How to Become Brilliant with Basic Habits of Excellence

How to Become Brilliant with Basic Habits of Excellence

In his book Call Sign Chaos, former Secretary of Defense General Jim Mattis urges anyone who wants to excel to “Be brilliant with the basics.” Certainly, it's important to become technically proficient and to accumulate experience on your path to mastery. But to Mattis's point, even as you progress, there are some elemental practices that can remain central to how you treat others, approach your craft, and apply diligence to the basics daily. In this post, we'll share some proven strategies from three experts who learned long ago that the fundamentals remain key no matter how high you soar. 

Making Every Detail Matter

When the British and Irish Lions (a combination of the best rugby union players from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) toured New Zealand in 2005, they were crushed by the mighty All Blacks. Eight years later when coach Warren Gatland readied his squad to do battle again with Australia, veteran leader and former captain Paul O’Connell stood up and said, “Let's be the best at everything that requires no talent.” He realized that while it was the tries, conversions, and penalties that would put points on the scoreboard, every pass, tackle, and lineout would contribute to the end result.

Similarly, while they might seem inconsequential at the time, each training drill would be either reinforcing all-out effort or a half-hearted approach that would inevitably carry over into game day. It wasn’t just the players who took O’Connell’s advice to heart as they prepared to face Australia, but also the coaching staff. The Lions went on to win the series with the Wallabies 2-1, with O’Connell showing extraordinary determination to stay on the field after breaking his arm in the first test. According to Gatland, the big Irishman’s words still ring true. “It is a piece of advice I use to this very day,” he said.

O’Connell didn’t just preach being detail-oriented – he practiced it daily. In an interview with OTB Sports, his former Ireland teammate Brian O’Driscoll recalled that O’Connell’s dedication to the particulars of his craft not only took his own performances on the pitch to new heights, but also provided a valuable type of unspoken leadership. "He drove that standard to another level altogether,” O’Driscoll said. “What set him apart was his constant need to get better every single year, year on year. Always trying to hone his own skills, his physical attributes, his diet; he was such a stickler for that.”

Harnessing the Mamba Mentality

It’s easy to look at the very best athletes in the world doing something incredible that becomes a career-defining highlight – like Roger Federer hitting a volley between his legs, Chloe Kim becoming the first woman to pull off back-to-back 1080s in the halfpipe, or Christiano Ronaldo beating the soccer scoring world record – and think that they were just born with that kind of jaw-dropping talent. But while such captivating performers do have an innate ability and instinct to pull off the seemingly impossible, they’re only able to fully express their skills because of the work they put in during thousands of unseen hours.  Most of these are spent repeating the fundamentals of their craft rather than rehearsing flashy highlights.

In his insightful book Raise Your Game, Alan Stein Jr. illustrated this point by recounting what he observed when he watched Kobe Bryant practice for the first time:

For forty-five minutes I was shocked. For forty-five minutes I watched the best player in the world do the most basic drills. I watched the best player on the planet do basic ball-handling drills. I watched the best player on the planet do basic footwork. I watched the best player on the planet do basic offensive moves. Granted, he did everything with surgical precision and superhero intensity, but the stuff he was doing was so simple. I couldn’t believe it. Later that day I went over to him. “Thanks again,” I said. “I really enjoyed watching your workout this morning.”

“No problem,” Kobe replied. Then I hesitated, not wanting to sound rude – or worse – condescending. “You’re the best player in the world. Why do such basic stuff?”

He flashed that gleaming smile of his. “Why do you think I’m the best player in the game?” he asked. “Because I never get bored with the basics.” He knew that if his footwork was not razor sharp, then the rest of the move would never be as good as it could be. And he knew that the only way to do that was through sheer repetition. Kobe had such an understanding of building things step by step, brick by brick; he worshipped at the altar of the basics. If someone at Kobe’s level needs to commit hours to practicing the fundamentals, then so do all of us. Kobe taught me a pivotal lesson that morning. The basics are simple, but not easy. If they were easy, everyone would do them.  

