Excellence is now a word that turns many people off. We imagine the over-striving classmate sitting next to us, frantically redoing her entire paper before it's due because she misspelled a word and fears it's not perfect. We picture the student who gets upset with the 98% he just received, despite the rest of the class scoring 70% and below.
The idea of excellence has been shunned, and replaced with the more palatable sense of "satisfactory." You've witnessed the pushback against standards, and it reeks of something more dangerous than we admit.
By not upholding high standards, we give ourselves an easy excuse to take it easy and do just enough to get by. In fact, the idea of standards has become racist, sexist, homophobic, and whatever slam you want to lay on it. We've lowered military standards to make it easier for women to be in combat, we've given points to people based on race in order to help them compete on standardized testing (therefore lowering the standard,) we've even decided that we'll rename things to avoid the negative connotation when the thing doesn't meet the old standard.
In other words, excellence relates to high standards. Unfortunately, a lot of us have decided that excellence isn't worth it, as long as we can somehow squeak by the minimum.
But I want to give you some encouragement and help you think differently about excellence in your own life. The example comes from my own life and process.
When I was growing up, excellence was something I thought came naturally from me over the course of a lifetime. I believed whole-heartedly that good things would happen to me, and all I needed to do was wait for the right moment to be discovered or make the right connection. You could compare it to a woman waiting around for prince charming to come sweep her off her feet. I worked as little as possible at my homework, yet still scored well. I consider this a tragedy. I could have learned so much sooner what excellence, hard work and action truly meant if I had been burned by the consequence of my decisions.
I continued this way, doing as little as possible and yet scoring well, up until it all started to fall apart in college. My grades were slipping, various external factors made it worse, and I found myself with a real lesson: I wasn't gifted enough to sweep through everything untouched.
This was the first reckoning I had. It shook me awake enough to know I needed to put more effort in and start working. (To give you an idea: I didn't start reading my assigned books until I was a junior in college. I have an English degree...) I graduated and yet still languished.
Eventually, through various events in my life, I caught on to the issue: I wasn't activating myself and I wasn't pursuing excellence. I ran from the hard tasks. I avoided my responsibilities. I found shortcuts when I could, and I hoped for comfort.
All of it changed when I realized I was my own worst enemy. The dreams of success and moving on in life were useless without me being involved. The "that's good enough" attitude had not produced any progress in my life, but allowed slow decaying to eat away at everything I had. I sat in my living room at night feeling miserable, depressed and loathing what I had become, and by contrast, what I had failed to become.
Standards aren't there to make us feel bad about ourselves. Excellence is not a deterrent. They are motivators and guideposts. They provide us exactly what we need to finely tune our action and take our best shot. The best part about most things in life, is that you get to edit and retry. Reaching standards shouldn't even be the goal, since so many are low to make it easier for the masses. Excellence should be our driver.
When I began to understand that I was responsible for my own life, I took on ownership. Slowly, things turned. When I failed, I forced myself to take responsibility and ownership for it. This in turn motivated me to correct the failures so that I wouldn't fail again.
Tasks that intimidated me became challenges. It's amazing how easily you become motivated when you stop thinking of every problem as an obstacle, and start viewing them as challenges to overcome. Something as simple as changing a tire can become a motivator to move forward in life.
No matter which direction you head, it becomes a perpetual motion machine. This means that avoiding responsibilities or tasks builds up, making you feel overwhelmed, which just pushes you to try harder to avoid them.
Instead, imagine taking on a problem or task as soon as it pops up. You feel good about completing the opportunity, and it deposits a small amount of confidence in you. The more you pursue the system, the more confidence you gain. The best part is, it's not the fleeting sense of confidence you get from a big, major win. It's deeper and more permanent. Tally these up over a long enough timeline, and you no longer feel like any moment could bring it all crashing down. You look at every event in life as a possibility with hope. Even the horrible ones.
So how does excellence fit into this? Excellence is a part of action. The difference between doing something just to complete it, and attacking it with the mindset of achieving excellence is like a multiplier. The level of confidence gained with excellence is deeper and more powerful. You know you've done well. In fact, you've solved a multitude of mini problems without realizing it. Each error that needs to be corrected in fact becomes a tiny opportunity to get it right. You learn from the failures and mistakes. You grow in knowledge, wisdom and confidence.
The beauty of training yourself to go after excellence is that you can learn how to take criticism well. If the excellence of the product is more important than your pride, then the final product is all that matters. This means that every critique is an opportunity to improve the final product.
