The Pursuit of Excellence (2022) offers a thoughtful approach on how to become the best, most excellent version of yourself. Compiling wisdom from hundreds of interviews with world renowned experts and entrepreneurs, the author lays out the best habits and practices that anyone can use to improve their career and their lives.
Productivity Management, Leadership, Career Success, Business and Money, Business Leadership, Motivation
Here’s a question for you: Which would you rather achieve – success or excellence? The two may sound synonymous, but there’s an important distinction. Success can only be determined by making comparisons to others, whereas excellence is something you can measure personally.
Success can be fleeting. It can come and go, and how it’s defined can often be out of your control. As a result, chasing success can ultimately end up being an unsatisfying fool’s errand. The more satisfying and rewarding pursuit is excellence. The only question here is personal growth. Am I improving? Did I learn or do something today to make me a little better off than I was yesterday?
In this summary to Ryan Hawk’s The Pursuit of Excellence, we’ll look at the nuts and bolts of pursuing, well, excellence! Hawk interviewed hundreds of world-renowned experts and entrepreneurs to determine which habits and practices are most effective, and he boiled these down to three essential points. We’ll explore these three habits – and show how the pursuit of excellence can lead to more satisfaction in life as well as more exciting growth in your career.
Achieving excellence requires a Purpose Mindset which focuses on the process.
Before we get into the three key habits, let’s look at how the pursuit of excellence rather than success can lead to the kind of rewards that make life truly fulfilling. When we shift our focus from success to excellence, we get more personal. We’re not in competition with some external factor we have no control over. The pursuit of excellence is all about becoming better at what you do – becoming more skillful, more knowledgeable.
The other big difference is that success is generally a finite game. You set a goal, hit it, and are then left to wonder what’s next. The pursuit of excellence, on the other hand, is an infinite game. As such, it’ll keep you focused on growing, getting better, and achieving your greatest potential. In other words, the pursuit of excellence is always there to provide purpose and meaning, no matter where you find yourself. And this is exactly what a fulfilling and satisfying life needs: purpose.
Now, you’ve likely heard the old advice that says all you need to do is follow your passion. When your work involves doing something you’re truly passionate about, then it won’t even feel like work at all. Or so the saying goes.
This advice is well-intentioned, but it’s also problematic. Many of us have followed our passion and run into the kind of setbacks that lead to doubts and second-guessing. Wait, wasn’t it supposed to be effortless once we found our passion? That’s why the better advice is this: don’t let anyone tell you it’ll be easy. Excellence, and achieving great results, requires hard work. It takes the kind of focus and determination that will test your boundaries. There are no shortcuts, cheats, or hacks that will allow you to avoid the hard work. But don’t let this get you down. Once you shift gears and adopt the purpose mindset, you’ll find that the rewards are constant and can propel you forward – even when times are tough.
A purpose mindset is one that is focused on the process. It’s about achieving steady, constant growth rather than finite results. And this is one of the first keys to pursuing excellence: respect the process.
What does this mean? Well, the process is about long-term results. That means you don’t let setbacks or mistakes derail you. Even better, when you focus on the process, you’ll find that the results take care of themselves. In a way, this can provide a welcome sense of freedom. Your responsibility is to create the plan and then stick to it. This is what you can control; the rest doesn’t matter. You can let it go.
In mathematical terms, this concept is described as freedom equals discipline. This was one of the big conclusions the author made from looking at the career of Eliud Kipchoge. Kipchoge was born in Kenya, grew up in a modest household, and went on to become what many consider the greatest marathon racer of all time.
As Kipchoge puts it, “If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods and passions.” Not only that – you’re also a slave to outside factors like your competitors, politics, or what other people are saying or doing. If you’re disciplined and focused on a daily process of improvement, then you don’t have to worry about these external things. You can rest easy knowing that you’re following your plan and doing the hard work.
Kipchoge is blunt about it. He says, “To win is not important. To be successful is not even important. How to plan and prepare is crucial.” When you plan and prepare well, success and winning will follow. In other words, when you respect the process, the results will take care of themselves.
Respecting the process also means that you don’t have to come out of the gate like a champion. Your only expectation is in doing something today that will make you better than you were yesterday. It doesn’t have to be big. In fact, planning out a series of small, doable steps is the better way to go.
This is the first of the three big tips the author learned from his conversations with James Clear, the best-selling author of the book Atomic Habits. The second is to turn positive behaviors, the kind that will help you reach those goals, into rituals or habits. The third is to remove obstacles from your environment.
Let’s look at a few examples of how these three tips go hand-in-hand.
Say you want to write a novel. Which plan sounds more likely to succeed: setting one big end-of-the-year deadline, or setting a series of goals to write a minimum of one hundred words per day? The latter one, right? It’s all about establishing a process – or, as Clear calls it, a habit or ritual – that guarantees progress.
There’s a good quote from the nineteenth-century journalist Jacob A. Riis – which is still so relevant today, in fact, that it can be found in the locker room of the San Antonio Spurs basketball team. It reads, “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” This is respecting the process. Your job is to chip away a little bit each day, knowing that your persistence is the hard work that will pay off in the end.
Unfortunately, results don’t come just from setting goals. But they do come from forming new habits and rituals, which only happens when you adopt a new lifestyle. Changing your lifestyle is basically another way of saying you’re starting a new plan and adopting a new process. And this is what gets results.
You might say, From now on I’m going to eat better, get in shape, and waste less time watching television. Well, that’s great – but in order for it to happen, you’ll need to establish a new lifestyle that supports these goals. If you keep following your old one, it’s extremely doubtful that you’ll get the results you’re after. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Along with your new lifestyle, removing obstacles in your life will help as well. You might change your habits by getting up a little earlier in the morning to make time for a prebreakfast workout ritual. But it’s also a good idea to remove temptations from your environment. If you want to eat a healthier diet, why not make it easier by removing the sugary snacks from your cupboards? If you want to watch less television, then remove the TV from your workroom. Make your environment conducive to your plan. It may sound simple, but it’s very effective. Lots of things are out of your control, but you can control your lifestyle, your habits, and your home environment.
All of these tips are about taking action. It’s easy to make plans. Many of us do this at the start of every new year. In order to follow through, you need to actually make the change and then keep at it day after day. This slow and steady determination – a commitment to gradual improvement – is what separates excellence from mediocrity.
Pursue what you love and surround yourself with transformational relationships.
At this point, you might be thinking, OK, so what I need is to up my willpower game, right? In order to be determined and persistent in my process, I need to will myself to excellence.
Not so fast. Like the idea of simply following your passion, relying on willpower alone is another common misconception that can lead people to throw in the towel too early.
People as successful as NBA legend Michael Jordan have spoken about “willing themselves to greatness.” But, as comedian Jerry Seinfeld has pointed out, they’re overlooking the crucial factor of love. No one is going to achieve excellence if they hate the process. On the other hand, when you truly love something, you have what Seinfeld refers to as “a bottomless pool of energy.”
This is different from someone saying, “If you do what you love, it won’t feel like work.” The better way to put it is, “If you do what you love, you won’t have trouble finding the energy needed to put in all the hard work.” That’s a big difference, right? The first one implies that once you find your love, it’s smooth sailing. The second one is more accurate. It implies that doing what you love will still involve a ton of effort, but you’ll have the energy to do it. That’s why, once you have the purpose mindset in place, the next step is to find what you love.
Michael Jordan loved the sport of basketball. Jerry Seinfeld loved the art of stand-up comedy. They both had that bottomless pit of energy for getting them through all the ups and downs of the process. Love is what keeps excellent athletes returning to practice and running drills – even when their bodies are still sore and tired from yesterday’s training session. Love is what keeps excellent performers returning to the stage even after they’ve bombed and received terrible reviews.
Everyone has to find their own thing that they love. But there’s another step that can boost you along your path to excellence, and that’s asking for help. So many of us are afraid to ask for guidance or mentorship – but there really isn’t a good reason for this, aside from the fear of being turned away or sounding foolish. In the long run, these aren’t the kind of fears that should hold you back. As Steve Jobs once rightfully pointed out, “If you’re afraid of failing, you won’t get very far.”
There’s a good chance that if you reach out to someone who’s also pursuing excellence, they’ll be responsive. People you admire have probably received guidance or mentoring from someone along the way, which means they’re likely to see the value in passing along that debt of gratitude.
Many of the people Ryan Hawk spoke to commented on the importance of getting over fears such as this one. You have to be willing to fail from time to time. Remember, failure is not an end – it’s just part of the process.
Beyond just asking for help, another important factor in the pursuit of excellence is surrounding yourself with excellent people. Reaching out to a possible mentor is just one way of doing this. There are a number of other factors to consider when trying to build a supportive, positive community around you. In fact, surrounding yourself with the right people is as important as any other action you can take in the pursuit of excellence.
So, one of the first things to consider is yourself. It’s not hard to understand why you would want to have a strong support system of bright and talented minds around you. But ask yourself, Why would they want to have you? Being a value-add, or a value-enhancer comes up a lot in the conversations the author has had. Many of his guests, including Todd Henry, the writer and host of the Accidental Creative podcast, speak about the importance of establishing your value to others. What kind of attitude and work ethic are you bringing to the table? Are you establishing mutual respect in your relationships, or are you trying to assert yourself as a know-it-all?
To be recognized as a value-enhancer, you need to put in the work. You want someone to see you and think, That person makes the team better and stronger. That person digs deep, is eager to learn, and can be relied upon, without a doubt. But being a value-enhancer is also about personality and trust.
Obviously, no one is eager to spend a lot of time with folks who are going to drag them down. And you shouldn’t be either. You want to surround yourself with inspiring people. In other words, rather than transactional relationships (you do this for me, I’ll do that for you) you want transformational relationships. These are the kinds of relationships that change both people for the better. People in transformational relationships challenge each other to push their boundaries and reach new heights of excellence.
Sometimes, it can be hard to spot the difference between the transactional and transformational people in your life. So to steer clear of transactional people, here are some questions to ask yourself when making new encounters.
Are they constantly dropping names in order to establish credibility? Do they ignore the details and talk a big game while actually doing very little? Do they only show up when there’s something in it for them personally? Are they always saying “I” and rarely saying “we?” Are they often on the lookout for ways to break the rules in order to win?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then the person in question may be lacking integrity and be more interested in a transactional relationship. This means you’re probably better off keeping your contact with this person to a minimum.
Trust, humor, vulnerability, optimism, mutual respect, and gratitude. These are the qualities you want to look for because these are the qualities that make up a transformational relationship – the kind that will help you a great deal in your pursuit of excellence.
Reframe failures as progress and never stop learning and growing.
Surrounding yourself with the right people will have transformational effects in terms of self-improvement, but it’s not going to remove all the speed bumps on the road to excellence. There are going to be mistakes, setbacks, days when you want to throw the plan out the window and go back to the comforts of your old habits.
How we meet these moments makes all the difference. Simply put, those who embrace the struggle are the ones who excel in their pursuit of excellence. Again, it all comes back to that purpose mindset and how it allows you to reframe setbacks as being part of the process. Here are some more tips on how you can keep yourself on the right track, reframe your failures as progress, and resist the urge to give up when times get tough.
