By all means, ‘excellence’ is not a new word to us. Schools use it on students who achieve outstanding results while companies use it on employees with great performances at work.
Most of the time, whenever you attempt to make meaning of “excellence” as a whole, the few words you would probably relate to is “more than good”, “high standard” and “great”.
Subconsciously, we have primed ourselves to believe that excellence is something better than good. However, is it really just about being better than good, or is there something more to it?
What is excellence?
The word originates from the Latin word excellere, which means “surpass”. ‘Surpass’ is defined by Merriam-Webster as “to be greater than someone or something”. Surpassing means exceeding a certain limit, or having breakthroughs. Hence, in order for one to be excellent, one is required to surpass limits or expectations.
An excellent student would be one who is continuously improving, be it his grades or his co-curricular activities. An excellent employee would be one who is continuously over-delivering on the job, and one who strives to perform beyond his job scope again and again.
Attempts to surpassing a benchmark get easier with practice and repetition. The keywords are not only “surpassing limits or expectations”, but also “continuously” and “again and again”. A person is not considered excellent when he exceeds expectations once or twice, but only when he exceeds it consistently.
Yes, it’s a non-stop, tiring process of continual improvement. The bar gets higher each time. And, sorry to sound like a killjoy, but this also means that to be excellent, it is an imperative to strive for better outcomes every single time.
This sounds extremely difficult. Can’t we just settle for mediocrity?
Well, technically you can, but that’s a red flag once you’re getting comfortable, my friend. Chris Guillebeau, author of The Happiness of Pursuit explained how the standard of good is gradually replaced by “good enough”, and how it lowers our standards in the society.
In Guillebeau’s blog post, he wrote concerning the normalisation of mediocrity:
“The standard of good has been replaced by good enough, which is a way of justifying the mediocre. When we encounter the good enough standard on a regular basis, we come to accept it as normal.
If a trip to the Chinese buffet or sushi from the grocery store are your only experiences with ‘foreign’ foods, you won’t wish for anything else. No, they’re not at all like good food in China or good sushi, but if you don’t know any better, they work. They are good enough.”
Why work so hard to be excellent then?
Because it’s inevitable: Excellence is a standard that needs to be adhered more than ever. Yes, there will be times when your attempts to excellence just don’t work out. But just keep reminding yourself that every attempt on raising the bar comes with an equal risk of failure.
This is why the majority of people opt for mediocrity, because the fear of failing exceeds their desire toward excellence. Which side would you choose though – mediocrity or excellence?
What gives? What should I really do to be excellent?
One of the five cultural beliefs of Leaderonomics is “Be Excellent”, and it’s defined as such: “I accept challenges and exceed expectations in all that I do”. Through my internship, I was fortunate enough to be given a chance to observe and learn how this cultural belief is inculcated in the workplace.
Allow me to present three takeaways from my humbling experience in this company with regard to being excellent:
- First determine what is below the line, on the line, and above the line.In the workplace, it is always important to be mindful of what is expected from you, and what would be considered as exceeding expectations. In workplaces, having dialogues with your boss and your team is a great way to keep yourself in check on what’s expected of you from others. The sooner you do this, the sooner you will know how to excel in your work.
On a personal note, setting expectations for yourself is effective too. Take some time out on one weekend morning to run through your dreams, goals, strengths and weaknesses. Start reflecting on where you see yourself in the first five years from now, and then how you can hack that and do it within three years instead.
- Grow bigger than your problems.The late Jim Rohn once said something that really struck me, and it has served as a personal reminder ever since:
“Don’t wish it was easier, wish you were better. Don’t wish for less problems, wish for more skills. Don’t wish for less challenge, wish for more wisdom.”
It’s the switch from “I can’t do it”, to “I need and want to get better” that sets you apart from mediocrity.
Invest some time every day in growing yourself as a leader, and you will start to see how you can deal with problems that come your way.
Perhaps take 20 minutes off your schedule to read books that help, or enrol in seminars, courses and workshops that can expand your arsenal of skills and growth. No problem will seem too big as long as you keep on growing.
- Be critical to yourself, but not too critical.
As a workaholic by nature, I tend to overwork myself a lot (I had four jobs concurrently at one point), and this subsequently led me to numerous times where I experienced burnout.It was only when I started to become aware that I was taking too many responsibilities at that time, where I realised my limits. That led me to re-evaluate my priorities and cut down a commitment or two.
I knew I had to work hard, but it wasn’t known to me yet that excellence does not necessarily mean long hours or more commitments. It’s about excelling at what you do, and adding value where it is needed. Work smart first, then work hard.
Food for thought
The bottom line is, one should always know when he needs to work, and when he needs to rest. Personal excellence is never something to be dictated via societal standards, but something that should be gauged by you, on you.
With these points in mind, I wish you well on your journey to excellence.
Jia Han is very interested in what makes humans tick. A believer in lifelong learning, he finds work enjoyable, and he loves having conversations about life over a good cup of coffee. Do hit him up at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to have a chat. To find out more about our “Excellence in Workplace Performance” workshop, email us at email@example.com. To share your own personal or professional journey of excellence, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.