Now, getting torn to shreds early on in the process will sting and can derail you. Many people start this journey and get knocked off course by a cutthroat critique. Musicians decide they'll just play in their room or with their friends. Authors decide that the book just wasn't meant to be. Artists take another job and only paint the walls of their room.
I urge you with everything that I am: do not let it derail you. Take the cutthroat feedback, allow it to sting and hurt, and when you've taken a deep breath, go back through it and find the golden nuggets. Guaranteed, there are a few nuggets in their that can help you improve your work. The more you work with them, the less they concern you.
A self-identity not found in how people look at you helps protect against this. That self-identity must be forged through the long-term process of achieving and overcoming. Excellence is the guide that you focus on. It corrects you and pushes you to improve in every area that you can.
So how do you reach excellence? By action.
I had an interesting moment this morning while working out that speaks to this concept. I'll admit, it has been a struggle to workout consistently in the morning. Call me lazy, but I'm having a hard time with 6am workouts lately. When I was younger, I was a gym rat who couldn't wait to be there for two hours and walk out with spaghetti legs. As I got older and gathered up a bundle of responsibilities, the drive began to die in me. Despite buying a power rack and multi-station for my garage, the passion just wasn't there.
And this morning was no different. I stood there, realizing how much I was looking forward to just finishing the workout and getting out of the garage. Several factors are most likely at play, but something struck me: I wasn't making each rep and set an action to be achieved. Instead, I looked at the workout in its entirety as something to dread and waste my time.
We all know I could have been sleeping at that moment. But what struck me was the desire to commit actions in order to progress toward my goals. I'm sick of growing the dad bod. I know I can be in the best shape of my life if I commit and stick to it. So why was this so hard? Because I wasn't committing to excellence for every action. And each rep had the potential to be an excellent action useful to progress towards my goals.
See, the more organized you are, the more you love to knock tasks off your list. Every successful person has a task list of what needs to be done and completed. Whether it's written, in their head, or even subconscious...it's there. The most productive of us have mastered how to commit an action in order to finish the major tasks of their day. And their brain rewards them for it. They get pleasure, and it builds a feedback loop. Do task, feel better.
What I was failing to do with my workouts was reconnect the feeling of accomplishment for each small step. Instead of an entire workout being one accomplishment, I determined to make every single rep an accomplishment, and I would succeed if I had done it with excellence. This doesn't mean I have to go all-out on every rep, but I can't coast and be mindless with it. When I made every rep its own accomplishment, it felt as though I had a new drive.
Our habit is to see the whole picture, yet remember that it is built by individual pieces. The way to achieve a dream or vision is to take each piece or step, and ignore the fear, doubt, questions that would keep you from making that step.
If I allow my sleepiness to keep me from putting on my shoes, I'll never get into the garage. If I allow my desire to sit on the couch keep me from starting my stretching, I'll never get back into shape. If I don't do my best with my sets and reps, then I'm mindless and wasting my time.
However, if I pursue my goal with excellence, I can gain a reputation for having a high standard and being reliable, trustworthy and productive. The feel-good confidence of a job-well done motivates a person to take on the new project in their life, and leaves them feeling more able to take on newer challenges. This process can continue as long as you want it to, and can you lead you to opportunities you would have never imagined possible.
I've witnessed this in several people I look up to. Some of them are people actively in my life, while several others are people I watch from afar. What amazes me is their drive, hard work, attention to excellence and ambition. They act. They do everything they can to complete the goal, and they do everything they can to do it well. They'll take on all the feedback and criticism they can in order to improve. They'll go beyond what they think they can do. They go after making decisions (especially the hard ones) in order to get the job done.
To me, they've inspired me to make the hard choices more aggressively. I tend to view things I don't want to do as the most important tasks. I remind myself the character they'll build in me. I tell myself about the lessons I'll learn. I'm passionate about the progress I'll gain by overcoming that goal. And it's true. Afterwards, I feel confident and more sure of my abilities. If it doesn't go well, I give myself credit that I took on the challenge and learned something.
Our desire for excellence is steered by high standards. Despite society doing its best to get rid of all standards, we will pursue excellence with everything we have. There is no other option. To slowly decay and die is not living. It's the absence of life. We can live, and live excellently, and be thankful for the opportunity. While our adversaries attempt to avoid excellence and standards at all costs, we will relentlessly achieve greater and greater things. Our example will provide a stark contrast for our children. They will observe the failure of the rest of society, and note the beauty of our productivity. Our children will be cared for, provided for, and will admire us. In that admiration, they will want to be like us. And we will ensure that our children will not only survive, but thrive.