When I was 19, I had an opportunity to intern as a Legal Secretary for a very prestigious law firm in Manhattan. About a month in, having no previous experience, I had already begun gaining the respect and admiration of my supervisors and colleagues who were in awe of the work that I produced. The same has been true for every position I’ve held since then; in fact, I was able to excel to the executive level in just a few years and was eventually asked to train oncoming employees. Looking back, I’ve realized that there is one quality that has set me apart from many professionals in my field—one quality that has been the driving force behind why I seek to learn as much as I can and develop the skills that I have. It’s my desire for and relentless pursuit of excellence.
In both professional and ministerial environments, leaders and peers alike have said as much about me. One leader in particular said, “Sadé, you have a spirit of excellence.” My interest in quality control is very high; I pride myself on producing an excellent work product and providing the best service possible. But what exactly does excellence look like? What determines excellence? What are the benefits of cultivating excellence? Finally, what are some practical ways that we can all strive for excellence?
First things first:
Excellence is personal. It is possible for every human being to maximize his or her full potential. However, one thing in particular can hinder that process and that is trying to measure up to the success of others. For example, if I play a tennis match against a friend who is more advanced in skill than I am, it is likely that she will win. By some standards, my friend would be considered “successful” and I “unsuccessful,” but it’s only because she and I are on different plateaus in the mastery process. Excellence is not about how we compare with others; excellence is about being your personal best. In other words, the benchmark that we should use to determine the quality of our performance is based on how well we perform against ourselves. When you think of it this way, you’ll realize that excellence is different from and superior to success. Nevertheless, excellence makes long-term success inevitable.
Excellence is intentional. No one is excellent without first intending to be. The journey toward excellence begins the moment that we consciously choose to reject mediocrity. To be excellent, choose to be:
- Upright: Be honorable in your behavior and speech—not just when others are looking and listening but always. Do what’s right simply because it’s right. Seek to be excellent in character first and foremost.
- Prepared: Nothing says “excellence” like someone who shows up ready to tackle whatever lies ahead. Preparation is key to every activity and every area of life and it requires a tremendous amount of foresight. Ironically, foresight (or “forethought”) is a skill gained through experience and meditative reflection.
- Proactive: I’ve been called “bossy” and even viewed as a bit egocentric because of my take-charge approach to life. I don’t wait for things to happen and then react to them. I don’t wait around for others to do what needs to be done. I’m confident about what I bring to the table; I’m in control and always ready to lead; and, most importantly, I make things happen.
These are just a few characteristics of intentional excellence—characteristics which, by the way, are great self-esteem boosters!
Excellence is imperfect. I have a confession: I am a perfectionist to the tenth power. I live by the saying, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right the first time.” This mentality is great when it comes to pursuing excellence; however, if it isn’t kept in the right perspective and balanced with an acceptance of human flaw, it can do more harm than good. I know firsthand that the pursuit of perfection can have one of two effects. On the one hand, it can lead us down a path toward distinction and great achievement. On the other hand, pursuing perfection can lead to paralysis and procrastination. It’s very easy to be so wrapped up in the idea of reaching absolute perfection that we delay achievement altogether. American football coach Vince Lombardi says regarding perfection and excellence:
Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.
There is nothing wrong with chasing “perfection” so long as we don’t let our pursuit cripple us. Excellence is open and subject to continual improvement while perfection provides no room for improvement at all. Excellence is progressive while perfection is final. Perfection says, “I am done and completely without defect or flaw.” Excellence says, “I’ve done everything within my power to make it great and I will continue to seek ways to make it even better.” This is an important lesson to learn, for understanding the difference between these two qualities (1) helps us to set reasonable expectations for ourselves and (2) results in a lot less stress and lots more productivity in the end.
Excellence requires preparation and preparation takes time. Yes, good ol’ fashioned time. Preparation is in the countless hours that we spend improving our product or learning and mastering our craft. Some say that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any skill while others believe that’s only a myth. Nevertheless, the fact remains that excellence is progressive and accomplished over time. Instead of giving ourselves a chance to grow in excellence, we can often be discouraged by being on the plateau for too long and, thus, abort the process and stunt our own development and growth. But when we begin by accepting excellence as a diligent effort and by expecting to spend much of our time in pursuit of it, we are a lot more likely to pace ourselves and persevere to the end.
Excellence builds trust. The way to build a strong brand is to establish a foundation of trust with your customers or audience. When readers stumble across well-written and highly practical literature, they are likely to subscribe and come back for more. When buyers find a well-designed product, a product crafted with a spirit of excellence, they will continue buying that product and even recommend it to their family and friends. High quality begets loyal customers. It’s that simple.
Excellence builds self-confidence. When you know that what you have to offer is exceptional and rare, it builds self-esteem like nothing else. There is a huge difference between promoting a product to make a quick sale and promoting a product or cause that you truly believe in. The passion that comes with heartfelt conviction is priceless and, quite frankly, the best marketing tool there is. Before spending countless hours researching and investing in various marketing platforms or strategies, invest time in making your brand one that is excellent, irresistible, and unforgettable.
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We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle