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.

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