Excellence, a word we use every day and a state we are always striving to achieve, is not a very well understood concept. There is surprisingly little research and science behind what excellence is and what drives it. With the exception of the vast number of motivational quotes we see everywhere, there is very little else written about it. This article is intended to help you understand and achieve sustained excellence in your field.
The first thing to understand is that excellence is a subjective concept that is largely self-defined. You know it when you see it, and what may appear as excellent to one person may not be so for another.
Even if you are at the ultimate pinnacle of your profession, and have achieved a level the world has never seen and that no one is ever likely to match, you may not believe you have achieved excellence. In 2005 Roger Federer won eleven titles, including two grand slams and held the number one ranking in tennis for all fifty-two weeks of the year. And within that, his performance on grass courts, where he had not lost a single match in three years, was especially outstanding.
His reaction to his own grass court play: “I definitely feel there’s room for improvement…”
Or take the other GOAT (greatest of all time) for example. In 2004 Tiger Woods had held the number 1 ranking in golf for a record 264 consecutive weeks. This 5-year hold on number one was an unimaginable and certainly exceptional achievement. However, Tiger believed he could get better and invested in a radical change to his golf swing in an attempt to redefine excellence in the sport. After briefly losing the number one ranking, in June 2005 he regained the world number one spot and this time held it for 281 consecutive weeks. A record that I don’t think will ever be matched.
Excellence is relative and is based on the bar you set for yourself. No one can define excellence for you or determine whether you have achieved it or not.
The definition of excellence is simply the best use of your abilities. If you use your abilities to the fullest you have achieved excellence. Excellence is not measured by what you have accomplished, but on how well you have used your talents.
Most people are unable to fully use their abilities, and consequently unable to achieve the results they desire. But if your goal is to consistently achieve your personal best, you can do that by learning from those who have reached the pinnacle of their professions.
There are techniques the most exceptional people in the world have used to achieve the highest levels of distinction and my ongoing research with some of the most accomplished people across sport, arts, science and business innovation has provided insight into them.
Sustained excellence over peak performance
First, the focus of the most exceptional people is on sustained excellence over peak performance. Sure, if you are an elite athlete or world class musician, or a business person preparing for a key meeting, you have to peak at the time it matters most.
But the only way to be excellent when it matters most is to be excellent when it matters least.
You can’t be the best in your field if you only try to excel at peak moments. Peak performances are simply the outcome of achieving sustained excellence. And while athletes know precisely when they need to be at their peak, most other professions may require peak performance at any time. You may be pulled in to a key meeting when you least expect, or may have a to deliver a client presentation or perform a complex surgery when its needed, not when you have spent days preparing for it.
The best in the world are able to do this by differentiating between the craft (skills they learn) and the art (how they perform). They relentlessly work on getting better at the craft until it becomes ingrained into their minds and bodies. So that when they need to be at their peak, they forget about the craft and perform with mindless ease so that the art flows through, whether it be in the form of beautiful music, or a flawless performance on the field or through a life-saving surgery or through a well-received and clear presentation.
Peak performance is simply a multiple of your sustained level of excellence. The only way to enhance your peak performance is by raising your steady level of performance.
MicroExcellence is a common theme that cuts across all exceptional individuals. It means achieving excellence by focusing on the little things that most people ignore, rather than just on the few big areas you think you need to work on. Every exceptional individual I interviewed focused on the little, seemingly unimportant, things. And it is this focus on the mundane and monotonous skills that no one wanted to spend time on that separated them from others who were often more gifted and talented but never reached their full potential.
For example, an exceptional baseball player recalls being meticulously focused on drills that required throwing the ball from odd angles, a “boring” practice to most of his peers. Other players, often more talented hitters, did not take these drills seriously and when they had to do them, they rolled their eyes and could not wait to be done. They simply wanted to spend their time hitting balls as hard as they could. Needless to say, these players never made it. They were passed by the people who diligently focused on every small detail of the game.
Becoming exceptional is the cumulative effect of achieving excellence in myriad little things, never the result of focusing on the one or two big areas. This is how the best in the world have done it.
There is a simple exercise to achieve microexcellence. Start with listing all the skills you require to be successful at a task. List every single thing required for doing the task well, no matter how trivial it appears. If your list has 5-6 items, it is probably not detailed enough. If it is 15-20 items or more, you are in the right direction.
Rate yourself on each of these skills on a scale from 1-5. You have to be realistic about how you rate yourself, don’t be too harsh or too soft on yourself. And remember this is based on your abilities and not on the abilities of someone you admire. A good way to do this is to compare yourself with your peers or people at your skill level and a picture will start to emerge that shows you the areas you need to work on.
Your goal is to get try to get to 4 or higher in every single skill. If you are able to achieve this, you will be maximizing your abilities, in other words, achieving excellence.
As your skills improve, redo the exercise as the bar will now be higher and see if you would still give yourself a 4 or higher in every area. It is this consistent push across every task, large or small, that will allow you to achieve the personal excellence you desire.