The first is to remember that achieving excellence is primarily the result of stretching your boundaries and pushing yourself. With this in mind, you can start to see failure as a positive. If you’re not failing from time to time, that just means you’re not really pushing yourself as much as you could be.
This feeds into the next tip: study, learn, and grow stronger. Having a purpose mindset is very much in line with having a growth mindset. When you hit a speed bump, you discover where your current limits are. That doesn’t mean you can’t work to push that limit further back for the next challenge. You can get a little bit better every day by studying, learning, practicing, and strengthening. Kobe Bryant wasn’t born excellent and ready for the NBA. What made him excellent was his amazing work ethic – his dedication to stick to his plan and continue to improve no matter what.
It should come as no surprise that growing and learning is key to achieving excellence. Richard Feynman was someone who knew something about excellence. He pioneered the field of quantum electrodynamics and reached such impressive heights that Bill Gates considered him “the best teacher I never had.” Feynman’s life has been so thoroughly researched that we now have what’s known as the Feynman Technique, which is essentially a process for learning.
It’s a process that is centered around a pretty simple idea: Can you explain what you’ve learned to a child? The key here is to do enough research to cover all the gaps in your knowledge. This should allow you to organize the details into a clear story that even a child could understand.
If you’ve ever had to deliver a keynote address that explains a complex subject, you might be familiar with the general idea of the Feynman Technique. It’s not only useful for your audience; it’s also a way to ensure that you’ve fully learned and absorbed the information.
This technique can be useful in developing other habits that lead to success, like diversifying your skill sets and writing. The simple act of writing can be transformational – so put your plan in writing. Write down your small, daily goals to stay on track. When you learn a new skill or piece of information, write it down – and turn it into a simple story that a child could comprehend. When you make a mistake, write it down – and make a note of what you’ve learned from that mistake. Turn failures into new goals. Turn a daily journal into your ongoing memoir of excellence.
Hopefully these tips will help inspire some new habits of your own. Achieving excellence isn’t an easy task, but it is one of the most rewarding things we can do. A life well-lived is a life filled with purpose and meaning. And nothing ticks those boxes quite like the pursuit of excellence.
As we wrap up this summary to The Pursuit of Excellence by Ryan Hawk, let’s take a moment to go over the main ideas one more time.
According to Hawk, the pursuit of excellence is different from the pursuit of success. It’s focused on lifelong self-improvement and setting small goals that you can achieve on a daily basis. By adopting a purpose mindset, you’ll begin to respect the process by keeping the big picture in mind – and not letting temporary setbacks get you off track.
The purpose mindset is focused on internal factors that you can control, such as creating a lifestyle and environment that is conducive to your goals, and surrounding yourself with mentors and positive relationships. It also involves maintaining a growth mindset, where you constantly test and push your limits to new heights.
With these tips in mind, you’ll be one step closer to pursuing excellence.
About the author
Ryan Hawk is the creator and host of The Learning Leader Show, a top-rated business podcast that focuses on learning from the smartest, most thoughtful leaders in the world. He has interviewed over 450 leaders, including such luminaries as Simon Sinek, Seth Godin, Kat Cole, General Stanley McChrystal, Jim Collins, and Adam Grant. The Learning Leader Show has listeners in 156 countries worldwide. Forbes called it “the most dynamic leadership podcast out there,” and Inc. magazine listed the show as one of the top five podcasts to “help you lead smarter.” A sought-after professional speaker, Ryan is the author of Welcome to Management, which Forbes called “the best leadership book of 2020.”
Table of Contents
Success Versus Excellence
Don’t Sacrifice the Gift
PART I THE BUILD
1 Purpose Mindset
It’s About Growth
“This Is a Process”
Change Your Mind
Choose Transformational Relationships
Build Through Dialogue
2 Focus and Discipline
3.9 and 4 Flat
What Is Your Wall?
Hold onto the Fishing Pole
Show Up Consistently
Learn the Small Stuff to Do the Big Stuff
No Cheap Tricks
Moki Martin: The Lesson of the Sugar Cookie
Consistency: Keep Hammering
If You’re Not Embarrassed, You Waited Too Long . . .
January 1 Is the Next Day
Progress Happens in Uncertain Times
The Pain of the Process Is the Point
The Handstand Coach
Surviving the Hanoi Hilton
Keep Taking One More Step
Mortals Don’t Get to Determine Your Fate
PART II THE FUEL
4 What Lights You Up
Love Versus Will
Get Out of the Sand
The Most Useless Question
Find Your Edison
Turn Your Flywheel
5 The Power of Others
A Tale of Two Coaches
Stack the Deck
How to Ask
The Unknown Unknowns
The Full 360
Listen to Comprehend
Learning as a Competitive Advantage
6 The Confidence Flex
Your Mental Muscle
No Discounting Allowed
Meet the Moment
Act When Others Are Scared
The Value of Admiration
PART III THE CHASE
7 Making the Commitment
Opportunity Is Not a Lengthy Visitor
A Sparkling Pocket of Greatness
Stand Out and Speak Up
The Shape of a Laugh
Adapt Like the Frog
It Starts with How You See Yourself
8 Building Your Band
Make Trust Your Opening Bid
Stay Away from the Poison
Never Stifle a Generous Impulse
Practice Generosity, Humility, and Vulnerability
Listen with Your Eyes
Create Your Junto
9 It’s a Lifelong Pursuit
The Good Fortune of Knowing Nothing
What’s Under Your Pillow?
The Feynman Technique
Step Back to Move Forward
The Dinner Table
Excellence Takes Time
Accountability Is Required
Publish Your Work
Go to Camp
Be a Griot
Leave Fresh Tracks
Epilogue: “This I Believe”
A master class in achieving and sustaining excellence, even in the most challenging of times—from the host of The Learning Leader Show and author of Welcome to Management
Millions of business professionals aspire to become effective leaders. But for hardworking, growth-oriented top performers who are always looking to improve and for rigorous thinkers who are never quite satisfied with the status quo, the true goal is the lifelong pursuit of excellence.
Leadership advisor Ryan Hawk has interviewed hundreds of the most productive achievers in the world on his acclaimed podcast, The Learning Leader Show, to discover the best practices for pursuing and sustaining excellence. He found a pattern of uncommon behaviors that set these stellar individuals apart. By following their examples, you will learn how to:
- Commit to yourself and the process―and build purpose, focus, and discipline
- Develop resilience to face new challenges―and find inspiration for the long haul
- Seek guidance―and lead others to new heights
- Meet the moment―and make the most of every opportunity to excel
- Create a trusted group of advisors―and become a lifelong learner
Packed with specific actions to take, experiments to run, and tools to analyze what works best for you, this uncompromisingly practical guide will inspire, challenge, support, and empower you to become your very best. Put mindsets into action and turn behaviors into habits with The Pursuit of Excellence.
Video and Podcast
“Ryan Hawk is one of the most impressive leaders and teachers of leaders in the world. . . .This book is an absolute must-read if you care to live an excellent life.” – from the Foreword by Patrick Lencioni, New York Times bestselling author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage
“Ryan Hawk’s curiosity and work ethic has led him to uncover the uncommon behaviors of the world’s greatest leaders. This book reverse engineers excellence in ways that will inform and inspire.” – Daniel H. Pink, New York Times bestselling author of When, Drive, and A Whole New Mind
“Ryan Hawk’s pursuit of excellence raises the standards of all those he encounters. As he strives for excellence, he brings out the best in others. This book will bring out the best in you. Read it!” – Jon Gordon, Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Training Camp and The Energy Bus
“The Pursuit of Excellence is not just interesting, or inspiring, it will literally change your life. Filled with fascinating examples and practical advice for how to approach your career differently, this book is a must-read. I highly recommend it.” – Erin Meyer, Professor of Management Practice at INSEAD and New York Times bestselling coauthor of No Rules Rules
“This book is fire. I can’t stop reading it. I’m going to buy one for all our new hires.” – Bert Bean, CEO of Insight Global
“This is an outstanding read on everything that goes into excellence. Ryan delivers real, practical, and profound insights into the pursuit of a standard of excellence in our lives and work. The anecdotes are fascinating and speak to the years of his detailed study of high-achieving people, as well as his own pursuit of this standard. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and look forward to more of Ryan’s work.” – Chris Holtmann, Head Coach of the Ohio State University Men’s Basketball Team
“Ryan Hawk has led teams on the football field, in the boardroom, and while working with senior leaders in corporate America. He’s learned how to build trust, take action, and get results. If you want to do the same, read this book!” – Joel Peterson, Chairman of JetBlue Airways and author of The 10 Laws of Trust
“Ryan Hawk conducted one of the most thoughtful interviews I’ve ever had. He probed for ideas that are down to earth and practical for all.” – Jeff Immelt, former CEO of GE and author of Hot Seat
“Ryan Hawk is a master of dualities: He’s a great leader, but also a ferocious learner. He’s an accomplished athlete, but he’s also excelled in the business world. He’s eminently interesting, but he’s also genuinely interested. Ryan has uncovered the secrets of what the best leaders do and how they think. Do yourself and your team a favor and read this book.” – Liz Wiseman, New York Times bestselling author of Multipliers and Rookie Smarts
“Ryan Hawk is someone who points the way, illustrating how you can’t lead a team or a company until you first learn to lead yourself. He offers inspiring and practical advice based on his lessons as a sports and business athlete and shares insights he’s learned from others along the way.” – Beth Comstock, former Vice Chair of GE and bestselling author of Imagine It Forward
“Ryan Hawk is that rarest of people—a truly curious soul who asks questions that drill down into the heart of the matter, leave space for contemplation, and gently urge his subjects to look inside for answers they might not yet have discovered themselves.” – Robert Kurson, New York Times bestselling author of Shadow Divers
“From the time he was a young high school and collegiate quarterback to the present, Ryan Hawk has always had the passion to serve and to lead. His presentations, podcasts, and books will make a difference in many lives.” – Jim Tressel, President of Youngstown State University and former Coach of the National Champion Ohio State University Football Team
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
If you have only recently come to learn about Ryan Hawk, I suppose you could go listen to the over 400 interviews Ryan has generated for his award-winning podcast, The Learning Leader Show—and I’d recommend that. Another way to catch the spirit of the podcast is to read this book. In it, Ryan has distilled the wisdom he’s learned from two sources: seven years of interviewing some of the best leaders in the world and thousands of hours of study and practice in his own life.
When I first met Ryan on The Learning Leader Show, I was certain I had stumbled upon one of the most impressive leaders and teachers of leaders in the world. He doesn’t come from New York City or Washington, D.C., or Silicon Valley. Ryan’s from Dayton, Ohio, and he isn’t enamored with title or status. He just wants all of us to be better, and he does that by giving us access to real-world, humble leaders who are in the trenches with their people—those who have learned how to lead through trial and error.
Ryan Hawk certainly didn’t know what his podcast would become when he posted his first episode seven years ago. Or maybe he did; he’s that kind of guy. But he couldn’t have anticipated that he would bring so many people together to share their experiences in such a powerful way.
This book is the culmination of that adventure in learning and teaching. Ryan has systematically observed the world’s most excellent leaders, and then assembled those observations into a toolkit, outlining the actions and attitudes that drive achievement. This book is an absolute must-read if you care to live an excellent life.
