Saturday, December 29, 2007

What is Excellence?

Does everyone have to ability to be excellent? I believe so. Why is it that so often people who are students of Nobel Prize winners go on to become Nobel Prize winners? Why can almost anyone go to a great trumpet teacher and learn to play in ways that they never dreamed of? These teachers are teaching their students to be excellent -- excellence isn't the person; it's the philosophy.

How can we be excellent at what we do? After all, we don't have great teachers to show us the way. First of all, if you are reading this, you are already well on your way to excellence. You care enough to try to learn about it and do it. These are my thoughts on what I do differently than those around me -- especially people who view me as some sort of genius. I'm going to estimate out of 100 people that half will leave at each step of excellence.

First, you have to be demanding of yourself. You can't stop or give up when the going gets tough. Through your journey there will be ups and downs and ins and outs. Rejoice on the ups and ins, but use it and ride it forward. Out of the 100 people, 50 will be satisfied with their first couple of successes and stop there. People who demand excellence know that each success is a small step towards excellence. You must keep climbing. On the other hand, progress is not linear (or step-wise), you will fall on your journey. You will go backwards, not just leveling off but decreasing in ability. Recognize that this is also a step towards excellence. You must be the most demanding at this point. Do not stop just because you stopped improving. The dip in ability is the tear down before the build up. Ride it; it gives you momentum to overcome the next big hill. What happens when you work out at the gym? You must tear the muscle down before it can repair itself and become stronger. This will happen to anyone's abilities if they want to become excellent. Out of the 50, 25 will leave when they become discouraged from decreased abilities.

Let's say you're one of the 25 people who demand more from themselves. What now? You have to practice every single day. People who are excellent don't miss a day of practice, period. Vacation is not an excuse. Some things require days off -- like body building. On the days of physical rest, you read about it, you visualize yourself doing it well (better than you currently can), you go out and teach someone else, there are hundreds of things to keep you doing your activity on your day off (if the day off is truly required). But beware, be sure that you really should be taking the day off, rather than making an excuse not to do it. Also, it is even more important for those people to get back in and continue practicing on the days they should be. We will lose 13 more people, leaving us at 12 out of the original 100.

You must practice correctly! Practicing everyday is bad if you are practicing incorrectly. When you practice incorrectly, you reinforce bad habits. This can be the hardest step for most people -- especially without a teacher. Demand more than just consistent practice from yourself -- demand excellence! There are ways around the teacher issue, but finding a good teacher is always the best solution at this stage. If you are a body building, read about proper posture, and get a mirror and check your posture. If you are trying to learn music, get a tape recorder and record yourself. The recording does not lie. Listen for what is wrong. Does it sound good? Are you on pitch? Can you even tell? If you can't tell, then you know what the next step for improvement is. I want to say that 90% will fail at this step, but I'll stick to my estimate. Of the original 100, only 6 will practice correctly every day regardless of improvement or failure.

Identify your weakest ability, and work on that. Most people -- even the 6 who made it this far -- only like to work on things they are good at. Be critical every day, and keep a journal. Write down what went well and what went poorly. Analyze what you did that day. Then the next day, work on the thing that needs the most improvement. It is too easy to keep building up the skill that we are best at, and it causes a level off in overall ability. This level off will be permanent even following the above advice if you don't work on the things that need improvement. Of the original 100, only 3 will do this step along the above steps.

You must be intrinsically motivated. Be honest with yourself. Why do you want to be excellent at this thing? If it is for money, or power, or fame, or something external in the world, you will probably never become as good as you could be. You must have a desire, a passion, to be good at what you do. Without this, you cannot achieve excellence. I find it hard to believe people could do all the things above without some internal burning desire to be excellent, but this chops off 2 of the last 3 remaining people. Following the above advice, you can be the one excellent person for every hundred that try. Now stop reading and go out there and practice!

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