Excellence:  What Do You Believe In?

Excellence: What Do You Believe In?

This “manifesto” has been inspired by two of my friends and fellow entrepreneurs: Dave Ursillo, who boldly shares his philosophy of leading without followers and has just launched a free e-book, How to Lead Without Followers; and Catherine Caine of the Cash and Joy blog, who wrote the brilliantly challenging post, No-one buys quality. No-one cares about clarity.  Thanks to both of them for turning up the heat and inspiring me to to share the thoughts that have been simmering for far too long.  

This is what I believe.

Quality shines.  Excellence sings.  They are an illuminating pair that stand above.

And yet, as often as quality and excellence are lauded as cornerstones of the entrepreneurial endeavor, they are the first virtues to fall off the bandwagon when the road becomes rocky.  Weighed and measured against the grand importance of the bottom line, it often seems reasonable to shed the demands of excellence.

Rare is the individual who will stare adversity in the face and still choose to find a way to deliver excellence.  It is easier to lower the bar just a little bit.  After all, who will ever know?

You. You will always know.

And all the while, your spirit will scream at you to be unreasonable.  It will beg you to break the rules, instead of breaking yourself; if you listen, it will whisper words of support as you search for another way to pour those last few drops of brilliance into your passion, so that when all is said and done, your head is still held high.

Your Excellence Is Your Own

The end of my first year in animation school was an awakening.

While I grew up, all of my achievements or failures were qualified by the fact that I had skipped a grade and was younger than many of my peers.  When I triumphed academically, it was more impressive because I was so young.  While struggling athletically, it was acceptable because I was younger and less developed than my competitors.

Eventually, I stopped listening to what other people said about what I was or was not capable of.  I started looking objectively at the world and compared myself to the best that I could find around me, judging “the best” to be the appropriate measuring stick.  I believed that excellence was a measurement of external factors.

After deciding that I wanted to be an animator, I signed up for an animation school taught by what I perceived to be the “best” in the industry.  For the first year of that school, I rigorously buckled down, working to be the best animator that I could be.  And at the end of that year, I was crushed – because not only was I not the best in my class, I was far from the best.

I sat with that knowledge for weeks.  It weighed on me.  Shame and frustration stifled my creativity.  In that dark night of my ambitious, creative soul, I asked one single question over and over: What could I have done better?

The answer never arrived.

As I sat and revisited every week, every assignment, of my animation education, I realized that I had given it everything I had.  I was still giving it everything I had.

And in that moment, I could breathe again.  Why should I ever be ashamed of giving my best?

Your excellence is your own.  Having an external measuring stick is a useful way to chart your own progress, but it is not the measurement that matters.

The only true judge of your own excellence is you.

With No Responsibility, There is No Excellence

To deliver excellence, someone must own it. You.

In the absence of responsibility, excellence fails to flourish.  This lack of responsibility is the single reason that “death by committee” exists.  In each of us, there is a yearning to be great: to be recognized and praised.  Often greater than this yearning, we also possess fear.  It whispers softly in our ear, seducing us with soothing songs of safety, suggesting that we let the responsibility settle on the shoulders of others.  It draws away from risk and consequently, responsibility.

Without risk, without responsibility and without ownership, there can never be excellence.  Whether you are working independently or collaboratively, responsibility must be taken for the results.

In the game of poker, everything changes when money is on the line.  Play with friends for fun, no money, and people will take outrageous action because there is no risk.  Play with even the smallest of stakes, and suddenly the dynamic is completely different.  Actions are carefully contemplated because they have bought in.

Taking responsibility for your actions, for your work and for your life means that you have bought in.  With bold daring, you have staked your reputation to the outcome.

Excellence as Love

Raise your hand if you love your customer.  Keep it raised if you want to deliver the best for your customer.  Now look around you.  See how many people have their hands raised? Everyone says they love their customer.

Love is a verb.  It does not matter if it is for your personal relationships or the people that walks into your digital store looking for a solution.  To love someone is a conscious act, requiring deliberate action.