Having spent hours with Ryan on- and off-air, I’m inspired by his dedication to producing excellent work and pursuing excellence in his own life—all with an eye to serving the community he’s worked so hard to build. Take the time to read this book and ask yourself how these words can make you a better leader and a better person right now.
Thank you, Ryan, for bringing us this gem: The Pursuit of Excellence.
Founder and CEO of The Table Group
Bestselling author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
and The Advantage
When not crashing their flying machine prototype into the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright spent large swaths of time sitting on the beach watching birds and imitating their movements. At least, that is how it appeared to the locals who took notice. “We couldn’t help thinking they were just a pair of poor nuts,” recounted Kitty Hawk resident John T. Daniels. “They’d stand on the beach for hours at a time, just looking at the gulls flying, soaring, dipping. They would watch the gannets and imitate the movements of their wings with their arms and hands. They could imitate every movement of those gannets; we thought they were crazy, but we just had to admire the way they could move their arms this way and that and bend their elbows and wrist bones up and down and which way, just like the gannets.”1
But what looked like a weird habit was actually Orville and Wilbur studying how to fly. What better model than birds? Wilbur filled pages of his notebook with drawings and observations about the differences among how buzzards, eagles, and hawks rode the air. “The buzzard,” he wrote, “which uses the dihedral angle finds greater difficulty to maintain equilibrium in strong winds than eagles or hawks which hold their wings level. The hen hawk can rise faster than the buzzard and its motion is steadier. It displays less effort in maintaining its balance. Hawks are better soarers than the buzzards but more often resort to flapping because they wish greater speed. A damp day is unfavorable for soaring unless there is a high wind. No bird soars in a calm.”2 In the margins next to his observations, Wilbur drew the different birds and their wing angles. He paid close attention to the subtle differences in wing inclination, center of gravity, and the “fore-and-aft equilibrium” that all factored into lift and flight. Orville explained it succinctly: “Learning the secret of flight from a bird was a good deal like learning the secret of magic from a magician.”3
In Dayton, Ohio, I grew up with the legacy of the Wright Brothers. The fingerprints of civic pride in the turn-of-the-century Daytonians who unlocked the secret of powered human flight are everywhere. There is the series of national aviation history museum sites on Dayton’s west side: The Wright Brothers’ family home and their bicycle shop, the places where their dreams and theories about flight took shape. The over 8,000 acres of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB) encompass the field on Dayton’s east side where the brothers perfected their Wright Flyer after its historic first flight. Located next to WPAFB is Wright State University. Drive through the center of Dayton’s downtown and you will pass under a gorgeous piece of abstract art known as “Flyover” that traces the 150-foot-long and 43-foot-high flight path of the Wright Brothers’ first flight.
Over the years, a methodology has emerged that drives my pursuit of excellence following this very same pattern. Just as the Wright Brothers were fascinated by the movements of birds, I am fascinated by the stories behind personal and organizational excellence. Just as they took note of the most fundamental details of how birds moved their bodies to harness the forces of lift, I love distilling the examples of excellence in others down to their component parts. My goal is to understand why it happened. Was it intentional, deliberate action that caused the outcome, or was it luck? How did that result come about? What was the series of events that led to it? When I can identify the actions, behaviors, habits, routines, and rituals of those who sustain excellence, I implement them to see what works for me and what could work for others. This approach and that effort have culminated in the book you are now holding.
SUCCESS VERSUS EXCELLENCE
What’s the difference between success and excellence? It’s a question I hear often, and it’s one I have asked myself and others many times. The person whose answer I find myself sharing with others the most is that of a high school basketball coach named Brook Cupps. Brook is the head basketball coach at my alma mater, Centerville High School. He coached the elite-level AAU team that featured both his own son, Gabe, and the son of LeBron James, LeBron James Jr. In 2021, he led Centerville to its first-ever state championship (Gabe was the leading scorer in the championship game).
Over the past few years, Brook has become one of my most valued friends because he embodies what it means to live true to your values. I have long been an admirer of how he does more than just teach basketball to the young people in his charge. He instills in them the lessons of leadership and, specifically, a thirst for excellence. When I asked Brook what the difference is between success and excellence, he replied, “Success is based on a comparison with others. Excellence is measured against your own potential.”
His answer is so simple, yet so true. The only comparison I should be making is with myself. Will I be better tomorrow than I am today? Will I be more thoughtful, more intentional, more purposeful in the future than I am right now? Do my habits, routines, rituals, and actions match my intention to be better tomorrow than I am today? These questions are the gateway to excellence because living a life of excellence is about the fanatical pursuit of gradual improvement. I like the way author Darren Hardy describes the compounding effect of gradual improvement: “It’s the principle of reaping huge rewards from a series of small, smart choices. Small, Smart Choices + Consistency + Time = RADICAL DIFFERENCE.”4
DON’T SACRIFICE THE GIFT
Why not be satisfied with the attainable goal of “success” rather than opting for the hard road of continuous but never finished “improvement”? Why pursue excellence when winning can be had for less? The words of famed long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine accurately capture how I feel: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
Steve Prefontaine set American records at every distance from 2,000 to 10,000 meters as he prepared for the 1976 Olympics. Known simply as “Pre” in the running world, he was renowned for setting an extraordinarily fast pace. He said, “A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into an exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself more.”5
This is a different way of viewing what a race is all about: as a test of yourself, not a means of comparing yourself to others. Can you be better this time than you were last time? What are you doing to intentionally improve yourself? That’s what excellence is about. The primary comparison you should get in the habit of making is the one with your previous self. What are you doing to be better tomorrow than you are today? Who are you surrounding yourself with to ensure that? What habits are you creating to consistently improve over time? All these actions and thoughts come from intention and living with purpose. I won’t say that this is the easiest way to live, but I think it’s the most fulfilling.
Always striving to do better is a challenge. I’m driven to meet that challenge. To not pursue excellence would feel like I’m wasting this wonderful opportunity I’ve been given. The pursuit of excellence is about maximizing my potential. The chase is about not just accepting the problems and struggles that are inevitable parts of life. It is about embracing them. Why not aggressively attack them?
I’m fueled by feedback that what I do helps people. I’m motivated by positively impacting the lives of others, whether friends or complete strangers. I relish the challenge of helping high performers—people who are smarter than me, have already accomplished a lot, and have the titles to prove it. Accepting that challenge means showing up and doing it well. But embracing that challenge also means daring them to do the same and pushing them to aim higher.
I feel a sense of responsibility to be excellent based on the fortunate circumstances into which I am grateful to have been born. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized just how fortunate I am to have been nurtured throughout my life by my parents, my brothers, my coaches, and great bosses. I wonder what I have done to deserve that.
And yet, here I am with many people who believe in me. I love proving those people right. That’s why I am committed to pursuing excellence. If I’m always trying to get better and that effort shows up in the results of my work, then I’m bound to be useful to others. If my work helps them, then that validates the investments in me of my supporters.
I can’t imagine not living this way. I love the thought that my work moves people to take action in their lives. To do that, I can’t be satisfied with the goal of being “great.” I have to aim higher—for excellence. That is what I want my life to be all about.
A pursuit is a chase or quest for something. It’s a word that comes from the Anglo-French purseute, which means “the act of pursuing or striving toward goals.”6 Movement, action, effort, and exertion are all required elements of a pursuit. Author and leadership legend John Maxwell told me, “Action shows intention. Nobody ever wanted to follow me when I was sitting my butt in the sand. That’s why I’m always moving.”7
Pursuing excellence requires that same mindset—one that is biased toward action. It is the pursuit of getting better. It is not about the achievement of climbing a mountain. It is about climbing the next taller mountain. Without progress and growth, there is no life. Without endurance in the pursuit, there is no excellence. The pursuit of excellence is a form of what Simon Sinek calls an “infinite game”: one where “there is no finish line, no practical end to the game . . . no such thing as ‘winning’ . . . [where] the primary objective is to keep playing, to perpetuate the game.”8 It is about pushing yourself beyond the edges of your zone of comfort and competency. Then once you adapt and establish a new horizon of what is comfortable, pushing yourself beyond it again. And again. And again.
In my first book, Welcome to Management, I focused on a very specific moment in one’s journey of leadership: the transition from working as an individual contributor to leading as a just-promoted, first-time manager. That book was intended to serve as a reference manual for the new leader, the kind of book bosses would give to people along with the news they were being promoted to a leadership position, the type of book a manager might turn to again and again over the next few years, as they navigate the new terrain of management responsibility.
With this book, The Pursuit of Excellence, my goal is to be both practical and aspirational: to dig into what excellence is, why it matters, and how to go about pursuing it. This book is for growth-oriented, hardworking people who think rigorously. It may not be for everyone.
I’m often asked by colleagues, friends, podcast listeners, and clients, “What are the common themes you find among the guests you speak with? What do they do?” This book is my answer. There are several distinct lessons I need to share, and my experiences interviewing people such as Jim Collins, Kat Cole, Dan Pink, Admiral William McRaven, Jeni Britton Bauer, George Raveling, Patrick Lencioni, Susan Cain, and hundreds of other high achievers help make that possible. Along with their invaluable insights, I draw on over two decades of my own learning by trial and error. I lay it all out on the table in both a descriptive and prescriptive manner. Over the course of this journey together, we will zoom out to the 30,000-feet view of what makes excellence and zoom in to street level to examine the tactics, behaviors, and actions taken by noted high performers across a wide variety of domains. As you read, you may encounter ideas that will invite you to question yourself and your beliefs. That’s OK. It’s part of the journey. You will also find specific actions to take, experiments to run, and tools to analyze what works best for you as you pursue your own brand of excellence. What should you continue to do, and what should you stop? Productive achievers live lives full of experiments, and I want to both inspire you and equip you to do just that.
PART I THE BUILD
1 PURPOSE MINDSET
The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety. – JOSH WAITZKIN
For the first two and a half decades of my life, my passion and purpose were all about sports. I wanted to play football and planned to do that as my life’s work. Through football, I was able to earn a full scholarship that paid for my college education (and room and board). But life sometimes has a funny way of letting you know that your plans aren’t going to work out. While I was passionate about earning a living as a quarterback, the key decision makers determined that I was not good enough to play in the NFL. The universe retired me from my dream, and I was forced to figure out how to find my next passion.
With the help of a family friend, I landed a job in telephonic sales. It was a humbling moment. Did I grow up saying, “Wow, I hope I can get a job in a cubicle making 70 cold calls a day for a living?” Of course not. I haven’t met anyone who has. But I know a lot of people who grow up wanting to do excellent work that fulfills them.
In a survey conducted by the Stanford Center on Longevity, 77 percent of Americans said they want to live to be at least 100 years old.1 While a healthy diet full of whole foods and regular exercise increase our odds, there is one key element that science shows we often overlook: finding purpose.
According to the Washington Post, “Research reveals that people who believe their existence has meaning have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and more favorable gene expression related to inflammation. If a 90-year-old with a clear purpose in life develops Alzheimer’s disease, that person will probably keep functioning relatively well despite real pathological changes in the brain, one study found. Another meta-analysis of 10 studies involving more than 136,000 people found that having purpose in life can lower your mortality risk by about 17 percent.”2 The simple fact is that any job in any profession can do this for anyone. Find your purpose and meaning in the job you have, and excellence becomes possible.