Approaching Each Day Like a Pro

Whether you’re early in your career, trying to demonstrate that you’ve earned a promotion, or transitioning into a job at a new company, it can be difficult to prove that you belong. Showing that you’re competent in the technical and tactical elements of your role can go a long way, but it’s only part of the battle. A differentiating hallmark of true professionals is their ability to build a series of seemingly minor behaviors into consistent habits that always create a good impression among their peers. Jesse K. Wright has witnessed the power of such practices at work on the field and in the weight room in his strength and conditioning and human performance roles with the Philadelphia 76ers, Temple University, and the Philadelphia Eagles. In his book The Intent is to Grow, Wright portrays a mentor, Rashard, giving the protagonist, Nate, several small but powerful ways to win over his colleagues.

“‘This is my list of 12 actions that are completely within your current capabilities and control…You can think of them as your own little set of superpowers,’ Rashard said.”

Here’s the full list of Wright’s 12 “Hustle and Pro” practices that anyone can benefit from mastering, along with a short suggestion about how to apply each:

  • Be early, always. In the miliary, there’s no such thing as being on time – there’s simply early or late. If you often find yourself running behind, sort out your scheduling by building in extra bandwidth before every appointment.
  • Help often. In a results-driven culture, it’s tempting to get totally absorbed by your own tasks. But a team can only function effectively if everyone is pulling together, and actively ask your colleagues simple questions like “What can I do to help you?” or “How can I pitch in on your project?” will foster a sense of camaraderie.
  • In your haste to people please, you might try to give your boss an unrealistic expectation of when you can complete a certain milestone, only to fall short of the mark when you realize how much work is actually involved. It’s better to offer a conservative estimate and then beat it.
  • Prepare in advance. Whether it’s a simple catch-up call with a client or a big presentation, you should never try to wing it or leave your preparation to the last minute. Even if you don’t have much time in advance, try to at least jot down a few bullet points so that people can see you’ve put in some up-front effort.
  • Read, watch, and listen. The best learners are those who act like a sponge and soak up the wisdom, experience, and expertise of those around them. It’s also beneficial to go the extra mile by reading and watching supplemental material that can further your understanding.
  • Interact with others. Read any CEO success story and you’ll likely hear how the leader in question treated the janitor with the same courtesy and respect as their board members. Simply taking the time to greet everyone you encounter enthusiastically, ask them how they’re doing, and show your appreciation for their role can set you apart as a caring teammate.
  • Tuck your shirt in. You don’t always have to be the sharpest dresser but making sure that you convey a sense of professionalism in how you present yourself can set the right tone. This also applies to body language, as how you stand, sit, and walk can either support or undermine what you’re trying to say.
  • Don’t bite your tongue. At some point, you’re going to have to address a group. Overcome any anxiety or shyness you might naturally feel by actively contributing in meetings and confidently sharing your opinions when called upon. You don’t have to give Churchillian speeches, but even if you only offer a few words, deliver them with conviction.
  • Answer questions before they’re asked. Get to know your peers and boss to the point that you understand what type of information they need and how they like it to be presented. Then get ahead of the game by proactively delivering such insights before they’re requested.
  • Quote research. Doing just a little digging can demonstrate your work ethic and willingness to go the extra mile. You don’t need to become a bore who’s always spouting statistics but finding a golden nugget or two before a key meeting will help you provide a fresh perspective.
  • Vulnerability and “yet.” Rather than trying to act like you know everything, admit which areas you’re still developing in and ask for help when you need it. Improve upon simply stating, “I don’t know” by adding the word “yet” and then going out to actively find the answer.
  • Ask for detailed feedback. Sometimes you just know when you’ve done a good job, but at other times, it can be helpful to ask a colleague how you did on a project and if they can think of anything you missed or could change in the future. This way, you’re practicing a growth mindset, showing that you value the opinion of others, and are always evolving.