When you deliver quality, you’re telling your audience that you respect and honor their time.  Every visitor that arrives deserves your respect and consideration, for by their very presence, they have agreed to give you a small portion of their time and attention.

Care.  Be worthy of it.  Be excellent.

Excellence as Self Respect

Our greatest achievements are rarely the ones we are recognized for.  The world cannot see into our hearts and know where we pour the greatest amount of love and commitment in our lives.  Instead, these monuments lie quietly, burning brightly with significance for our eyes only.

Even if the world cannot see the depth of meaning that these efforts come to hold, it cannot help but notice the pride, confidence and self respect that these efforts demand from us.

Every piece of art that you create, be it doodle or manifesto, represent you to the world.  They are your loyal ambassadors, sharing the message you imbue within them.

When we share the best we are  capable of, we authentically reveal who we are.    By creating the best work we are able, we show the deepest measure of self respect.

When the world encounters you or your work in the world, what do they see?  The more effort and excellence that we pour into this work, the more love and respect we show the world we have for ourselves.

Excellence is a Mindset

Excellence is its own form of alchemy, transforming you measure by measure into who you were born to be.  Pursuing excellence does something to your brain.

When your mission is to create the best work that you are able, there is an attitude that is ignited inside you.  Confidence leaks into everything that you do.  You believe that your efforts will result in something incredible and they do.

Excellence is the process of getting better every single day.  It is a process of incremental improvement.  You are constantly learning and exploring, improving and iterating.

Excellent requires a mindset of constant, confident experimentation, committed to the very best that you can do.

Its Own Reward

Excellence is its own reward.  It infuses the rest of your life with commitment, pride and confidence.

When I reflect on excellence, I am reminded of a cartoon by the brilliant Hugh MacLeod called Welcome to the Hunger.

“The Hunger will give you everything. And it will take from you, everything. It will cost you your life, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

Welcome to The Hunger. Its day has arrived. It will never go away. You have been told.”

The pursuit of excellence is the Hunger.  It will take from you, everything.  It will give you everything.

Excellence Means Life On Your Terms

When you live a life of excellence, you are living life on your own terms.  You decide what excellence means for you.  You decide what form integrity in your own work takes for you.

There is no true external measure of what is excellent and what is not.  You are the only one that will ever know, but you will always know.

Maybe I’m a bit old-school, but deep down, I truly believe in quality.  I believe in excellence.  These are core value for me, and I believe that at the end of the day, they are values that make a difference.  There is a part of me that hangs onto the “American Dream” that says if I pour my heart and soul into making something incredible, into making a difference, it’s going to matter.

The world will take note.

Quality is a triumph of the human spirit.  When we pour ourselves into creating the greatest excellence that we are capable of, we pour ourselves into the results.  Excellence is born from authenticity.  You cannot authentically direct your heart and soul into something you do not care about.

I invite you to commit to excellence.  In every act that you make, I invite you to strive for quality.  I invite the best that you have to offer to find it’s way into the world.  I invite you to hold yourself to the highest standard possible: your own.

I believe that at the end of the day, we can all push the bar a little bit higher.  After all, it is our own bar, no one else’s.  We can respect ourselves more.  We can love our customers and our audience better.  We can deliver greater quality.

One excellent act at a time, we can.

{ 1 comment }

anthonynlee July 8, 2011 at 5:00 pm

wow. well said.
i particularly like the part about excellence as self respect. you are right. some of our greatest achievements will be private ones. however, it does create a sense of pride in one’s work. that pride is what keeps you committed to quality. that pride is the same as the chef that won’t allow a dish to leave the kitchen window if it looks less than absolutely perfect.

and it certainly is a mindset too. it does do something to the brain. interesting how a change in the way you look at the world can have such an impact. what you believe truly does create your reality. if you believe in your ability to commit to excellence, and thereby provide it…you will. if you don’t….shackled to mediocrity you are.