What is Excellence?

I recently attended a leadership conference and the keynote speaker, Larry Winters, made a comment that struck many of us: “I don’t seek perfection in what I do; but I do seek excellence.” He went on to point out that excellence was giving something your best based on your ability. But how do we truly give to the best of our ability?

The way to excellence revolves around three things: a vision, action, and reflection.

Vision. Do you know what you want? Do you have a focus for your action? If you don’t, it is difficult to achieve excellence. Your vision becomes a standard by which you measure your actions and outcomes. You say you don’t have any big, grandious vision. That is fine. As the philosopher James Allen suggests in his seminal work, As A Man Thinketh, if you don’t have a big vision, start by having the vision to do your daily work to the best of your ability. Practice excellence in your daily activities. I will wager you know what is excellence in your daily activities. You can’t do all of your daily activities to your personal vision of excellence? Pursuing excellence requires choices. How many professional athletes, for example, perform at the pro level in more than one sport at a time? Very few come to mind, and those that do eventually decided to focus on just one.

So, how do you decide what to do? Begin by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is this activity necessary?
  • Does this activity add value to myself and/or those who are important to me?
  • Does this activity provide a return for my investment of time?

If you are going to limit your choices in order to pursue excellence, you should be sure that everything you do meets at least one of these criteria. Why would you do something that is not necessary, doesn’t benefit you or those important to you, and provides little or no payoff?

Action. Excellence cannot be achieved without action. It may sound obvious, but it is amazing how many people think that they can simply hope for excellence without doing anything. When I was a kid, I quickly understood the principles of geometry. I could follow the logic of a proof and see how they worked. My teacher, Mr. Anderson, didn’t require us to turn in our homework. I would copy down the problems as they were worked in class. If I got them all copied, I turned them in. The tests were all homework problems, but I didn’t care. I seemed to be able to figure them out in class the day of the test. One day I wasn’t really able to finish the test in time and got a poor grade. He sent home notice of my poor performance to my parents and requested a conference.

At the conference, Mr. Anderson shared my grades and pointed out that I hadn’t turned in my homework consistently, and that if I just did the homework, I could succeed. My parents figured out what was going on and made me make up all of the past homework assignments (from the start of the year) in a period of 7 days. I also had to have them sign my homework each day.

The result? My C- “magically” jumped to an A. The work and practice brought skill to my ability and allowed me to become excellent in geometry.

Reflection. If we don’t take the time to review and reflect on what we have been doing, we miss the opportunity to understand what works and improve our performance. I had fallen into the trap of working hard and letting others evaluate my performance. When they didn’t give me the credit I suspected I was due, I simply worked harder. And harder. And harder. The result? I was logging the most hours of anybody in the company, but I was not any further along in achieving my goals. In fact, I was becoming discouraged. My work also became unfocused, as I eagerly sought to please. Eventually, I was fired, despite the long hours I was logging. Chasing everybody else’s priorities, I wasn’t satisfying anybody.

But power comes to those who reflect. You get new ideas because you discover connections that are not obvious to the busy. Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich grew from 20 years of research, association, and reflection with and about the most successful individuals of his time. A classic, it is still one of the most widely read and studied business books. Do you want to succeed? Hill’s formula basically boils down to having a positive mental attitude, and then finding a vision, taking action, and reflecting on the actions you are taking.

Put another way, seek excellence with a positive mental attitude and you will succeed in whatever you undertake.


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