Off the top of your head, can you name the best basketball player of all time? The best jazz saxophonist? The best investor? You probably thought of the big names—Michael Jordan, John Coltrane, Warren Buffet. The specific talents and skills of these three couldn’t be more different, but they all have one simple quality in common: a drive for excellence.
Excellence, at its core, is exceptionality. It is being the very best you can be in a particular field or industry, not only in comparison to the immediate competition, but compared to existing standards. It takes dedication to practice, doing what others lack the willpower to do to push that field forward altogether. Because it is so subjective, and the bar is constantly being raised, it’s more common to use the phrase “pursuing excellence” than “excellence” by itself.
Pursuing excellence hardly means being perfect, or spotlessness in every situation—it’s impossible to control every factor of life. Instead, it’s about building a track record that shows your best effort, learning from your mistakes, and not giving up. Even prodigies, born with immense natural talent, only become “excellent” when they recognize their growth potential and constantly look to self-improve.
Excellence is not just a badge worn by celebrities either. Although fame can come with excellence in certain areas, it does not come to those who are remarkable at roles behind the scenes, in ways that are not glorified and, unfortunately, overlooked. You may have the best, most dedicated tax accountant in the world, but you wouldn’t know it until they made a mistake. It’s important that any pursuit of excellence be recognized and encouraged just as much as any other, or you may lose a type of ambition that’s hard to regain.
The reality is, however, that we can’t all be the best of the best. Excellence is a journey, not a destination.
Several years ago my daughter and I decided to try running 5Ks. Although we had never been athletes or runners, we thought it would be a great way to challenge ourselves to be healthier. When we crossed the finish line of the first race we were elated at our success in running the entire race in forty minutes. To our dismay, we discovered that most of the runners had finished long before we did including an 80-year-old man. Our excitement was quickly extinguished.
On Monday when my daughter went into her office, her boss, a marathon runner, asked her how we did. She shared the story of completing the race and being beat by most of the other runners. Her boss quickly responded to her. Remember that running is not about the others. It is about your time. Each time you run a 5K your goal should be to improve on your personal time. Do not be distracted by the others in the race. You are not them. You need to be your personal best.
Her advice reminded of the word Kaizen. Several years ago, Japanese cars were some of the worst. Through the process of Kaizen, they encouraged workers building the cars to find something they could do each day that would improve the quality of the cars. Over time, Japanese made cars have become some of the finest in the world.
Therefore, as a leader, what can you do better today than you did yesterday? By applying the principle of Kaizen, we can expedite our journey towards excellence and become our personal and professional best.