WE WANT) – we’ll have to take a critical look at our efforts, perhaps a little more push, a little more focus, a little more practice, a fine tune, a tweak, is all we need to push to a new level, if we so choose. The way I’m explaining it sounds more like Seth Godin’s idea – I know – but I never once saw the 212 concept as a magic quick fix.

  18. Michelle

    Love this for many reasons.

    Primary substantive: “This is where I think this claptrap is dangerous. I see people who are obsessed with being great, or even really good at something where they just aren’t that talented. They go to the rock climbing gym every night. They go climbing every weekend. They hardly see their kids grow up. They get divorced. They suffer in other ways. And yet, they persist, because they think they’re going to get there. But they won’t. They don’t have the talent. If they decided to be mediocre rock climbers, they would have more balanced and fulfilled lives.”

    Favorite stylistic: “if you can go just a bit farther, success, riches, sex and unlimited ice cream await you”

  19. Trevor – Cool stuff! I hadn’t seen the Ben Zander talk (I’m a big fan of TED talks). He’s a hoot. And inspirational. Favorite quote: “I realized my job was to awaken possibility in other people.”

    Michelle – Thanks for the kind words. Glad you liked it! The second of your excerpts make me think how different my life would have been if I had prioritized success, riches and sex more and ice cream less. But then I would have missed out on so much ice cream.

  20. Wow, Tom. Your literal interpretation of 212 and your lengthy attempt to debunk the message is disappointing. The message of 212 is exert yourself, take responsibility and know that success does not come easily. Only a few will reach the pinnacle of success, but that doesn’t mean all the rest should accept mediocrity or quit trying.

    You have completely twisted a very simple message.

  21. Mike,

    I don’t say people shouldn’t strive for excellence, but that they should be strategic about it and understand what is involved in the quest. Other than that…

    1. My interpretation is not literal. It substitutes one metaphor for another. Or rather, it takes the metaphor of boiling water and looks at the energy and not the temperature, because I think that provides a better metaphor. Metaphors are tools to help us think and understand, and I think the energy metaphor is a better tool.

    2.”Only a few will reach the pinnacle of success, but that doesn’t mean all the rest should accept mediocrity or quit trying.”

    Again, I don’t say you shouldn’t strive for excellence in an area that is vitally important to you. But this is not the message I get from the video. The video goes on and on about the *tiny* differences between the best and the second best. I don’t believe those differences are tiny and someone who wants to achieve greatness needs to go into eyes wide open. That implies understanding what will be demanded of them and, again, to be strategic and, in the immortal words of Kenny Rogers, know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. If you don’t know when to fold ’em, you’ll never achieve excellence.

    3. “You have completely twisted a very simple message.”

    I have analyzed a very simple message. That message, as shown in the video, is that the difference between true excellence and an also-ran is the tiniest margin and that with just a tiny bit of extra effort, just one more degree, you could have been the best and so you have to stick to it, keep striving, even in the face of constantly losing out to Number One.

    Tell me, is that or is that not the message?

    Now, my objection to it is that this fails to understand that excellence is asymptotic. It fails to understand that there is a strategy to know when to give up and when to press on in hopes of success, when you’re in The Cul-de-Sac and when you’re in The Dip. Knowing the asymptotic nature of excellence is fundamental for anyone who wants to achieve it.

    The question is not are you willing to give an extra degree, but are you willing to get an extra 540 calories per gram? I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying you have to decide whether or not it’s worth 540 calories and not delude yourself into chasing the dream because you’re only one degree away. You are not.

    The failure to recognize what makes the best the best and the difference between the best and the rest is why I call this claptrap and will persist in doing so, no matter how comfortable this metaphor makes you feel.

  22. “That message, as shown in the video, is that the difference between true excellence and an also-ran is the tiniest margin and that with just a tiny bit of extra effort, just one more degree, you could have been the best and so you have to stick to it, keep striving, even in the face of constantly losing out to Number One.

    Tell me, is that or is that not the message?”

    No, I don’t believe that this is the message.

    The real message comes later in the movie, after the examples of how close the margin is from first to second.

    The real message is, “You are responsible for your results.”

    It says it quite plainly on the screen. The real message is that you determine if you want something and how badly you want it. The real message is whatever you want, you do have to work for it.

    I do recognize that your metaphor is more scientifically accurate, but the 212 degree movie is a motivational movie for the average Joe. It’s not a science movie. And it’s not a motivational tool for an Olympic athlete. If I wanted to motivate an Olympic athlete to keep pushing, I would use your more accurate metaphor. If I want to motivate a group a sixth graders, this is tool I would use.

    My grip with the 212 degree movie would be those sports examples. In any sport, your success depends on someone else’s failure, and that is a poor measure of success. In sixth grade, everyone can achieve success even if no one fails.