As I embarked on my new path as a telephonic sales rep, I learned that implementing a similar work ethic from my playing days to the world of professional selling would be helpful. I realized that my love for competition could still apply by competing against both my own prior performance and the performance of my peers. I discovered that I enjoyed helping my customers and that I got fulfillment out of helping my teammates and my manager. Did I love the actual job? Was it my passion? Not necessarily. But there were many elements of the work that I came to love.
Eventually, I became good at the job. I developed some mastery for how to do it well. I was given autonomy by my boss because of the results I produced for him and the company. I developed relationships with many coworkers who became my friends for life. I started looking forward to Monday mornings and the grind of each week. I loved that it was hard and that only a few of us could achieve the “Circle of Excellence” status that the company had established for the highest performers. I enjoyed the pursuit and the challenge to perform at higher levels. I felt fulfilled by improving my skills at something I had previously never done.
The passion came after the performance. I became passionate about the work because I developed a high level of skill to do it well. And the same is true for what I do now for a living. I am immensely curious about understanding the frameworks of excellence of others. Because of that, I launched a podcast with the intent of creating a platform to enable me to have long-form conversations with fascinating people who have sustained excellence. That curiosity has driven me to work at the craft of asking thoughtful questions, developing better listening skills, and asking even better follow-up questions. My passion for this work has grown over the many years I’ve done it. Once I’ve developed a skill, it fuels my purpose and gives me more fulfillment. That drives me to work on it even more, which helps me get better over time.
The improvement of my output has opened countless doors for other career and relationship opportunities. The podcast has become the basis for my full-time work. I’ve built a business from it. I’ve created products and services such as my Learning Leader Circles, which are paid mastermind groups, or The Learning Leader Academy, my online school for leaders. I now regularly give keynote speeches for a wide variety of companies and conferences, and I work with the leadership teams of those companies to help them be more effective. All these opportunities have resulted from The Learning Leader Show, and that was born out of my choice to be purposeful about my work long before I uncovered a passion for it.
When asked for advice, Professor Scott Galloway said, “The worst advice given to young people is . . . follow your passion. If someone tells you to follow your passion, that means they’re already rich. Your job is to find something you’re good at. And then spend thousands of hours and apply the grit and the sacrifice and the willingness to break through hard things to become great at it. Because once you’re great at something, the economic accoutrements of being great at something, the prestige, the relevance, the camaraderie, the self-worth of being great . . . will make you passionate about whatever it is. Here’s the problem with believing you should follow your passion: Work is hard. And when you run into obstacles and you face injustice, which is a common guaranteed attribute of the workplace, you’ll start thinking, ‘I’m not loving this. This is upsetting and hard. It must not be my passion.’ That is not the right litmus test. Jay-Z followed his passion and is a billionaire. Assume you are not Jay-Z .”3
This is the same advice I received years ago from Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work: “‘Follow your passion’ is bad advice for a few reasons. The first is that most people don’t have a clear predefined passion to follow. This is especially true if you consider young people who are just setting out on their own for the first time. The advice to follow your passion is frustratingly meaningless if, like many people, you don’t have a passion to follow. The second reason is that we don’t have much evidence that matching your job to a preexisting interest makes you more likely to find that work satisfying. The properties we know lead people to enjoy their work—such as autonomy, mastery, and relationships—have little to do with whether or not the work matches an established inclination.”4
IT’S ABOUT GROWTH
Dr. Carol Dweck was born in New York in 1946, the middle child of three. In sixth grade, Carol and the rest of her fellow students were seated in order of their IQ. The children with the highest IQs in the class were the only ones entrusted with special classroom duties: washing the blackboard, carrying the flag, or taking a note to the principal’s office for the teacher. Carol said, “On the one hand, I didn’t believe that a score on a test was that important; on the other hand, every student wants to succeed in the framework that’s established. So, looking back, I think that glorification of IQ was a pivotal point of my development.”5
In fact, that experience set up the trajectory of her professional scholarship decades later. For her PhD, Dweck asked children to answer a series of increasingly harder questions. Her goal was to measure how they responded to questions they eventually would get wrong. She wanted to see how they would cope with it. “I was quite amazed when some of the kids got excited when I gave them problems they couldn’t solve . . . my eyes kind of bugged out. Those kids taught me something that determined the rest of my career. I wanted to figure out what kind of ‘special sauce’ they had, and I wanted to bottle it—that is what I devoted my career to.”6
Dr. Dweck would later publish her bestselling book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In it, she lays out the differences between what she calls the fixed mindset (the belief that growth potential is limited by inherited traits like IQ) and the growth mindset (the belief that inherited traits merely provide the starting point for nearly limitless growth potential). Her research suggests that teachers can foster students’ growth mindset by teaching them that intelligence can be developed, which helps them to embrace challenges and the rewards that come with hard work and effort, not just those that flow from their inherent intelligence. When I spoke with Dr. Dweck on my podcast, she shared her thoughts about the problems associated with having a fixed mindset, as well as tangible actions you can take—both as a parent raising a child and for managing yourself. Here are a few:
Be aware that doing something the hard way will benefit you (and your children).
Fixed mindset leaders have a deep-seated insecurity. “They have to keep showing that they’re a genius.”
People with a fixed mindset are afraid to find out that they aren’t very smart.
Ask yourself, When was the last time I was wrong? (This is healthy. Do it often.)
Sharing credit or taking it all for yourself? It shows a lot about your mindset. Growth mindset leaders share credit with others because nobody is self-made. We’re all community made.
Do not reward children for getting straight As. Instead, focus on their willingness to push themselves with classes outside of their comfort zone and the attitude they bring to the class. I learned from Carol to read the teacher’s comments first and talk with my children about those comments before looking at the grades. Give positive reinforcement to growth mindset characteristics like effort, attitude, and willingness to take on a challenge.
“Don’t praise intelligence. Praise the process.”
Don’t declare that you have a growth mindset. Instead, figure out what triggers you into having a fixed mindset. Start there.7
Dr. Dweck asks readers of her work a series of pointed, thought-provoking questions that are critical guideposts for the pursuit of excellence. “Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well . . . this is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”8
On September 15, 2008, the financial system ground to a near-complete halt under the rising tide of subprime mortgage defaults. The chain reaction had been slow rolling across the economy since early that spring, when the investment bank Bear Stearns had to sell itself for cents on the dollar to avoid bankruptcy. On that fall morning, the collapsing housing market claimed its most shocking casualty. Lehman Brothers, the fourth-largest investment bank in the country, abruptly filed for the largest bankruptcy in US history. The death of this nearly 160-year-old firm suddenly threw its 25,000 global employees out of work and sent the stock market to its biggest single-day plunge since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.9
At the time, Ryan Serhant was a 24-year-old struggling actor and hand model starting his career as a real estate broker in New York City. He was trying to learn the ropes of his new job while suddenly competing against 80,000 other real estate agents all struggling to even get rental listings. At this point, Ryan told me, he did what he calls a “self-audit.” He went to his closest friends and colleagues and asked them one question: “When I’m not around and you’re describing me to someone else, what do you say?” He explained, “How they describe you to others (when you’re not around) is the real perception of you, your character, and your brand.”10
What Ryan learned from this exercise was tough to hear. His peers described him as the guy who couldn’t look someone in the eye, who would awkwardly put his hands in his pockets and regularly fail to muster the courage to talk to people. Ryan knew that in the real estate business, this image—his personal brand—was not going to work. After incorporating this information and implementing personal changes, the results ultimately spoke for themselves. Ryan’s self-audit led to him becoming the leader of the number one real estate team in New York City, selling $1.45 billion worth of real estate in 2019.
In 2012, just four years after getting his start in the real estate world, Ryan went to an open audition to become a cast member for the Emmy-nominated television show Million Dollar Listing New York. He showed up along with 3,000 other real estate brokers. His chances seemed less than small. He didn’t have the connections of a big New York family. He did not come from money. In fact, he was still learning his craft and had not sold much to that point.
“What did you say?” I asked him. “How did you get cast for that show?” He answered, “I sold them on the person that I was going to become, not the person I was at the moment.” As anyone familiar with the show knows, his approach worked: Ryan is now one of its stars. He has gone on to have his own show, Sell It Like Serhant, and has published a book with the same title.11
The point of this story is Ryan’s willingness to do regular audits of himself. He was unafraid to hold a mirror up and see its honest reflection. He asked his friends and colleagues to give a true assessment of what he brings to the table. Years later, watching Ryan on my podcast or on his TV show, one would never guess he was someone who lacked confidence or couldn’t look you in the eye. He is the opposite of that now.
The idea of becoming is a through-point in this entire book. We must possess the mindset of putting in the necessary work to constantly improve and grow. In the process of getting cast on Million Dollar Listing New York, Ryan Serhant was asked for his one-line mantra. He thought, “I’m all about growth, all about getting bigger and leading an empire.” So he said, “Expansion. Always, in all ways.” It’s memorable and true. It’s what his friends say about him when he’s not around.
What do your friends say about you when you’re not around? How would they describe you in one sentence to others? Ask them. Learn. And then work to make that one-sentence description what you want it to be.
“THIS IS A PROCESS”
I love learning how world-class performers produce their work. What I find so fascinating is how unique the processes are that creators use to pursue their craft. Their methods are as diverse as their personalities. Take, for example, Billy Joel: the five-time Grammy Award–winning songwriter and musician who is not only a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but is also the only nonclassical musician to have his portrait on display in the midtown Manhattan showroom of the famous piano maker Steinway & Sons.12
Singer-songwriter Tom Bahler recounted a writing session he had with Billy Joel that turned into the hit song, “For the Longest Time.” As Bahler recalls, Billy Joel came into the studio with “a spiral-bound college notebook.” Bahler sees Joel turn to a blank page in the notebook, jot down the title “For the Longest Time,” and start writing lyrics. After the Piano Man finished filling up the page with the new song’s lyrics, he turned the page and wrote them all again. Only this time, Bahler noticed it was with the exception of the title. Joel simply rewrote the lyrics from start to finish, with only a word or two being different from the version on the preceding page.
According to Bahler, this repetitive process of evolution continued for “like 10 or 20 times” before Joel closed the notebook. The scene prompted Bahler to blurt out, “What the hell?”
“What?!” responded Joel.
“Well, Billy,” said Bahler, “I’m a writer, and most writers—I don’t know anybody who writes like that. If we get an idea, we cross out a line and replace it.”
“Oh no, no, no, man. I don’t do that,” Joel said. “That would send my subconscious a message that I had made a mistake. And this is a process,” he added, holding up the notebook. The message left a lasting impact on Bahler. He explains, “That’s one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned, and I’ll never forget that moment.”13
That story illustrates the intricacies and quirks of a process unique to one person. Billy Joel’s process is what helps get the genius from his head to the page and ultimately to our ears. While it may not be the process for others, it’s his. And that’s what is most important. He’s figured out how to send the right subconscious messages to his brain that enhance his creativity. He sees his songwriting as less of a writing process and more of a sculpting exercise, one that reveals what he hears within the music he writes. “I think every piece of music has something apparent in it lyrically. For me it’s like fate knocking on the door. . . . It’s like Michelangelo sculpting marble. Inside that marble is the sculpture, he’s just got to find it. That’s how I write lyrics. I write music and then ask, ‘What does this music say to me?’”14
Here is one of our generation’s greatest pop music songwriters saying, “This is how I work.” He is not saying, “Here is how you should do it, too.”
