Personal Excellence

Why do some individuals always try to do their best in a situation, while others don’t? At work, why do some people bemoan their work, and still do an outstanding job, while others seem happy with their work, and still produce mediocre results? In my experience, this can be traced to one of the important traits of an individual: desire to seek excellence in whatever they do.

Everyone wants to be best at what they do, but it is not always easy to do so. Those with a healthy dose of this trait will continue to pursue excellence even when given a boring assignment or challenging environment, while others will give up and settle for mediocrity. So why do some people pursue excellence? Vince Lombardi (great football coach) suggests, “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.”. For Indian movie fans, Amir Khan character in 3 Idiots says, “seek excellence, success will follow” (more on 3 Idiots).

To make sure we are talking about same thing, let me state the dictionary definition of excellence:

Excel: To surpass others or be superior in some respect or area; do extremely well, Excellence: The state or quality of excelling or being exceptionally good; extreme merit; superiority

Note that excellence is in comparison with others. This means that my excellence is somehow also determined by how others perform. This leads to a sense of hopelessness – ‘if my peers are better than me, I am worthless’ kind of thoughts arise. This may be relevant for skills-based excellence where ‘you can be excellent at anything‘ may be true. However, it is not true everywhere – otherwise college dropouts could never be billionaires, and Harvard toppers would be ruling the world.

There is another kind of definition of excellence, which does not depend on comparison with others for its definition. To disambiguate it, let’s call it ‘personal excellence’.

Personal Excellence: Producing your best in any given situation, within or without a conducive environment to do so; Strive to be better than last time, every time.

This definition of excellence only compares with self, and hence is in my control. Given this definition, it is easy to answer the questions I posed at the beginning. People who believe in personal excellence always compete against themselves and their own performance last time. They don’t let environment come in the way of their performance. When they believe they have given their best, they are happy and satisfied, and see no reason to give up even when their best hasn’t been good enough to achieve desired results.

Such people always strive to be better next time. And they succeed. As great all time basketball coach John Wooden said so well (TED video):

Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable“.

If we believe above statement, success becomes a controlled process, and is no longer dependent on whims of my manager or my organization, or my competitors. Practicing this with no visible signs of success is a hard thing to do since we crave success so much. However, sustained success can come from following this principle as the coach’s team has shown (nicknamed the “Wizard of Westwood“, he won ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period — seven in a row[2] — as head coach at UCLA, an unprecedented feat.[3][4] Within this period, his teams won a record 88 consecutive games.[2] He was named national coach of the year six times)

How do we achieve this excellence? Here are a few relevant quotes:

“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.” — Colin Powell

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” –Aristotle

Excellence is not about knowing what is excellent, it is about pursuing excellence all the time, in every little thing we do. I firmly believe that our work is our signature, it is our resume. We are what we do. Therefore, it is critical that we are excellent in whatever we do. We are remembered and known by what we created and how we created them, long after we have moved on. Excellence is a habit, mediocrity is a habit too. There are many reasons to do mediocre work (‘I hate my work’, ‘I hate my boss/salary’, ‘I am bored’), but once mediocrity becomes a habit, it becomes you.

Here are a few examples where it is easy to do mediocre work, but then it is easy to be excellent too, and the habit gets formed either way:

  1. You need to ask yourself what value you provide in an interaction – if you don’t provide value, don’t have that interaction. When you do, provide value. For example, it is easy to become an email forwarder (receive emails from one set of people, send it to another set of people without adding value), rather than figuring out a way to provide value (read and summarize the issue, talk instead of email, provide solutions without asking others, etc.).
  2. Push back on uninteresting work, but if you still get assigned to it, give your 100%. If you need to create a presentation as part of your work, people will remember the quality of the presentation for a long time, longer than they will remember the fact that you had a reason to produce mediocre work (if they remember at all). A PowerPoint deck lives forever!
  3. Do not compare with others, compare with yourself. Can you do better than this? If so, do it. If you can create a better spec than last time, do so. Others don’t produce a good quality spec should not be a reason to create a poor spec.

Success comes from personal excellence, personal excellence comes from true passion, true passion comes from deep interest; so work on what deeply interests you and you will achieve long term success. Ancient greeks used arete (outstanding fitness for purpose) and eudaimonia
(happiness which resulted from a life well-lived, being prosperous and fulfilled) in the context of excellence. I firmly believe that having personal excellence is key to long-lasting success, and eventual happiness.

What do you think about personal excellence and its ties to success and happiness?

4 thoughts on “Personal Excellence

  1. Im Felix from Kenya. It is very difficult to comment much after reading this bit of information. But I must agree that it is indeed very true. From personal experience, I have come to the conclusion that exellence is innate whether acquired or inborn. People who constantly seek to be the very best at what they do become just that. Anyone can be like that; it’s just a matter of personal choice, committment, passion.

    I hold the opinion that success can be very deliberate and planned and exellence/success is indeed what one repeatedly does and not an act/event, but a habit/proccess. Therefore, possition yourself in the right frame of mind and all will work out!

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