    Your personal success lies in where you set your goals. If you set your goal to be able to cook well enough not to starve, then you have been successful. If you set your goal to be able to play a Bach concerto, you can do that without making it to Carnegie Hall. If you set your goal to be the quarterback of the Superbowl winning Indianapolis Colts – well, good luck with that.

    The goal of the video is to motivate you to change your attitude and work ethic. If I’m trying to motivate you to work a little harder, I’m not going to make it sound too hard.

    That may not be good science, but it is motivational.

  23. Wayne, I find that to be a compelling response. I’m glad you took the time to try to understand my point before just trashing it.

    Your response makes me a bit more predisposed to the whole 212 thing. I think you’re right that I was put off by the sports examples, because if you’re talking about winning the Olympics or the PGA as the video does, my view is right.

    If you’re talking about motivating a sixth grader to make it to seventh grade and then on to college, that’s a different matter. I think it’s important that they know how hard it is to be the best, but yes, it’s also important that they know that it is possible, with effort, to excel.

  24. 212 is RIDICULOUS! Of course any company or individual can attain the last 1% to get to 100% if you have unlimited time and resources! But at some point, the extra cost outweighs the benefits!

    I work for a CPG company, and we would never put our KPI metrics for perfect orders or shipped ontime to be 100%. Why? Because you’d end up having to spend more in inventory, people, etc. and for what?

    People who believe in this stuff don’t have the ability to have independent, critical thinking to make judgements when it’s worth to make an effort, and when not!

    This 212 BS is the dumbest thing ever. It sounds so catchy and sexy, and seems like a great motivational thing, but in reality it doesn’t work.

  25. Ha! Well, this post sure seems to strike a chord! Of course, that is pretty much my point too.

  26. Thomas

    Tom i will use this 212 degree motivation theory with my football team this year. I totally agree with Mike at #20.

  27. I agree with you Tom.

    Here’s another thing that pisses me off about the assumptiveness of the whole thing. Every time that Roger Federer lost a Final, are we suggesting that he didn’t push enough? That one extra degree would have done it for him?

    I agree with your point about Goldsmith. What Federer needs to do is different stuff, not try harder at more of the same.

    Interesting point about husbanding one’s energies. Cheers to mediocrity! Cheers to excellence!

  28. Katherine

    What I find interesting about this post and all responses is another little factoid…212 was written, produced by a salesperson/company. It’s sexy and simple because that’s what it took to sell the concept.

    And it worked.

    It’s still working.

    Businesswise, you can’t say that Give More Media [used to be several other names] did not produce a profitable message. I’m sure there are Tony Robbins-esque speaking engagements and logo’d items out of this.

    Which really is the point. Find a concept, sell it. Make it simple and sexy and people will buy it.

    212 degrees = a success.

    You’re talking about it aren’t you?

    ~ Katherine

  29. Matt Simpson

    The 212 Degrees sham is like most other business buzzwords and “motivational tool” – a pile of horse manure. It if phony motivation for the clueless sheep. No wonder it came from sales people – the big talkers who never really do any work. This 212 nonsense was foisted on our company by the VP of Sales. “To drive business”. For all the people who work hard every day and actually do the work that took the water from 0 to 211 degrees this is actually demotivating. We know what it takes to get the job done right, we do all the hard work that makes the customer happy – the sales people just get to take the customer out for drinks and cash a nice bonus check when everyone else completes the work. If you fall for this 212 nonsense, you are in a clueless company that is already failing and your manager is an idiot for wasting money on a deck of 212 cards and some de-motivating posters to hang around the office.

  30. Ah yes, Katherine, I am talking about it, so you’ve got me there. I am glad to see a few people who share my view commenting though. It’s been a while!

  31. Tom, you should write a book called “540 Degrees – the Asymptotic Curve to Excellence” and send me some of the profits ;-).

  32. …and, guys, don’t forget about the “placebo” effect. Some thing s work for some people just because they believe they work.

  33. …and one more thing about Olympic athletes… many of them really compete against themselves (example Michael Phelps)…

  34. Thanks for the post…. I really enjoyed reading it. You make a lot of sense and its good to see people questioning these big gimmicks! Sure, the ideas are fine to motivate people, but for a lot of “mediocre” people it can be very depressing when the ideas fail to work.

