Most folks would say that they would like excellence in their lives. However, understanding what excellence is and how to get more of it seem to be a challenge. In The Excellence Habit: How Small Changes in Our Mindset Can Make a Big Difference in Our Lives for All Who Feel Stuck, Vlad Zachary shares how he sees the struggle to not just desire more excellence but to actually develop it.
This is not, by far, the first time excellence has come up in my reading list. It is, in fact, a common topic across all sorts of books. In my review of The Fred Factor, I mentioned that my friends describe my world as being filled with excellence – even though I often don’t recognize it. Sometimes excellence gets another name, as it does in Peak. Other times it pops out of unlikely places, like creativity. (See Creativity, Inc.) It shows up in people trying to better themselves, as in The Art of Learning and The Rise of Superman.
However, Zachary has a slightly different perspective on excellence and how to achieve it. It’s fueled by getting outside our comfort zone and recognizing that we have the mistaken belief that we should be able to be comfortable as adults. However, if we can develop and express our genius, we have to pretty consistently dwell outside of our comfort zones. (See Extraordinary Minds, Daring Greatly and Group Genius for more on dwelling outside our comfort zones.)
Mind the Gap
Most people have two lives. The inner life of their fantasy where they’ve achieved all of the fame and fortune they would like – and the second life of our day-to-day existence. The gap between these two lives will pull us to close them. We’ll want to reduce our expectations or elevate our current situation. Unfortunately, all too often, we compromise. All too often, we defer to prudence and we convince ourselves that we need to be realistic. These are the forces that move the imagined life towards our current reality.
The Excellence Habit is the opposite of this. It is moving our current life closer to our fantasy. It transforms our fantasy into our new reality. It moves us from the someday to the today. As we experience life, we must mind the gap between our two worlds and recognize which side of the gap we want to move to get them closer.
Your character is what you do when doing it is difficult. If you look for the character of a man, you don’t look for what he does when it’s easy. You look for what he does when it seems like it’s impossible for people to do that. That’s great when you get there, but how do you develop this character? Developing character happens as you make individual decisions over a long time. It’s about making hard choices every day.
We want to be known as people of character but often forget that the way to develop character is to do the hard things. In Daring Greatly, we learn to lean into the pain. We learn that often it’s painful before it’s peaceful. We have to go through the difficult to get to the easy. Compelled to Control reminds us to see pain as a signal, not necessarily as a warning.
Sometimes our fear of failure (see Find Your Courage for more on the fear of failure) will block us from the difficult. However, the power of hope is restored when we can see our success through difficult things. (See The Psychology of Hope for more.)
I don’t suppose it was easy to live in a world of caste systems, where one knew their lot in life. They had no belief that they could become something special or elevate their world beyond that of their social rung. That world is past. We now believe that anyone who has a great idea can become a billionaire. We lionize the likes of Bill Gates, Steven Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, etc., who have created their own fortune and defined their own worlds. (See Bold for more on some of the people who’ve boldly changed the world.)
The positive potentials of a meritocracy are great. You can have the world on a string. However, there’s a darker side to meritocracy. The darker side is accepting that you are responsible for your own situation in life. No longer can you blame the establishment, history, your parents, the tooth fairy, or anyone else. In a meritocracy, you’re responsible for your own situation. There is no more victimhood. (See more about victimhood in my post Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting.)
What happens when you lose your job? If you believe in the meritocracy, you must admit that you didn’t do good enough. The problem this causes is a natural fear of what will happen if you’re not enough. If you weren’t enough for this situation, what if you’re not enough for the next? What if you get to see the other side of a strict meritocracy, and you die homeless, hungry, and alone?
For those of my Christian friends, the book God Loves You offers some solace that God loves you. For my non-Christian friends, it’s important to remember that this world contains a great deal of randomness and is full of probabilities. It’s not formulaic.
We were taught formula. We were taught that A+B=C – all the time. We’ve been told that insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The Halo Effect spoke of the fact that this world is not deterministic. Instead it’s probabilistic. We roll the dice. Sometimes it comes up boxcars and sometimes snake eyes. However, much more frequently, it comes somewhere in the middle. This is important in the concept of a meritocracy because even the most noble system of meritocracy will require randomness to connect people to the place where their unique personality, experiences, and skills are the perfect match – where they merit the great rewards for their high performance.