What is your process? What is the optimal setup for you to produce your best work? It’s worth figuring that out, so that you can put yourself in a position to perform at an excellent level consistently. A valuable element of self-awareness is truly developing a sense of your own personal creative process—what works for you. Billy Joel discovered his. You have one, too. It’s your job to find it. And when you do, integrity demands that you stay true to it. Trust yourself and your own personal excellence process.
CHANGE YOUR MIND
Being true to yourself and your own personal ideas, beliefs, and processes doesn’t mean you should be resistant to ever changing them. Such intellectual inflexibility is the telltale sign of confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of your existing beliefs or theories. People who suffer from confirmation bias support or oppose a particular issue and will not only seek information to support their position but will also interpret news stories in a way that reinforces their existing beliefs. Over time, people become less likely to engage with information that challenges their views, and when they do, confirmation bias causes them to reject it.
According to Robert Sapolsky, professor of neuroscience at Stanford University, we tend to perform the process of gathering evidence and forming opinions in reverse. “We first come to a desired conclusion—often based on things as fleeting as group affiliation or life experiences. Only then do we look for evidence, and only the kind that supports our ready-made position.”15 It is because this trait is such a fundamental aspect of human nature that its opposite—the ability to change one’s mind when the stakes are highest—is a real differentiator.
In 1983, Guy Kawasaki was hired by Apple to serve in a role that the tech world now would call Chief Evangelist. After four years of working in the world Steve Jobs had created, Kawasaki ventured out on his own to start several of his own companies. By 1995, he was back at Apple as an Apple fellow, working closely with Jobs, as he had before.
“One of the most important lessons that I learned from Steve Jobs is that changing your mind, changing what you’re doing, reversing yourself at an extreme,” Kawasaki told CNBC Make It at the Synergy Global Forum, “is a sign of intelligence. It’s a sign of competence.”16
Kawasaki explained what this looked like in practice. When the iPhone debuted in 2007, its software environment was a closed system. To protect the integrity of Apple’s front-to-back, software-to-hardware design ethos and the system’s security, Jobs refused to allow outside developers to create apps for use on this new revolutionary fusion of the cell phone, the mp3 player, and an internet-connected computer. If software developers wanted to build apps for use on the iPhone, they would have to build those apps using a Safari plugin.
After only a year, that decision was proving to be a disaster. For all the potential of the new iPhone, its capability was being choked off by this restrictive barrier to innovative app development. In response, Jobs made a complete “180-degree reversal,” Kawasaki says, opening the iOS environment up to outside developers.
The lesson is one that remains with Kawasaki to this day, and one he imparts to others from his perch as the chief evangelist at the free-to-use online graphic design site, Canva. “When you figure out you’re doing something wrong, don’t try to bluff your way, don’t try to perpetuate a mistake. You’ll actually do yourself a favor, probably the organization you work for, probably your boss, too, by changing your mind, by reversing—by fixing what’s broken.”17
Brad Feld has been an early stage investor and entrepreneur since 1987. Growing up, his parents gave him positive affirmation for being curious. When I asked him to share the advice he gives to the startup founders he works with, his answer focused on biases. “People often defend their biases instead of questioning their biases.” He’s learned to approach new ideas with a Buddhist philosophy: by letting go of assumptions and approaching each topic with a beginner’s mind. This mindset has helped him raise north of $500 million for his venture capital business, Foundry Group.18
When I think about the most impactful leaders in my life, they are the ones who had the confidence and humility to realize when they were wrong and change their mind. Only the strongest and clearest thinkers can do this. As Julia Galef, author of The Scout Mindset, told me, “You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.”
The ability to think and rethink what you know to be true is a superpower. The ability to change your mind will make you a better decision maker. The ability to ask, “What is a better way to do this?” will help you perform more optimally in the long term. We’ve all heard, “We’ve always done it this way” from a boss before. Don’t be that person. Be the one who says, “Wow, I’ve never thought of it that way. Thank you for opening my eyes to something new.” It doesn’t mean the new way will be right. It just means you will be open to it being right.
CHOOSE TRANSFORMATIONAL RELATIONSHIPS
The people you intentionally choose to have in your life will play a bigger role in your long-term excellence than perhaps any other choices you make.
One of the guests I’ve had on the podcast whose work I find myself coming back to again and again is Brent Beshore. Brent is the CEO of Permanent Equity, a firm that specializes in investing in “boring” (their word)19 family-owned business. Recently, Brent shared a snippet from a private investor letter that perfectly captures an important idea about the purpose of our relationships:
Transactional people often have a single goal in mind in their relationships—to benefit themselves and look out for their own interests, often at the expense of others. Everyone they encounter serves as a means to an end, whether it is an introduction, to sell you something, or to raise money. Visualize high pressure salespeople, politicians, media-seeking CEOs, or someone you barely know who reaches out for a quick ask. When you are no longer useful to them, they drop you, because there is only loyalty to you in the moment. Their definition of success is based on the here and now, not the long road ahead. If you enter the relationship assuming a long-term outlook, you will find later that you have paid a kind of tax rather than invested in a friendship.
Transactional CEOs may appear wildly successful, but the ones who got there using shortcuts will soon face real problems, likely followed by stagnation or fast decline. Their attitude is do whatever it takes and deal with consequences later. Because their success was built on a weak foundation, they end up with lawsuits against them, enemies, scandals, and other problems, having never built a sustainable business. Therefore, if you are a long-term investor, you must avoid investing in transactional leaders. You simply cannot compound transactional relationships.20
There is a significant difference between mutually beneficial long-term relationships and a series of transactional relationships. We know transactional people exist, but we can be fooled, especially if we lead with trust. Be on the lookout for people who exhibit these qualities when you encounter them:
Constant name droppers. They use big names as a way of building credibility.
Scant attention to details. They focus more on “getting a win” than in seeing that win all the way through to complete implementation.
Always selling. Though I am a proponent of the sales profession, we must remember that sales is about solving problems, not pushing a product or service to someone who may not need it.
Lots of talk, little action. Transactional people make a lot of promises, but often do not deliver on them.
They do not invest in relationships. They show up only when a person is useful to them.
False flattery. They often resort to generalities; the key to a genuine compliment is specificity (e.g., “I loved the opening story you told in the town hall meeting. It applied perfectly to our situation.”).
Self-promotion. They overuse “I” and rarely say “we.”
Lack of integrity. If someone is willing to break the rules to win or to help you, they’ll be willing to do it to hurt you at some point.
I’m not advocating that you become a cynical person who constantly questions the sincerity of others. But it’s worth your time to be aware of transactional people and minimize those relationships in your life. Surround yourself with people who genuinely want to see you do well and for whom you want the same. You increase your odds of living a life of excellence.
To better understand the difference between a transactional relationship and a transformational one, I reached out to a number of my most trusted friends and asked them the makeup of the great relationships in their life. Here are a few of the qualities of a transformational relationship:
Transformation. By definition, you are transformed by these people. They change you. They make you better. They are willing to push you beyond your current boundaries, and because of that, you get better. You do the same for them.
Trust. As CEO of Insight Global, Bert Bean told me about his friend and Chief Revenue Officer, Sam Kaufman, “My trust in Sam is marrow deep.”
Humor. This came up more than I expected in responses from friends. Your transformational friends have the right to make fun of you, and you spend a lot of time laughing together. This stems from trust and love.
Vulnerability. There is no facade, there are no walls. They have the confidence in themselves and trust in you to be 100 percent real. They share secrets, insecurities, and problems. And you do the same.
Respect. There is a mutual respect for the value that each person brings to the relationship. Transformational relationships are built on complementary qualities that each person respects and appreciates in the other. When I was working on my MBA, my friend Jameson Hartke played the role of a tutor for me. He had a degree in finance and understood most (or all) of my coursework better than I did. I respected his knowledge of a complex subject and willingness to teach me. He was new to the profession of sales at the time, and I was in a leadership role. I tried to help him become a better sales professional. We had complementary skills that benefitted each other.
Gratitude. They compliment people behind their backs. When you’re talking with these types of people, they are constantly shining a light on the goodness of others. When something goes well in their life, they are quick to point out how it couldn’t have been done without the great work of other people.
Optimism. Regardless of the circumstances, they believe that they’ll figure it out and things will go well. And they feel the same way about you. They are willing to take the extra step to help you fight through any challenges you are facing.
BUILD THROUGH DIALOGUE
Having one-on-one conversations is a critical tool in building transformational rather than transactional relationships. The care, curiosity, honesty, integrity, and compassion you show will determine whether or not you build long-term meaningful relationships. Transformational relationships are those that change your life. The care, presence, and wisdom of the other person makes you feel better and more fulfilled. I’ve thought about this a lot in the context of conducting my podcast interviews. I sincerely want to build relationships with my guests beyond the formal interviewer-interviewee dynamic. Here’s what I’ve learned after conducting more than 500 interviews.
For a podcast interview, I read everything my guests have written, watch videos of all their speeches on YouTube, and review articles others have written about them. Using this information, I build a full 360-degree view of them and write my interview outline accordingly. One new part of preparation that I’ve added to my repertoire over the past year is reaching out to mutual friends and asking them one simple question, “What is something I should know about them that I can’t find on the internet?” This has elicited all types of interesting responses.
As I was preparing to interview rocket scientist Ozan Varol, I reached out to our mutual friend, Shane Snow. Shane said, “Ask him why he still rents DVDs on Netflix instead of just streaming them.” That seemed bizarre. So I asked Ozan about it. He laughed, and then gave a thoughtful answer about the benefit of delayed gratification and the careful planning process he has with his wife of choosing a movie (to watch together) and then having to wait a few days to do it. Their feelings of anticipation are important to him. He enjoys the buildup and likes strengthening his ability to wait.21 This one question asked by a mutual friend made our conversation much better. Those little tidbits of information and dialogue are critical elements to building meaningful relationships with the people on my show. I want them to remember me for being thoughtful, curious, and unique. I want them to want to continue the conversation beyond the one interaction on my podcast.
Now, obviously, the preparation for a podcast interview is different from what you would do for normal, real-life interactions. For someone you’re meeting for the first time and haven’t had time to prepare for, the plan is simple: be intentional with the questions you ask. Most interactions start with small talk. If there is genuine curiosity, the conversation can go in unexpected and fun directions. In some cases, you may want to skip the small talk (does the weather really matter?) and ask questions that will elicit more interesting answers. Something like “What excites you most about your work?” or “What’s your secret ambition?” I also love the “champagne question,” which I learned about at an event hosted by Jayson Gaignard. “If we were to meet up 365 days from now with a bottle of champagne, what are we celebrating?” Instead of having a lot of conversations at the surface level, choose to have fewer conversations, but each one having more depth.
Start in the Back
When speaking with someone who has written a book, I turn first to the acknowledgments before digging into the substance of the book. I search for names of people that mean a lot to the author and consider starting with a question about one of them. Since I do my interviews on Zoom, I can see their reaction to my questions and can get a sense of their emotions right away. I have not always done it this way. In earlier interviews, I typically started with: “What are the commonalities among leaders who sustain excellence?” While I still like that question and ask it frequently, I don’t typically open with it anymore. I did it in the past because I wanted to start the conversation with substance. Now, I like to open with a question about love, specifically a person they love. The goal is to get them out of interview robot mode and into a more emotional place. I want them to feel different and more open. When I interviewed Admiral William McRaven, I opened with a question about his parents and followed up with one about the influence of a high school football coach whom he had written about and how impactful that person had been. I was talking with a military war hero (he headed the mission to capture/kill Osama bin Laden, as well as the rescue of Captain Phillips, among many other missions), but I wanted him to start from a place of love and openness so we could have a deeper conversation.
