Book Review: Racing Towards Excellence

Demystifying the inside track to academic, career and financial outperformance.

Have you ever wondered how some people consistently outperform everyone else, no matter what the activity? Most people would attribute this to an envious amount of natural talent. Racing Towards Excellence is a simple guidebook co-written by Jan Sramek and Muzaffar Khan, two such outperformers, where they demystify strategies that anyone can use to consistently achieve excellence in any area of their life.

Jan (aged 22 when the book was written in 2009) is the quintessential outperformer and Muzaffar (aged 40) is his friend and former mentor. Having achieved AAAAAAAAAA (that's 10 A's if you're struggling to count) at A-level and simultaneously three Distinctions at Advanced A-level (AEA), Jan embarked on a prestigious academic career reading Mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Unchallenged by this, Jan transferred to the London School of Economics at the end of his first year to leverage his activities in financial markets and entrepreneurship. The small matter of seven finance internships, four start-ups, this book and a first-class degree later, Jan embarked on what is arguably the world's top graduate scheme, at Goldman Sachs.

However, Jan's life has not always been so rosy. He grew up in his grandmother's house in a village of 1,000 people in Moravia, Eastern Europe. He is only the second person in his family to have attended university and the first to have lived or worked abroad. What makes his story even more remarkable is that he barely spoke English when he arrived at Bootham School in York to embark on his A-levels aged 16. As Jan says early on in the book:"There is nothing unique about what I have done that could not be implemented by you."

The first thing that struck me about the book is its holistic approach. The first 5 chapters of the book are devoted to theory, with titles such as "Inspiration", "Responsibility" and "Love". The remaining 12 chapters are devoted to practice, covering topics that one might more commonly expect to be addressed in this sort of book e.g. "Communication", "Study Skills" and "Racing Against Time".

The fundamental assertion of the theory is that success and long-term happiness equate to the same thing and can be measured within an integrated framework the authors call the "Four Accounts". This breaks down the areas of a human being's personal assets into:

  • Emotional Health
  • Material Wealth
  • Mental Health
  • Physical Health

They therefore define success as an increase an increase in the Four Accounts and excellence as outperformance in them. The two key reasons the authors chose this framework are firstly that together the Four Accounts create a happy, balanced human being; and secondly, they are measurable.

As the authors readily admit, this is just a model and it should be evaluated on the basis of its power to explain and predict reality, rather than its elegance. The authors don't attempt to provide a rigorous proof of it. However, they do illustrate the model's validity with examples including Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Arnold Schwarzenegger. They also make another statement, which provides further evidence in favour of the model: "What is hard to dispute is that there are very few people in the world who enjoy universal respect and are seen as role models while having a large deficiency in any one of their accounts."

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the interdependency of the Four Accounts is to think about two related processes the authors call "virtuous cycles" (of greater success) and "vicious cycles" (of greater depression). A common vicious cycle is that a person gets depressed about their appearance (physical account) and consequently starts underperforming in relationships (emotional) and/or studies (mental). I'm sure you have observed many similar examples of this vicious cycle and its converse virtuous cycle during your life.

The practical section of the book sheds light on some more obvious strategies to aid outperformance including various productivity hacks, networking tips to help build win-win relationships and study skills. An example of the latter being that Jan advocates reading examiners' reports for academic courses before opening the textbook!

The final chapter of the book is entitled "Productive Leisure" and starts with the observation that irrespective of religion, geography or socio-economic group, "leisure" is generally described as doing things that aren't beneficial and do not increase any of the Four Accounts. I found it interesting to see how subtle lifestyle changes can lead to enormously different outcomes over time. For example, planning some positive things to do in advance of each weekend rather than just letting them happen, or drinking a litre of water at the end of nights out instead of eating a large doner kebab.

I personally wish I'd had the opportunity to read a book like this 10 years earlier in my life as it would have significantly accelerated my learning of many important lessons in how to be successful and happy. I am planning to buy it for my little sister's next birthday and strongly recommend it to anyone aged 15-24 (or older!) who wants to achieve highly.

Since being released, the book has sold in excess of 2,000 copies in the UK and received 53/67 5* reviews on Amazon. You can find out more about the book and order a copy at www.racing-towards-excellence.com.

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