A Brief History of TI Part 4: 2003-07 – A “Study of Excellence”
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on April 7th, 2011

In early 2003, at a weeklong Kaizen Camp, one participant swam with such striking  grace during our initial pool session that I asked where he’d learned to swim that well. He reminded me he’d attended a weekend workshop I taught the previous year – at the conclusion of which, he barely completed 25 yards of halting freestyle, and even that had been a heroic accomplishment as he couldn’t swim at all just a day earlier. When I asked how he’d made such astounding progress, I learned that he lived 25 miles from the nearest pool and had coached himself with no help or external feedback.

His jaw-dropping improvement got me curious about how average-seeming people achieve extraordinary things. Several years earlier, I’d read two inspiring books, Mastery by George Leonard and Flow by Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly, which reinforced the personal growth through skill mastery lessons of the Tao and Zen books that led me to them. Both also said that virtually all of us are limited far more by a lack of vision than of ability. And finally, they confirmed that TI Practice methods — while outside the swimming mainstream — were firmly in the current of the expanding Human Potential Movement. And there was more.

Our students had already shared with us that Mindful Practice brought both striking improvement and unexpected passion. Leonard and Csikszentmihaly affirmed that the pursuit of excellence was fundamentally about discovering how to live a better life. Leonard wrote “Choose your life rather than accept what comes your way.” Csikszentmihaly wrote “Live life as a work of art” rather than feeling controlled by external forces.

My latest inquiries brought new and exciting confirmation. Since the 1980s, scientists worldwide had conducted scores of studies in fields like sports, math music and chess, in which performance can be precisely measured and plotted over time, culminating in the publication of a landmark paper by Anders Ericsson Ph.D. and two colleagues.

Their work had sought to explain an almost-universal pattern: In most fields, the vast majority progress quickly at first, then more slowly and then stop developing altogether, while a few continue improving for decades, eventually achieving greatness. Is it genetic traits that set these people apart?

Over and over, they found that most of our success in life is not the result of an innate talent. Instead, a specific set of attitudes and habits, if followed with discipline and consistency, will allow anyone the opportunity to excel at a chosen field. They catalogued these behaviors and gave them the name Deliberate Practice — activity that is:

  • Explicitly focused on improving performance, particularly in technique;
  • Constantly reaches for objectives just beyond one’s comfort or competence level;
  • Is organized to provide meaningful feedback;
  • Involves high levels of patient, highly-examined repetition.

Each of these habits were an exact match for the unconventional (for swimming) Practice Methods TI had been advocating since the early 90s. Combined with the work of Leonard and Csikszentmihaly, it said further that the ‘rules’ for swimming well are the same as those for living well.

It became clear that the evolutionary path of Total Immersion which had taken us from being a way of swimming to a way of thinking, was ongoing. Just as much as the group of scientists, TI was engaged in the Study of Excellence, using a fundamental life skill as the vehicle.


It’s not a Plateau. It’s a Crossroads.

How to become a World Class Improver: Mindfulness and Visual Input

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