How to be excellent

Go Googling “how to be excellent,” and you’re led down a dystopian tech-bro world about “mindset” and “passion.” Things like, “Passionately learn to love every day.”

Adam Savage says “Obsession is the gravity of making“, the notion that you can’t sustain excellence without having a desire bordering on obsession in making something or seeing something through.

Gary Keller wrote, “Passion for something leads to disproportionate time practicing or working at it. That time spent eventually translates to skill, and when skill improves, results improve. Better results generally lead to more enjoyment, and more passion and more time is invested. It can be a virtuous cycle all the way to extraordinary results.” That’s true, but it also doesn’t talk a lot about how to be passionate about tax forms, bank regulations, or the viciously mundane things.

Among the top results, Stanford University’s commencement address from Steve Jobs gets mentioned a ton. The whole “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” line.

Many canards on excellence talk about the mechanics for improving yourself, like finding people who are better than you and asking them how they got there—or finding conferences or books and devouring that material. This advice, however, gets into the basics of mastery, which I’ll define in a moment but believe to be different.

Goes without saying “discipline” comes into play a lot. Learning how to play an instrument, for instance, requires focus and discipline and a bunch of other words like “grit” and “practice.”

Work hard, but not too hard! You need 8 hours of sleep, eat, exercise, and commit to yourself. But you must also have fun and reward yourself because excellence is rewarded with cookies.

Others will tell you excellence can’t even be achieved or forced upon yourself. You can only become excellent by being present, motivated, engaged, tough, and a bunch of other adjectives and verbs.

In the business world, excellence is all about SWOT analyses, standards, planning, creativity, and so on. As if creativity isn’t something else that people have tried to formulate.

In the woo-woo world of self-care wellness consultants, there’s a slight tendency to equate excellence with perfection and, since perfection is objectively impossible in most cases, don’t even try because it’ll set you up for failure and you’ll be sad and then you’ll have nothing and that’s most certainly not excellent.

Since it’s an option, I wondered if AI could sum up all the top narratives:

  1. Focus on quality over quantity and put effort into constant improvement [1][2]. Develop good habits that produce excellence [1]
  2. Have passion for what you do and pursue it relentlessly [1]. Excellence is a byproduct of being fully present and engaged in your work [3].
  3. Understand that excellence comes from within. The decision to excel is more important than external factors [4]. Strive to be the best version of yourself [5].
  4. Develop a growth mindset and be adaptable to change [1]. Learn from mistakes and view them as opportunities for growth. 
  5. Put your health and wellbeing first to perform at your best [2]. Do what you love and find work that aligns with your values [6].

In summary, the key is to develop good habits that support constant improvement, have passion for your work, and view excellence as an internal drive and mindset rather than an external competition. 

It’s not bad advice, I guess. But it’s not great, either. “Be adaptable to change” is hard for half the known population. That’s why there are such people as Conservatives in the world.

And “strive to be the best version of yourself” doesn’t make much sense, either, if the version of you running around the planet isn’t adaptable, healthy, passionate, or in love with what you do.

To say nothing of whatever the heck “Develop good habits that produce excellence” is supposed to mean. Brush your teeth? Change your underwear?

This is all intangible and banal. The sort of thing that sounds good written on the back of a graduation cap or in a political campaign.

I have been interested in what defines excellence and mastery. I’ve read what stoics think, what modern cruft has to say, and have compiled notes for a decade on the subject. I’ve come away with the belief that monks are truly the closest example of “excellence.”

Thing is, John Climacus, who had lived as a hermit himself for decades around the turn of the seventh century, was concerned about how easy it was in isolation to convince yourself that you were hot stuff: “A solitary horse can often imagine itself to be at full gallop, but when it finds itself in a herd it then discovers how slow it actually is.”

This is all tricky business.

I’ve tried to compile my own thinking that is applicable (at least) to me. I’m sharing it here as it might be beneficial to you.