How does this apply outside the world of interviewing people? You can do the same in any interaction with another person. Ask about important people in their life, the ones they love. Ask about what they’ve learned from them, the impact they’ve had, what they’ve taken from them that they now teach others. This quickly changes the conversation from a surface-level rote exercise to a much deeper experience. The payoff of this approach is more meaningful relationships. The path to an excellent life is made possible by people and their willingness to share their hard-earned wisdom with you. Then you, in turn, can share it with others. We are all the sum of our experiences. I want to learn about those experiences from others. To be interesting, you must be interested in others.
People want to feel seen and heard. To ensure that, listen to them. Really listen. All the way until the end. Not the I’m-just-waiting-until-you-finish-so-I-can-talk type of listening. I mean giving them your full attention until they’ve stopped speaking. Only then, after they have finished their thought, do you start formulating your next question. The most impactful questions are follow-ups. Those questions are built from something specific said by your counterpart. Specificity matters. Listen with intent and respond to what they’ve said.
When you make people feel heard, you will increase your odds of deepening your relationship with them more quickly than usual. I have long advocated for what consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman call “listening like a trampoline.” Here is how they describe it: “While many of us have thought of being a good listener, being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of—and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.”22
I try to play the role of a vessel for the ideas and useful techniques that I have learned from many others over the years. These one-on-one connections have had as big an impact on my life as any other actions I’ve worked to implement.
I believe that finding purpose and meaning leads to mental and physical health and a life well lived. Embracing a growth mindset allows you to strive, thrive, and improve. Being willing to question yourself and fix what is broken keeps you from getting stagnant, defensive, and closed off. And building transformational relationships increases your odds of good company on your pursuit of excellence.
2 FOCUS AND DISCIPLINE
The common denominator of success—the secret of every person who has ever been successful—lies in the fact that they formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do. – ALBERT E. N. GRAY
Eliud Kipchoge holds the official world record for the marathon at 2:01:39. Of the 13 officially sanctioned marathons that Kipchoge has run, he’s won 11. He is the only known person to ever run the 26.2 miles of a marathon in under two hours (in an unsanctioned event).1 In the running community, Kipchoge is called “The GOAT” (greatest of all time).
Born in Kenya, he was raised by a single mother and only knew his father from pictures. He did not start training seriously until he graduated from secondary school in 1999. So how did a man go from such a humble start to being the best in the world? To find out, I spoke with Alex Hutchinson, a runner, scientist, and the bestselling author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. We spoke at length about Kipchoge and his model of excellence.2 Here are four of the big takeaways I took from our look at the greatness of Kipchoge, captured in the words of the runner himself:
1. Discipline = Freedom. “Only the disciplined ones in life are free. If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods and your passions.” I know it feels counterintuitive, but for Kipchoge, discipline is his path to freedom. Some people have the tendency to self-sabotage and let external influences (the media, politics, or other factors outside of their control) impact their work. Staying disciplined and sticking to the plan and the daily process of improvement creates real freedom. Kipchoge’s daily work frees him from the limitations that would bind him, absent that work. The same can be true for you.
2. Mindset. “Athletics is not so much about the legs. It’s about the heart and mind.”3 Kipchoge believes that training your mind is equally important to training your body. He told the BBC that “the mind is what drives a human being.”4 Throughout his training, Kipchoge internalizes his goals and cements them as something he truly believes he’s capable of achieving. That belief creates confidence and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He is proof that people can will themselves to improve and perform at high levels.
3. It’s about the team. “You cannot train alone and expect to run a fast time. There is a formula: 100% of me is worth nothing compared to one per cent of the whole team. And that’s teamwork. That’s what I value.”5 From the outside, most people view running as an individual sport. Not Kipchoge. His training sessions are always with a team. He surrounds himself with other disciplined runners, trainers, and coaches to help him improve. He understands the value of being surrounded by others who lift him up. It is notable that he celebrates the excellence of his friends. When one of his training partners, Geoffrey Kamworor, won the New York City Marathon, Kipchoge was there at the finish line to congratulate him. Kamworor would later share that he was motivated by Kipchoge’s presence at the finish line. “I knew my training partner and mentor Eliud was waiting at the finish. I was concentrating because I did not want to disappoint him.”
4. The results take care of themselves. “To win is not important. To be successful is not even important. How to plan and prepare is crucial. When you plan very well and prepare very well, then success can come on the way. Then winning can come on your way.”6 Kipchoge’s sole focus is on his process to improve. The results take care of themselves. A look at his marathon times reveals that even as he approaches the age to be considered a “Masters athlete,” Kipchoge is getting faster. He’s improving. He’s not focused on others. He’s focused on continually improving himself. He cares more about his own personal best times than other runners’ records. He’s always striving to break his own personal records, not those of others.
Kipchoge is a prime example of someone who came from a modest background and worked to become the best in the world at what he does. While it may be easier for some than for others, it is possible for all of us. The potential for excellence is within all of us. The ones who achieve it and sustain it are intentional about their daily, disciplined process to make it happen. Those who, like Kipchoge, focus on the heart, the mind, and the continuous process to improve can create real freedom.
3.9 AND 4 FLAT
Mike Trout has been one of baseball’s best players from almost the moment he broke into Major League Baseball (MLB) as a 19-year-old. Over the course of his nine full seasons, Trout has been an All-Star eight times, the American League’s Most Valuable Player three times, and MVP runner-up four times. In fact, Trout finished either first or second in the MVP race in each of his first five years in the majors and has never finished lower than fifth.7 In other words, every single season Trout has played he has been among the top of his sport. He is an all-time, transcendent talent.
But none of these accomplishments are what he wants to be known by. In a recent interview with baseball writer Peter Gammons, Trout talked at length about the oddest of statistics: the time it takes to run to first base. A scout with the Toronto Blue Jays had scouted Hall of Fame Milwaukee Brewer Robin Yount in 90 games over a five-year period. During that time, the fastest the scout ever timed Yount running from home to first base was 3.9 seconds; the slowest was 4.0 seconds. Trout loved that. He loved it when his idol Derek Jeter once asked Gammons to never again praise him (Jeter) for running hard to first because “what’s so hard about running hard four times a day?”8
Trout had his coach with the Los Angeles Angels go through all of his recorded home-to-first times. It took the coach a few days to gather the data. When he did, the results were identical to the legendary Yount: consistently between 3.9 seconds and 4.0 seconds. “I don’t care about the other numbers, WAR (wins against replacement), OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage),” said Trout. “When you think about me, I hope you’ll think about 3.9 and 4 flat.”
What’s interesting to me is that Mike Trout can point to many impressive statistics that he’s racked up over his career, and yet he doesn’t. He’s known as one of the greatest baseball players of all time, and yet he is focused on how to play the game the right way. This applies to so many areas of life. When someone looks at my work, I want them to say, “He gave everything he had to positively impact the lives of others. He did it the right way.” This is something my wife, Miranda, and I try to teach our children. Do the right thing. Do it the right way. Leave people, places, and things better than you found them. You see trash on the ground, pick it up. A friend needs help, help them. Your team needs you, be there. Your child asks you to go to the park at 8 a.m. on a Wednesday, go to the park. Will this person, this place, or this thing be better because of me? Let the answer always be yes.
WHAT IS YOUR WALL?
Heading into the London Olympics in 2012, Michael Phelps was at the height of his powers as the most dominant swimmer in history. Four years before at the Olympics in Beijing, Phelps won gold in all eight events in which he competed. In doing so, he broke Mark Spitz’s record from 1972 for the most gold medals won in a single Olympics, as well as setting the record for the most career gold medals by any single Olympian, with 14. His performance in Beijing was not only perfect from the perspective of the medal stand; it was record-breaking. Of his eight gold medal swims, seven set new world records and the eighth (100-meter butterfly) set a new Olympic record.9 Arriving in London in 2012, Michael Phelps was the personification of unbeatable.
Until he wasn’t.
In the final for Phelps’s signature event, the men’s 200-meter butterfly, South African Chad le Clos shocked himself, Phelps, and the rest of the world by out-touching Phelps at the wall for the gold. The margin of le Clos’s victory was razor-thin: five hundredths of a second. It had been over a decade since Phelps had lost in the 200-meter butterfly event at the World Championships or Olympic level.10 During an interview with Bob Costas after his last event at the London Olympics, Phelps announced he was retiring from competitive swimming. “This was the last medal I will ever swim for,” he said, holding up one of his four gold medals.11
Phelps’s retirement didn’t last long. By 2014, he was back, but with no mention of the next Olympics. Even more to the point, Phelps was clear: he would never compete in the 200-meter butterfly event again.12 A year later, he finally acknowledged that he had his sights set on returning for his fifth Olympic games: the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His loss to le Clos in London and “his (lack of serious) preparation for those London Games” fueled his desire to return. In a media report that May, Phelps announced he had changed his mind about the 200-meter butterfly as well. He would be back to race that after all, noting the relatively static nature of the times that were winning the 200-meter butterfly when compared to those in 2000 when Phelps made his first Olympic appearance. “It’s still not that fast an event,” he said.
Phelps’s remarks captured the attention of le Clos, who was not shy about his eagerness to beat the great Michael Phelps again. While at the World Championships, le Clos responded with bravado: “He’s been talking a lot of smack in the media about how slow the butterfly is, so I just can’t wait until I race him.” In another interview, le Clos ramped it up even more: “Next year [at Rio] is going to be Muhammed Ali–Joe Frazier. Look, I don’t want to say it’s easy to swim by yourself [against lesser competition at the US Championships than at Worlds], but it’s a lot harder when you know Chad le Clos is coming back at you the last 50 meters. That’s what he’s got to think about really.”13
The buildup for the Phelps–le Clos rematch in Rio was tremendous. In the warm-up room before their semifinal event, the broadcast captured Phelps staring intensely from under his hood and headphones at le Clos, who appeared loose and at ease while shadowboxing in front of where Phelps sat. The image quickly went viral as an instant classic meme: the Phelps Death Stare. The finals race the following night did not disappoint. The two competitors were in adjacent lanes: Phelps in lane five, le Clos in lane six. At the halfway point, Phelps held a half-second lead over le Clos, who was in third place. By the third and final flip turn, le Clos was in second, but the gap between him and Phelps had grown to two-thirds of a second. At the finish, Phelps had reclaimed his Olympic title, barely holding off the second-place swimmer from Japan by four hundredths of a second. Chad le Clos, the defending Olympic gold medalist, finished off the medal podium, in fourth place.
As the swimmers came down the stretch for the last 25 meters, photographer David Ramos captured an iconic photo. In it, you see le Clos looking to his left, watching Phelps as he is pulling away. And Phelps? He’s staring directly at his target: the wall. The time for Phelps to be focused on le Clos had been the day before in the warm-up room. At the moment of truth, there in the pool, Phelps’s gaze had a singular focus: on getting to the wall first and winning the gold medal.