  35. I don’t know what was more interesting, the 212° myth or your article. Sadly it would appear there are many persons/companies coming up with ways of getting you to strive harder and mostly for their benefit. Having your own business may/should encourage you to succeed however when you are working for the man (company) the real benefactor is the company. Often is the case that people are promoted purely on a “kiss ass” method rather than their hard work and contribution. The company I just left (after 14 years) expanded into the American market sometime back around 2000, it wasn’t long after, that new buzz words started to appear around the office. To my dismay even persons that I thought were quite switched on started spewing out this rhetoric; we were even asked to read the different literature on how to succeed. The sad thing was, it wasn’t too long before that what we were reading was old news, out of date and a new buzz word had superseded it. The fact is these types of seminars often suite people that need their ego stroked or believe they need to be pushed, there will always be people who will go that extra degree regardless of what they read (or forced to read) just because we are all different. I applaud those who try hard and will give anything ago to climb the corporate ladder, however ask yourself this; is there someone who works alongside you, who you believe hasn’t put in the extra degree yet has tasted the spoils of success! Or has that person achieved that status purely because they are more liked by their manager more than you? Many companies reward mediocrity and when it turns to shit will blame the someone else, if only it was that simple to move from 212° to steam then there would be no global financial crises.

  36. Thanks for the long comment and sorry for the delayed response. This one got by me. Interesting perspective on the motivations for trickling this down through the corporate environment.

  37. Haaaa! Loved this. So absolutely true! Reminds me of losing massive weight (60+ lbs). The first 40 lbs are a piece of cake. The last 10-20lbs however… er, about 54,000 calories per gram hahah! Viva la logic! I’m so done with these corny self-help motivational cliched phrases. I’m all for excellence, but we have to be realistic. Do you want to play piano like Rachmaninoff? Forget having a functional family and forget having sanity. Those are the things that get sacrificed with that 1 degree…

  38. Anonymous

    I think you should call this article “how to take a cute little motivational concept and throw it on the ground and ass fuck it to death”

    Jeez tom. Lighten up buddy!!

  39. Anonymous

    Oops. forgive my cursing. My appoligies Tom. You can replace it with analyze it to death. I will say, i agree with Tom on his side of things, but hes obviously way smarter than all of us.

    I’ll continue to be stupid and enjoy the simple message.

  40. Charles Parker

    This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the context of books like the “Tiger Mother” that encourage you to constantly push your children’s limits in all things.

    Perhaps another way of thinking about this is not that one should strive for mediocrity, but that one should strive for absolute excellence in time and resource management, and high competence in all endeavors. Said another way, suppose you meet someone who is in the top thousand in the world at table tennis. Now suppose you meet someone who is among the hundred thousand best in the world at ten different activities. Will you judge the second person to be inferior because they have achieved less excellence, or are they superior because they’ve become highly competent at more things, acquired more skills to the benefit of themselves and others, and perhaps led a richer life in the process?

    That question is impossible to answer for everyone in the same way, and yet too many people seem unaware that, anytime they strive to do better at anything, they are making this implicit trade off: To become better at one thing, you decide to become no better at anything else.

  41. Thank you!! I was given this book on my first day of work as a sort of intro to our book club. It was so poorly written that I began to count the number of times the author uses “exponential(ly)” in his scant eight or so half-pages of text. (Seven times, if anyone cares). The book frustrated me so much that I threw it right in the trash after I finished it. (And then I felt like a jerk because it was a gift and I shouldn’t have been so ungrateful.) But it really is a good example of the worst kind of buzz wordy self help and motivational systems– empty platitudes that read like a bunch of greeting cards or motivational posters stapled together, based on skin deep philosophies that offer no real insight into the human condition and no understanding what it takes to live a successful, fulfilling life.
    Thanks for the other book recommendations. I’ll be checking them out, and perhaps I’ll even recommend them to our book club.

  42. Thanks Cat – comments like that make it worthwhile! If you have a minute and you read one of the other books, come back and comment. It’s okay if you hate them – always good to have another opinion either way.

  43. Anonymous

    This whole article makes me laugh…for good reason. 3 years ago, my company got us all inspired on the 212 theory, and me, being a no limits kind of girl, took right to it. I took to it so much so that a few months later, in a drunken state, I had it tattooed to my leg. People always ask me what the 212 means, and I explain it, and laugh. Over the last year, I’ve depleted all my energies and health in my no limits lifestyle and have had to relearn how to prioritize my life differently. I’ve been wanting to add to my tattoo, especially since I no longer subscribe to the idea that we can have everything, by adding the quote “You can have anything you want, but you can’t have everything.” It’ll show the growth I’ve come in understanding in my own life exactly what you spell out here. You only have the energy to become excellent at one or two things. Choose them wisely. Thanks for the read!

  44. Thanks anonymous! The 212 fad must have run its course. The comments seem to have shifted from generally negative to generally positive, whatever that means. Maybe it just means that Google is getting uncannily good at knowing our preferences and the 212 lovers just never get sent here anymore.

  45. Hollytheriot

    After reading these posts and so much time has passed, I just wanna say that the message I got from 212 was pretty simplistic…..hope.

