Every human activity, endeavor, or career path involves the mastering of certain skills. These skills can take many different forms, from direct and obvious, such as operating tools, to more nebulous abilities, such as handling people. But what remains true across the field is that top performers have a much stronger grasp on the fundamentals – the core skills that create the foundation of everything else.
If you’ve ever been to a public gym, you’ll probably have seen people doing absurd types of exercises. More than likely, it’ll involve a bosu ball. The exercise may look cool (or ridiculous), but such movements rarely provide any strength or fitness benefits.
When it comes down to it, there are really only five exercises that you need to do in order to get stronger, faster, or better looking. These are the compound exercises that form the foundation of weightlifting: the squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and row. If you were to only do these movements for the rest of your life, you would achieve an inordinate physique and strength. This is essentially what the great Classical bodybuilders of the 1800s to early 1900s did, when fancy gym equipment didn’t exist.
Yet, most gym-goers tend to ignore the fundamentals and opt for more esoteric exercises under the impression that the “cooler” it looks, the better it is. This is a mistake, but it’s easy to see why. In our hurry to acquire new skills, we rush through the fundamentals because of their seeming simplicity. We tend to ignore the fundamentals in favor of details and specificity. We lose sight of the big picture and wonder where we’re doing wrong when we inevitably don’t see the results we desire.
This doesn’t only happen in weightlifting, it applies to any endeavor.
Take poker, for instance. One of the first things newcomers to the game try to learn is the importance of physical “tells.” These are the mystical signs players will show to indicate the type of hand they have. Every time he blinks twice in a row, he’s bluffing, but if he blinks three times in quick succession, he’s got it! In reality, the importance of physical tells is minimal. It’s a minor detail in the big picture of any decision-making process in poker. Yet, amateurs will often try to stare down their opponents for any sign of a clue, while ignoring the basic fundamentals of the game as they’re playing their favorite hand of Q4-offsuit. Such people will often wonder how it’s even possible to play poker online, when you can’t see the other players’ faces. Again, it comes back to the fundamentals. These are the core concepts such as hand ranges, basic probabilities, pot odds, value-betting, and bankroll management.
In poker, if one were to learn and master the fundamentals alone, he or she would immediately push himself to the top of the player pool; much like the weightlifter who masters the five fundamental movements of weightlifting. The same is true in any other field.
“The minute you get away from fundamentals – whether it’s proper technique, work ethic or mental preparation – the bottom can fall out of your game, your schoolwork, your job, whatever you’re doing. -Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player ever, is also the staunchest supporter of fundamentals. While we may remember him for his spectacular dunks and buzzer-beating shots, what wins games and championships are the fundamentals. Plenty of other basketball players were just as athletic or had fancier moves than Jordan, but lacked the same mastery of the basics to achieve the same level of success. Other top performers have echoed Jordan’s words, including the current NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, a team devoted to playing the game of basketball at its most fundamental level.
If it’s possible to elevate your level of success in an activity by working on the fundamentals, why don’t more people do it?
The truth is that learning the fundamentals isn’t fun. It’s not sexy. It’s not something people will pat you on the back for or admire. It won’t be shown on the highlight reel, and it probably won’t be memorable enough to even talk about. The majority of people are unwilling to go through this silent period and bring far too much variety into their practice before sufficiently mastering the basics. It’s the equivalent of attempting to do a one-legged squat on a bosu ball before learning how to properly execute a barbell backsquat.
If you intend to improve in your field, you must be able to undergo this type of painful deliberate practice, despite its tediousness. In weightlifting, perhaps this means starting light and perfecting your deadlift form until it’s perfect. In poker, perhaps this entails learning how to quickly calculate pot odds in your head until it’s second nature. In business, perhaps this means engaging with customers to deliver greater value to them, rather than creating reports that end up in a file cabinet. Whatever the activity, learning and honing the fundamentals will deliver a disproportionate amount of improvement. Those that are able to endure this tedious stage of skill acquisition ultimately become the masters in their fields, while the rest short-circuit their learning process by opting for pleasure and distraction.
At its core, any activity is based on some foundation comprised of fundamentals. Learn, practice, understand, and master these concepts, and the rest will follow. Do not get caught up in the details that lead to minute differences until these foundations of success have been built. As Jim Rohn once aptly said, “Success is neither magical nor mysterious. Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying the basic fundamentals.”