Excellence as a human being for work and home life

Focus pathologically on one thing at a time. If you’re going to eat dinner, eat dinner. If you’re going for a walk, go for a walk. One bite at a time, one step at a time. I struggle here, too, since I like to listen to books or podcasts while I walk, as one example. But that is not a pathological focus.

Avoid incrementalism by avoiding minimal effort in things you’ve identified that can help you. If you’re going to start exercising, then make a serious, radical effort for an hour a day. None of this “I’ll start with 10 minutes” stuff. That’s an incremental step with minimal effort. Carey Neiuwhof says if you want radical change or radical results, you need radical effort because the world is changing rapidly. I don’t know that I agree it’s “changing rapidly”, or any more than it ever has. But I get the sentiment.

To add to that: “Avoid mediocrity.” That probably includes people, places, and specific tasks, if possible. If you’re going to start exercising, you can’t just lift the same weight forever.

Have a mission, purpose, and vision for yourself. Not a limp corporate mission statement designed to make shareholders and marketers happy. The kind of thing that is clarifying for you. I got the idea from Jim Collins’ book BE 2.0. I came away writing my own:

My purpose: To write compelling stories and enhance knowledge and information that improves people’s understanding of the world.

If something doesn’t serve that purpose, like a job offer on a website that only sells shoes or whatever, that does not serve my purpose.

Excellence at home

Read more about things that impact your life. This includes culture, politics, faith, work, relationships, etc. And study them deeply.

Read with a pen or some mechanism to highlight passages. Ben Franklin remarked, “I would advise you to read with a pen in your hand and enter in a little book short hints of what you feel that is common or that may be useful; for this will be the best method of imprinting such portcullis in your memory.”

Maintain what Nietzsche called “a long obedience in the same direction.” That is, all the best things in life that lead to success — all relationship-building, conversations, craft, mastery, and even just a thorough cleaning of your shower or kitchen, require persistent dedication and uninterrupted focus.

I’d add another note from Nieuwhof: “To truly care for yourself, come back to this question daily: What do I need to do (or not do) so I can live today in a way that will help me thrive tomorrow? That question will serve as a filter that will push you to rest when you’re tired, stop eating when you’re full, work out when you need to, put the brakes on your appetite, renew your heart, and do whatever else you need to do to thrive.”

Excellence at work

Around two millennia ago, the South Indian weaver sage Tiruvalluvar said: “Though it seems a harmless gauge of time, to those lie fathom it, a day is a saw steadily cutting down the tree of life.”

Maintain a zero-tolerance policy for distraction. It’s an act of reverence and respect for yourself, your clients/customers/etc.

When a person can fully own that their life is finite and that all life has a clear, definitive end to it, then adopting a zero-tolerance policy for distraction becomes an obvious decision. Time is gifted to all of us, but how we choose to use it depends solely on us.

I’d argue this includes:

  • Avoiding meetings and meeting fatigue.
  • Silence all calls and messages when you’re working on a singular thing.
  • Eliminate distractions from other sources, such as Facebook and other apps. If necessary, resort to pen and paper.
  • Set timed deadlines, like, “I will work on this and only this for the next three hours.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi quipped about work, too, “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” This could include personal endeavors, like learning to make a delicious cake or playing an instrument.

Additionally, you need to develop some kind of defense against work being your life and personality. Tim Keller put it best when he said, “When work is your identity, success goes to your head. Failure goes to your heart.”

Excellence vs mastery

Mastery is more about skill development. I don’t think excellence is a skill, per se, so much as it’s a system. To this, I’d encourage you to pursue mastery as a means of pursuing excellence, but the two do not always lead to the other.

Similarly, I follow Cal Newport’s advice not to pursue “passion.” Passion is an empty-headed word that prohibits people working in jobs that might be necessary but aren’t exactly thrilling. I don’t know too many people who work “with passion” as bank tellers or cashiers or a zillion other jobs.


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About JUSTIN HARTER

Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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