  46. I enjoyed this 2008 post very much. In life, it is not possible to excel in everything. We have to prioritize and decide which areas we want to excel in. If we want a successful family, we spend more time to grow relationships and be involved with family activities. If we want to grow financial fortune, we spend more time working at our biz/job/career/investments. If we want to build a muscular body, we spend more time training and working out. Time is finite. Define the more important things we want first, then pour in effort to excel. It is not possible to excel in everything, but very possible to excel in a few things – the few things that we decide and stay committed to. Quitting and saying no is part of the deal to excellence. The 540 calories sometimes come with huge sacrifice (other areas suffer), so choose our decisions and commitments well.

  47. Thanks Deb! Glad you liked it. It’s pretty old now, but I don’t think the principle is different. You’re exactly right – quitting and saying no is part of the deal. We can’t commit to everything and sometimes the push for excellence comes at too great a sacrifice for the pay off.

  48. xpositor

    Someone had “212 attitude” on their LinkedIn profile, and never having heard of it before did some Googling and ended up here! Great piece by the way. But something nobody seems to have picked up on what boiling actually is…

    The boiling point of a substance is the temperature at which the vapour pressure of the liquid equals the pressure surrounding the liquid and the liquid changes into a vapour. 100 degrees (sorry, 212) is the temperature that water boils at under normal pressure, ie one atmosphere, or one bar. At higher pressure, it will take a higher temperature for it to boil. And likewise, at a lower pressure the water will boil at a lower temperature.

    The implication is, therefore, that when we are under greater pressure as individuals, it will take even more effort to get to boiling point, requiring even greater energy. The closer you get to “success”, the greater pressure you will come under, pushing that target further away (and mirroring your asymptotic reference).

    As an analogy then, the 212 theory in my mind fails, and I can inwardly mock further LinkedIn references to it.

  49. Love it!

    As I pointed out, the thing is the actual physics of boiling is a better metaphor for what it takes to reach the top and now you’ve put a fine point on it!

  50. just as you can ask your children “what do you want to be when… ” and they answer pilot (need to be gifted in science and great reflex, selection tough and easy to lose your job), doctor (need science, math, and… good financial support), professional golfer (….),
    I can go on and onto tell you that to be a champion takes only one position, under you already are sub-champion,

    A hole nation says “we are the champions”, ” we are number one”,…they are 300million and only privileged people get to have a social situation to be number one,

    Now this been said, there is no reason to destroy hopes, there will always be a number one only, but by far I will prefer to leave in s society where everybody keeps the hope to be number one, rather than been in a place where once the number one been known, we can stop making efforts as the game is done.

    Just to take everybody out of the box, with very different examples, it is better to live in a place where I believe I can vote for our leader instead of seen that next leader is the son of the previous leader.

    We can capitalise for the 212F motivation on the simple fact that there is no free lunch, and this goes both sides: no one can be a champion for ever, and you cannot become a champion because your dad decide so, but because of your own work…maybe.

    As for the boiling water, it is a pity that Tom wrote too much without adding more value for a historian by training (what boiling water teaches us from the past) with even more surprising that his brother (engineer), didn’t bring the best points: what history and engineering together teach about boiling water:

    * boiled water can save lives in contaminated environments.
    * boiling water is probably the 20% process that brings 80% of our meals eatable worldwide.
    * there are smart ways to boil water, so the point is not about the energy needed but the source of the energy.
    By the way:
    * steam machines are obsolete for at least 50 years.

    PS: Don’t take me seriously, I don’t. Just trying to show you another perspective.

  51. Well thanks for the perspective. To repeat, though, I don’t have any problem with people trying to be the best. I have a problem with people making bad choices.

  52. success is luck

    Love the article. Motivation leaves out external forces which many fail to mention. To throw a wrench in the 212 bs compare someone in high altitude snow and rain with wet wood trying to boil water vs someone in a dry desert with record heat. Many times the 1 degree is not in our control. Maybe someone is successful and wealthy because they sold their company the day before the internet bubble crashed.

  53. There’s that too. I think that’s what I mean when I say that no matter how dedicated I am to playing in the NBA, it isn’t going to happen.

  54. I first heard this bs last night as my child’s freshman high school orientation and looked up your page today. Thanks for the article. Most people are trying to keep themselves and their children above room temperature. He He He. There is quite a curve to move through for most achievements to arrive at competency or completion as in projects. 212 assumes everyone works through the curve to completion in their lives and just needs to give that extra degree. This is not my observation. It is impossible to achieve perfection. Greatness is a product of talent, motivation, devotion and work. There were a lot of distractions in the form of mediocre clubs and activities and the expectation to be an accomplished student as well. 212 was engraved in places…. Ug….

  55. Thanks for the awesome story! I’m kind of amazed how many people are subjected to this and then end up here. I should try to figure out how many visits this page gets :-)

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