Excellence is a habit

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The notion of excellence transcends culture; every nation and tribe has a concept of what it means to have unusually good talent, or being possessed of extraordinary talent. It is not just hyperbole. These precepts were predicated on surpassing measurable standards of performance, whatever the domain.

When you talk about excellence in your company (or in your everyday life), are you talking about something that is an action or how something looks? Are you creating moving targets that create the illusion of expansion and productivity and distinction? Or are you merely removing the ability to turn excellence into a habit?

Excellence has become the parlance of marketing, indie, and business startup culture, and it has been reduced to meaninglessness; to a great abyss full of words meant for statistically improbable situations. Excellence, in fact, is not an act; it is a habit. Engaging in this verbal anemia has diluted the ability to recognize achievement, resulting in new jargon to describe states that were previously subsumed by ideas of excellence.

So what?

A discerning thought leader (jargon alert) needs to understand not only the meaning of the word in the context of their industry, but as well as how one reaches the state they have lavished with overuse: excellence. Habits are created over thousands of hours through a careful and organized approach with a goal in mind.

Excellence is not achieved in the moment; it is earned over time.

Repetition reinforces pathways. Dendritic activity arises from novel situations: taking a new way home, learning to play an instrument, writing a book, or taking a run in the middle of your day. However, repeating activities reinforces the neural pathways that govern that behavior, making it easier to perform. Repetition quite literally makes it simpler to accomplish behaviors over time.

Habit formation depends on the task. The ease with which a behavior becomes a habit can often depend on the difficulty of the task and how much familiarity you already have with it. The broadly touted “10 years or 10,000 hours” colloquialism is not far off for the concept of mastery, and therefore excellence, but it could be more or less depending on the manner in which you practice and the quality of that practice. So the next time you are worrying about perfection, cast aside that fear. Concentrate on knowing what you are doing, why are you are doing it, and how you are going to reach your goal.

Fail forward. Failure is work toward a goal; inaction is just noise. Falling down one time or a hundred times does not make you a failure. Walking away from your goals because it hasn’t happened yet ignores the most important fact: failure hasn’t beat you. It is not worth the fear or anxiety, because you are still standing despite the failure. It is inaction that destroys excellence. Forge ahead undeterred by failure; use it as fuel to drive an unstoppable train toward your goals.

Behavioral chains. Behavior modification conjures images of training a pet or Orwellian measures to guarantee compliance. It is a tool, plain and simple. Textbooks and theses have been written on the subject, and psychological theory driven by innumerable discussions. What matters for habit formation and excellence? Pair a salient reinforcer (reward) with something you want to do (behavior): repeat ad infinitum (I’m speaking metaphorically, of course).

Keep it simple. If you try to master a hundred different behaviors, it is going to take more than 10 years. In what aspect of your life does excellence matter? Commit and doggedly pursue it, falling down and getting back up thousands of times along the way. The process needn’t be complex: I want to be great at (x); therefore, I will approximate doing (x) in the following way (y) for as long as it takes. Simplicity is your friend.

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