Le Clos, like many of us in our daily lives, divided his focus. Instead of focusing singularly on his stroke and using it to get to the wall as fast as possible, he gave away moments of focus to check on his rival swimming next to him. The result? He went from second place to no medal.
Having a singular focus is a fight each day. In a world of never-ending alerts and the ability to get whatever we want from an app (A ride? Uber. A meal? DoorDash. A date? Tinder. A vacation rental? Airbnb.), we are in a constant battle against distraction. But excellence requires discipline in where you put your focus. A divided focus, sometimes even for just a split second, is enough to make you miss your mark.
HOLD ON TO THE FISHING POLE
John Chambers served as the CEO of Cisco Systems from 1995 to 2015 and as the company’s executive chairman from 2015 to 2017. During his tenure, Cisco’s annual revenues ballooned from $70 million to $40 billion. Suffice it to say, he’s had one of the greatest CEO runs in the history of business. When I had the opportunity to talk with him, my goal was to figure out how he did that. When I asked him, he started the answer in a place I never would have expected: West Virginia in the summer of 1955.
John shared an old memory: he was just six years old and standing on the banks of the Elk River, fishing with his father. Even though John was a good swimmer for his age, his dad still cautioned, “Now, as we fish, I want you to stay up on the bank. Don’t get near the edge. Because if you get swept in, it could be really dangerous.” After about a half hour of fishing, instead of taking his dad’s advice, John let his curiosity get the best of him. He went too close to the water and fell into the river. “I slipped off the rock. I was in the water, and I started to panic. I was getting just plummeted across the rocks and getting bruised, and the current was really fast. For a second, I thought, ‘I might die.’ And all of a sudden, I looked up and my dad was coming down the side of the river as fast as he could run on the rocks.”
As the current pulled John downstream, his dad yelled, “Just hold onto the fishing pole!” This seemed like a strange command at the time; the fishing pole was a cheap old thing—“it was an ugly fishing pole and couldn’t have cost five dollars.” But John figured, “Obviously, if he was worried about me losing the reel, I was in no danger. So I grabbed ahold of that reel and rod with both hands, and every time I surfaced, I got a breath of air. I could see him running down the bank, trying to catch up, and I’d go back underwater.”
Finally, John and his fishing pole ended up in a shallow, slow-moving section of the river that enabled his dad to catch up to him and pull him from the water. That’s when John’s dad “set me down on the bank, made sure I was alright, and then he walked me through what he had just taught me. He said, ‘Do you know why I told you to hold onto the fishing pole?’” Of course, six-year-old John had no idea. John recalled: “He said, ‘When you get into real trouble . . . you’ve got to be very careful not to let panic set in. And you can’t just say be calm. You have to be able to focus on what you can control and influence. You’ve got to deal with the situation. You’ve got to size up how serious it is. And then you’ve got to be able to work your way into calmer waters.’”
“That was pretty dangerous,” his dad summarized, “and your mom is going to kill me when I tell her what happened. But this is how you do it.”
“I think I got it,” John said, assuring his dad.
“Are you comfortable?” John’s dad asked him.
“Yes, I am,” John answered. And at that, his dad put him back into the river and “down the rapids I went again!” John told me. This time, however, John could follow his dad’s advice with understanding and intention as his dad walked along the bank. “I did exactly what he said. I got calm. I put my feet out in front of me in the rapids because that way you could hit off the rocks with your feet. And when [I got] pummeled, I didn’t panic; [I] just came back up and got more air. And then I waited for a slow spot where I could swim out. I had that lesson in life forever. It was one of the best teaching moments about dealing with stress, dealing with crisis management, and being realistic that there will be a tendency in all of us—no matter how brave you think you are—to panic. And that’s what gets you into trouble.”14
It’s a great metaphor for life and applies to us all. When we strive for excellence, there will inevitably be bumps and dips along the way. Sometimes the adversity takes a form that is more than just inconvenient; sometimes it feels like an existential crisis where survival itself is at stake. We must be able to hold onto the fishing pole, to focus on what we can control as we strive to see the world as it is and work to find our way to calmer waters. When adversity strikes, as it inevitably will, we have a choice. How will we respond? Remain calm within the chaos? Or lose focus and panic? Your choice will likely determine the result. What will you choose to focus on?
SHOW UP CONSISTENTLY
The natural question is, “OK, but how do I do that? What can I do to improve my focus?” After years of interviewing some of the world’s most effective leaders for my podcast, The Learning Leader Show, and analyzing their habits and behaviors, one concept seems to stick out more than most. These high achievers focus on the daily action rather than the results. They commit to the process.
People regularly ask me, “How can I build a big podcast following and create a business off of that following?” My answer always starts with this: I love each part of the process of my podcast. I love the act of preparing for a long-form conversation. I love the process of developing better questions, becoming a better listener, and asking even better follow-up questions. I love searching for and finding fascinating guests with whom to have conversations. I get a thrill from reaching out cold to highly influential people and having them respond that they’d like to come on my show. The entire process is rewarding and fulfilling work. None of these involve a focus on the end goal of having a podcast with a tribe of fans large enough to support a career. Instead, they are all just the daily acts of the work. Devote yourself to the process of doing those things well, and the good outcome will come find you.
Occasionally, people will ask me to help them launch a podcast, and I routinely respond by asking them a simple question: “Why?” Often, the answer is along the lines of “I think it’s a good marketing tool to help me get more keynote speaking gigs or acquire more clients.” At that moment, I know that the podcast won’t last. It’s too hard. It’s too time consuming. I’ve seen too many launches begin with great excitement only to become menial labor. Soon after, it’s the end of the podcast.
High achievers who hit what they are aiming at do so because they fall in love with the process, not an outcome. If you don’t love the process and the daily actions required to excel, your odds of achieving what you’ve set out to accomplish are very low. Before setting a goal, think about the daily actions it will take to achieve that goal. Are those actions something you can fall in love with? If not, rethink your goal, for down that road lies not excellence but drudgery.
Talkers Versus Doers
One of the easiest ways to keep yourself focused on the process and not on the outcome is to not be a “talker.” My parents had a rule: My brothers and I grew up playing sports, but they never talked about our sports accomplishments with others. If people complimented my parents on the athletic feats of their children, they would say “thank you” and then shift the conversation to something else. Talking about the outcome wasn’t important.
We’ve all met people who will tell you what they’re “about to do” who then never quite get around to seeing the job through to its completion. And then there are those who just go do it and let others talk about what they’ve done. If you do great work, then it will speak for itself. Let your work do the talking for you. If your work adds value to the lives of others, people will share it. Let them talk about the outcomes you are producing while you remain focused on the process that produces them.
When I started my podcast, I committed myself to this approach. I told only a few people of my intentions before I started: my wife, my brother, and my good friend Greg Meredith. Then I set out on the process of building: cold-emailing potential guests, setting up the digital infrastructure, diving deep into researching those guests who’d agreed to my ask, and recording my conversations with them. I had 22 episodes recorded before I published the first one. Until then, nobody except those few within my close circle knew what I was up to.
Derek Sivers is a man who has accomplished many goals. He was the founder and CEO of CD Baby, an online distributor of independent music, which he eventually sold for $22 million. He then took those proceeds and donated them to an organization he created to fund music education called The Independent Musicians Charitable Trust. In 2010, he gave not one TED talk but three.15 Derek knows a thing or two about setting goals and achieving them, so I paid particular attention when he told me, “You should keep your goals to yourself. Tests done since 1933 show that people who talk about their intentions are less likely to make them happen. Announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed.”16 In his TED talk on this topic,17 he stresses the context: “These studies are only about identity goals: goals usually related to personal development, that would make you a slightly different person if completed. This does not apply to things like starting a company, or other pursuits where it would be useful to corral a bunch of people to support your project.”18
When it comes to the ambitious project of improving yourself and pursuing excellence, keep your focus on what matters: the work to be done. Be the type of person who just does the work, not the one who wastes time and energy telling people what you’re about to do. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Well done is better than well said.”
LEARN THE SMALL STUFF TO DO THE BIG STUFF
Jeff Estill is a friend and former colleague who served the United States as an Army Airborne Ranger–qualified infantry officer and deployed to Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division in the years after 9/11. We often talk about leadership and compare notes and experiences we’ve accumulated on our very different paths. During one of these conversations, I described the fundamentals of quarterback play and why focusing on basic footwork and hand movements is critical for setting the foundation for success as a passer. Jeff responded by sharing with me why it’s vital that a person never loses sight of the fundamentals of how to do the job of the people they are leading. “A general might never need to use an M-16, but there is a clear expectation that they know how to shoot it, maintain it, and understand its capabilities as well as any private.”
“What do these fundamentals have to do with excellence?” I asked.
“One of my best experiences as a paratrooper,” Jeff answered, “was with a battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Larry Swift, who had brought in a completely new way to clear a room. He learned it from doing it. And he had the power and command to say, ‘This is how we are going to do it across our battalion.’ And then we got down to doing the work.” Respect for Jeff’s commander flowed from his fundamental knowledge of a standard operating procedure. Because this commander had spent time actually doing the work, he knew how to create a better way, and his soldiers did more than just obey: they bought in.
Over the last few years, I have been fortunate to interview members of the Special Forces community, from individual operators to generals with command authority. In the military, senior leaders are simply expected to know and understand the basic tasks of the work of the battlefield. Without this knowledge, it is challenging to lead with excellence. They are expected to know what needs to be done and understand how to prioritize. Without a fundamental knowledge of each task, this is hard to do.
Jeff is now a senior executive at a Fortune 50 company. When I asked him how he takes what he learned as a Ranger to his work in corporate America, he said, “Unfortunately, a lot of people just go day to day and pick something up by osmosis and their knowledge set gradually expands. But the most effective people are aggressively learning their trade and have extra motivation to move themselves forward.”
In the business world, it is rare to find in a person with positional power the fundamental knowledge of the actual work done by direct reports. Leaders with this knowledge are incredibly valuable to an organization.
As Jeff has experienced, this is recognized and respected. When I asked him for the most common feedback he receives from his peers, he told me, “Oftentimes, I’m the least tenured person in the meeting, so for those who don’t know me, the expectations may be low, but they invariably say, ‘I can’t believe how much you know about this.’” For Jeff, it’s just part of his process for improving what he learned in the military. “In the military, there are a lot of regulations. The people who really know what they’re doing actually read the full documents of the regulations. I mean the actual manuals, the actual equipment. In my job, there are a lot of written policies that are written by lawyers. And I read all of them. I print them out, highlight them, and scan them back into my One Note file. It’s hard. It takes a long time, but it gets me there. Most people aren’t willing to do that. Most just show up to work. I take pride in knowing what I’m supposed to do. I hate not knowing what’s going on. So I do the work to ensure that I do know what’s going on.”
Pursuing excellence is having the willingness to do the necessary work to develop a deep understanding of a topic from a foundational level. Having the desire to be a value-enhancer to the people around you is what excellence is about. I want others to say, “I want him on my team. He makes our team better. He makes everyone around him better.” Isn’t that what we all want? If so, we need to be willing to do the foundation-level work to ensure we “know what’s going on.”
