It’s the Right Thing

Randall J. Strossen, Ph.D.

It’s not what you do that’s important; it’s what you accomplish

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At first glance it would seem the guy was doing everything right: He almost never missed a workout, his routines were taken straight from some star, he could talk weights until the cows came home. Even his clothes and his general style in and out of the gym suggested that he was committed to his training and knew his stuff. There was a problem, however, and it was a big one: He hadn’t made a lick of progress in about a year.

In the same gym there was another guy whose appearance, not to mention his training program and the way he did some of his movements, indicated that he not only didn’t know the finer points of the game but probably didn’t even know there were finer points and might not have cared about learning them if he knew they existed. On the other hand, he did have something going for him. Almost every week, it seemed, he made progress, and every few months he seemed to have transformed himself. His cumulative gains made him nothing like the guy he’d been before.

To a casual observer the situation might be attributed to genetics, secret sauce or any number of explanations. To a student of human performance, however, the answers lay elsewhere because, as Thomas Gilbert noted, it’s not what you do that’s important; it’s what you accomplish.

Gilbert’s passion was human competence and, specifically, engineering it. He was devoted to helping make people good at what they were doing. Whether it was putting together widgets, whacking a baseball or making what would seem to be abstract decisions, Gilbert knew that some people were good at what they did and some weren’t. Fortunately for most of us, he didn’t stop there. He developed a variety of analyses and techniques to help make underperformers more like the superstars in their field.
One of the first things Gilbert figured out was that when we analyze people who are doing their thing—whatever it is—we usually make the mistake of focusing on just that: what they’re doing, as opposed to what they accomplish.
Suppose we had a system for evaluating a variety of performance measures related to training. For instance, we might see how much someone knew about basic training principles; whether the person knew an amino acid from lactic acid, knew Mr. Olympia from an Olympic gold medalist, and so forth. As you’re a reasonable person, the approach probably makes sense to you, and you can think of all sorts of ways to evaluate how much people know about training and how well they go about conducting their own. That approach, as Gilbert figured out, is all wrong.

If we applied the approach to our two fictional trainees, the first guy would do really well on the tests we developed, and the second guy wouldn’t. For example, the first guy can wax eloquent on everything from spider curls to squat snatches, talk protein synthesis like a college professor and rattle off every Mr. Olympia in history—in order. The second guy knows how to do some basic stuff in the gym, has a clue about guys like Yates, Coan and Suleymanoglu, but that’s about it. If they got into a conversation about training, the first guy could make the second guy’s eyes go glassy in less than a minute.

Beyond that, a knowing eye watching both in the gym would see that the first guy seemed to have a handle on what he was doing because he was doing lots of little things correctly—things that might be nuances the second guy had never even heard of. In fact, watching the second guy in the gym, it would be reasonable to conclude that he was still pretty rough around the edges.
Those differences would seem perfectly reasonable and understandable if the first guy was the one making progress and the second was the one who was stalled out, but that’s the opposite of the way things are. Why?

Gilbert would explain that we were misled because while the first guy was doing most things right, maybe even as many—possibly even more—than the second guy, he wasn’t doing the right things right. The person who does the right things right makes progress, and the person making progress is the one we want to emulate.