Most of the time we’re floating through our lives and careers without a single clear direction as to where we need to move to be in the best possible spot. Even Bob Pozen in Extreme Productivity admits that he didn’t have a master course for his life. He was pulled along by the winds of change and happened to end up where he landed.
The Iceberg Principle
In truth, much of what guides us on our paths isn’t the stuff that we see on the surface. It’s not the big, well-known things, but instead are the smaller passions that seem to support our larger development and help chart our course. I started my path towards SharePoint semi-accidentally. I was doing custom development and a customer needed someone to help with a SharePoint initiative. I walked away from it for a few years, then got pulled back in when another few clients needed help and no one else in my sphere knew anything about it.
Risk, adversity, and patience are the characteristics that Zachary describes at the heart of the iceberg principle. We’ll never know the risks that people took, the adversity they overcame, or the patience that it required. I mentioned in my review of Seeing David in the Stone that James MacDonald, who is now a popular pastor, mentioned that he worked for very little compensation for many years just to reach out and serve. Brené Brown mentions in Rising Strong that we do a disservice to others by “gold-plating grit” – that is, minimizing the pain, anguish, and struggle to get to where we are. It’s this grit – the struggle – that people on the outside can’t see. They can only see the result of the struggle.
Wide and Narrow Focus
We have historically lauded those who were at the pinnacle of their respective areas. We’ve looked up to the person who has mastered their one and only area of interest. Sometimes we’ll hold up people who have managed to connect various fields of science and art together, but much more rarely. We hold up Mozart or Einstein more frequently than folks like Edison, who brought together many fields of science to develop his commercially-viable incandescent light. (See Extraordinary Minds for different types of expertise, The Medici Effect for the impact of cross-pollination of ideas, and Beyond Genius for some Renaissance men.)
The reality is that some of the most interesting and practically-useful discoveries don’t come at the pinnacle of an area of science. The most useful discoveries come from the intersection of different fields of science. Edison’s discovery wasn’t about electricity. It was the application of heating materials through electricity to create light. It was the intersection of many different areas of science to get to a commercially-viable light bulb.
It is not bad to be focused on a single area or to seek excellence in that area. However, neither is it bad to have many divergent interests, which pull together to create new and interesting combinations.
As I’m writing this, my post of The Heretics Guide to Management: The Art of Harnessing Ambiguity just went up, so I’m getting a healthy dose of discussions about ambiguity. That’s probably why a quote about Dr. Kerry Healey, who is, as I write this, the president of Babson college, lit up for me:
“Dr. Healey said that her ability to deal with ambiguity for very long periods of time is probably more important than self-discipline.”
I realized that the wisdom in this statement is that we all have ambiguity in our lives. By accepting that we don’t know what’s around the corner – but it will be OK and potentially even amazing – we live our lives to the fullest. Believing that we have to have our lives all planned out and we have to have it all figured out leads to a lot of anxiety – particularly when we’re getting outside of our comfort zones.
Where there is excellence, there is also an inner game of peace. It’s not that those who are excellent never have disruption in their lives and are never off balance, it’s that they discover it sooner and recover quicker. (To slightly paraphrase my quote of Richard Moon, see more in my post The Inner Game of Dialogue.) Developing excellence as a habit is less about what people see on the outside and more about what people see on the inside. It’s less about visibility and more about internal stability.
How we frame or reframe our lives has a substantial output on our trajectory in the long run. Our internal state having “broken windows” or other areas of minor concern can have a major impact on how we turn out overall. (See The Tipping Point for more on the broken windows theory of crime.)
Despite the value of a solid inner game, sometimes the only attribute we need is simply the persistence to wait it out and a bit of dumb luck.
Long Enough to Get Lucky
In my conversations with business leaders, I often hear encouragement to just keep going. They share their stories of struggles and how they overcame them to remind me that sometimes the only way to get ahead in business is simply to be in business for a long time. That’s why the quote from Taffy Williams, CEO and author, is so perfect: “Part of the game is being able to stay functional long enough to allow for your lucky break to come. I personally believe that luck is part of every success story. Talent is important, but if you are at the wrong time, at the wrong place, things won’t happen.”
The trick to becoming successful in business is luck. Luck is not completely random. It, as Pasteur said, favors the prepared. You create the opportunity for luck by being prepared. You are prepared by practicing – intently and intelligently. (See Peak for more on purposeful practice.) Sometimes you have to just plug along trying new methods to find something that will be successful for you.
Until your ship comes in, maybe you just need to practice The Excellence Habit.