NO CHEAP TRICKS
Chase Jarvis is a world-renowned, award-winning photographer who has worked with some of the world’s most recognized brands such as Apple and some of the world’s most recognizable people such as Serena Williams. He is also the founder and CEO of CreativeLive, an online learning platform on which top experts teach creative skills. When a fan asked Chase for the “tricks” someone could utilize to do what he’s done, he gave what was likely a very disappointing answer. “It’s ruthless discipline. There are no tricks. The focus part is what’s wildly misunderstood. When you are focused on doing a thing and you do that thing relentlessly until you get the outcome you want, it’s celebrated. No one else sees the other stuff. My best work has always come through discipline and focus.”19
I learned more about the absence of tricks from Brook Cupps, who described his mantra of “Chop Chop” (think: chopping wood). He explained, “I never viewed myself as talented or really good at anything, I’ve just always been able to find my way because I’ve worked. I’m willing to do what needs to be done. I learned that from my parents growing up. We were low-middle class. You just had to work. My dad would get up every day, whether he was sick or healthy. It didn’t matter. If it was a weekday, he got up and went to work. Chop Chop is that connection back to work. When things are good, you work. When things are bad, you work. Trusting that that process will eventually pay off. The loyalty and discipline to buckle down and do what you need to do.”
MOKI MARTIN: THE LESSON OF THE SUGAR COOKIE
The discipline of focus works best when it is aimed at what is within your control. Simple to say, harder to execute. Keeping your focus on what you can control like, say, your reactions to circumstances rather than the circumstances themselves, becomes exceedingly difficult precisely when it is needed most.
During my podcast conversation with Admiral William McRaven, he shared with me the story of a friend of his named Moki Martin. The two men first met when McRaven began his training to become a Navy SEAL.
When you go through SEAL training, the instructors are king. Whatever they say, you gotta do. No matter what it is. If they don’t like you, they can just tell you to “hit it!” You have to run fully clothed over the sand dunes, jump in the Pacific Ocean. You come back and roll around in the sand. You throw sand down your shorts and your shirt. You are completely covered in sand. The effect is called a sugar cookie.
Well, one of the instructors that used to harass me unmercifully was a Navy lieutenant named Moki Martin. Moki was a former enlisted who had become what we call a limited duty officer. Just a remarkable SEAL: a highly decorated Vietnam vet, very professional, very capable. He could do everything well. Every time Moki would see me in SEAL training, he’d point me out and say, “Mr. Mac, hit it!” And I think, oh man!
Once Lieutenant Martin asked me if I knew why I was a sugar cookie, and I said, “No!” And Lieutenant Martin said, “Because life isn’t fair.” So interestingly enough, when SEAL training was over, he and I ended up on the same team. And we became very good friends.
In the early 80s, Moki was out riding his bike. He was a hell of an athlete, and he was prepping for a triathlon. He’s riding his bike from Coronado down to Imperial Beach, and he has a head-on bicycle accident. He ran head-on into another guy on a bicycle. And the other guy gets up, kind of dusts himself off [and walks away]. And Moki was paralyzed from the chest down and has been for the last 37 years. And never once in those 37 years have I ever heard Moki Martin say, “Why me?” Never once has he said, “Gee, life’s not fair.” Because the lesson of the sugar cookie going through SEAL training was just that. It was a recognition that life’s not fair. There were some guys who went through training and thought that if they finished first on the run, somebody oughta pat them on the back and tell them how great they were, and when that didn’t happen, they didn’t understand. But that was the lesson. “Hey! Life’s not fair. Get over it.” And Moki Martin to this day, he never whined once, he never said, “Why me?” He went on to be an accomplished painter, he fathered a child, and today, he supervises the UDT SEAL triathlon that they do every year in Coronado. I saw him about six months ago, and he’s as effervescent and as charismatic and as fired up as ever. It’s a wonderful story.20
In your career, you will see others get promoted whom you feel don’t deserve it because they are not as accomplished as you. This happens in every industry. Spending your personal energy thinking, “That’s not fair” is a waste of time. If you live long enough, you’ll see bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. It’s one of those inevitabilities of life. Spending time and energy worrying about what’s out of your control is destructive.
Once Moki Martin was paralyzed, he had a choice. He had to face the question that faces anyone who has had to deal with the cosmic unfairness of tragedy and injustice: Do I want to make something of my life? Or do I want to complain and ask, “Why me?” It would have been perfectly understandable if Moki had chosen the latter. But he didn’t. Instead, he decided to focus on what he could control and making the most of his life.
This is one of the important life lessons my wife and I try to impart to our children. We tell them, “You can control two parts of your day today: your attitude and your effort. Focus on showing up with a great attitude. Bring positive energy to the rooms you enter. Be a value-add for the others you’re with. And give maximum effort. You can control how hard you try. You can control the attitude you have while doing it. If you’re going to do it, then you might as well give it 100 percent. If not, then don’t do it. Better yet, do it with a smile. Bring positive energy to the room. If you focus on those two things, your attitude and your effort, you’ll find yourself in a better position day after day.”
CONSISTENCY: KEEP HAMMERING
Steve Martin dropped out of college to pursue his dream of working as a comedian. His first job in the business was as a writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. In the 1970s, he performed stand-up comedy in local clubs and wrote for The Sonny and Cher Show. In his book Born Standing Up, he writes about the critical insight he gleaned from those hard days early in his career that ultimately catapulted him to superstardom. “I learned a lesson: It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.”21
I take an immense amount of pride in publishing a podcast episode every Sunday night at 7:00, no matter what. I’ve done that for six years. It’s important to me to publish my “Mindful Monday” email every Monday morning at 9:00, with no exceptions. No matter what. It’s about having integrity with myself. I do what I tell myself I will do. I understand that my work has become part of the routine of my listeners and readers. I must show up for them. And that is one of the reasons my work has caught on with so many people. They trust me. They know I’m reliable and consistent and I will show up, no matter what.
The San Antonio Spurs have been one of the model franchises in professional sports, winning five NBA championships over the last two decades. One of the main reasons why has been their leadership consistency: Gregg Popovich has been their head coach since 1996. He is the longest tenured active head coach of a single team of any of the major American sports leagues. In the Spurs’ locker room hangs a quote by the nineteenth-century journalist Jacob Riis: “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” When pursuing championship goals like the Spurs do, it is critical to keep focused on the task at hand. Each day’s effort doesn’t get the job done in and of itself. But they stack up over time. It is through the consistency of the hammering that the championship stones are cut.
IF YOU’RE NOT EMBARRASSED, YOU WAITED TOO LONG . . .
One of the most paralyzing thoughts when attempting to do something of excellence is the fact that your first effort will likely be bad. First day playing guitar? Probably horrible. First day working as a sales rep? You’ll probably mimic the worst clichés of the used car salesperson everybody hates. First day on the football field? Not pretty. First writing draft? Embarrassing. The only way to improve is to do the work, knowing you will be terrible at it and doing it anyway. And then continue to do it again. And again. And again.
Kevin Kelly cofounded Wired magazine in 1993. He’s also a bestselling author and has the justified reputation as one of the clearest thinkers around when it comes to the future of technology. For Kelly, sustained excellence comes from people who “cultivate, create, make, and have an ability to see the world a little differently.”22 For his sixty-eighth birthday, he wrote an article titled “68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice” that went viral. One of Kelly’s bits of advice caught my attention: “To make something good, just do it. To make something great, just redo it, redo it, redo it. The secret to making fine things is in remaking them.”23
He is right. Mark it down: you will come to a point where you will think, “This is pointless. I’m going to stop. It’s too hard. My work isn’t any good.” Everybody feels this way, and that’s when most people quit. But the demands of excellence require something harder: choosing to continue despite the struggle, amid the doubts, and in defiance of the imposter syndrome raging in your head.
John McPhee is one of the pioneers of creative nonfiction writing. He’s a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, winning it once. In his book Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, McPhee shares the importance of consistently keeping at it. “The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again—top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time.”24
By plowing forward and trudging ahead through the work that you know isn’t very good at the moment, you create signals of progress for your mind. That progress then becomes the fuel to keep going further. The progress is inspiring and drives the internal motivation to continue. As I write this book, I set daily goals for progress. I set a goal to write 100 words a day. Even though 100 is not enough to hit my word count goal for the entire book, it feels like progress and it’s doable. While there are days when I barely scratch out 100 words, there are others when I cruise past 1,000. It’s about creating a habit and a manageable goal that drives me to continue to show up day after day. I think, “I know I can get to 100. Let’s get going.” And then I sit down and work. Once I start, I have a much better shot at hitting that long-term big goal than if I hadn’t started. Get started, redo it, and keep going.
It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.
—ABIGAIL ADAMS TO HER SON JOHN QUINCY ADAMS, IN THE MIDST OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
From the beginning of recorded history through May 6, 1954, the fastest any human being had ever run a mile was 4:01.4—four minutes, one second, and four-tenths of a second. There was no reason any person needed to run a mile faster than that. Nothing important in life hinged on running 5,280 feet fast enough to turn that leading four into a three. But the same can be said for pursuing excellence: the standard of “good enough” becomes a barrier that resists being broken. To chase excellence means to confront that resistance and push beyond it. So it was with the four-minute mile. Runners from across the globe had been focused on breaking that barrier for nearly 70 years, all to no avail.1 And then came Roger Bannister.
The most remarkable aspect of Bannister’s barrier-breaking run of 3:59.4 was how unexpected it was for that runner on that day to be the one. As Bill Taylor, cofounder of Fast Company, writes, the “experts” had long believed breaking the four-minute barrier would require ideal running conditions: “It would have to be in perfect weather—68 degrees and no wind. On a particular kind of track—hard, dry clay—and in front of a huge, boisterous crowd urging the runner on to his best ever performance.” But on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister had none of those things working in his favor. The day was cold, the Iffley Road Track in Oxford was wet, and the crowd was small at “just a few thousand people.”
On top of that, Bannister himself was hardly the picture of a singularly focused athlete intent on breaking this imposing barrier. The bulk of his time was devoted to being a medical student. He was “an outlier and iconoclast—a full-time student who had little use for coaches.” He didn’t train like a maniac and sprint miles every day. He was notorious for doing the opposite: training for just one hour per day. Bannister did not go on to become the greatest middle-distance runner in the world. Instead, he finished his studies and became a neurologist.
How did this happen, and why does it matter?
First: Rather than employ an all-out training push that would have required him to sacrifice his studies, Bannister applied a scientific approach to training. He treated each race like an experiment. “Improvement in running depends on continuous self-discipline by the athlete himself, on acute observation of his reaction to races and training, and above all on judgment, which he must learn for himself,” he wrote.2
Second: He believed the impossible was possible. Bannister was known to close his eyes and visualize the race, step by step. He would create the image, see the finish line, and hear the crowd—all in his mind. What separated Roger Bannister was that he believed he could do it. Runners had been attempting to break the four-minute mile since 1886. John Bryant, a British runner and journalist, wrote, “For years milers had been striving against the clock, but the elusive four minutes had always beaten them. It had become as much a psychological barrier as a physical one. And like an unconquerable mountain the closer it approached, the more daunting it seemed.”3 Bannister focused just as much time on conditioning his mind as on conditioning his body. “The mental approach is all important, because the strength and power of the mind are without limit,” he wrote. “All this energy can be harnessed by the correct attitude of mind.”4