The Excellence Continuum

Thursday September 14, 2017
Ben Bergeron & Christine Bald

A lot of us will look at the below continuum and conclude that we’re on the excellence end, simply because we work hard and have perhaps achieved a certain level of success in our chosen field. But if we’re honest with ourselves, is that the truth? Let’s consider things more deeply.

On one end we have complacency, and on the other end excellence. Complacency, at its furthest limit, is a trait that keeps people on the couch. Truly complacent people don’t care about excellence, and they don’t think it matters. Whereas excellence, we know well. We recognize it in the best and brightest among us, those at the peak of their craft. It comes when we tell ourselves that we don’t care how hard something is, or how long it may take; we’re going to give it everything we’ve got.
The midpoint between complacency and excellence is competence. That, in and of itself, may surprise you. Competence is often what people aim for as an endpoint. Most people sit somewhere around competence most of the time. They’ve got some sort of skill set, and the semblance of drive; they want to be good, but when faced with the work required to be great, they shrug and tell themselves, “Eh, good enough.”
Nobody wants to be at the complacency end, which is essentially, as far as life is concerned, the bottom. The bottom sucks. The bottom is crappy relationships, scraping by with jobs you hate, unhappiness, addiction. The excellence end is where we all want to be; it’s where all the ultra-high-achievers we all emulate are. It’s pure aspiration. It’s where people like Michael Phelps, Elon Musk, and Beyonce live.

If we don’t think about things too hard, if we never get serious, we’ll probably wind up somewhere in the middle, with the vast majority of everyone else.

Competence, in and of itself, can be an emotional roller coaster. At a basic level of competence, sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail. You’re subject to the natural ups and downs of circumstance. If you’re a bench player in the NBA, and in one season you get lots of playing time—and maybe the game-winning shot once—that’s a massive success. But if you miss that game-winning shot, you’ve missed what might be your only chance at ever being in that position. If you’re Michael Jordan, though, and you miss that shot, you’re disappointed but not crying yourself to sleep. At the excellence end of the curve, you’re secure in who you are, and you know you’re doing everything you can.

As we alluded to at the top, we shouldn’t assume that what we consider hard work automatically tilts us toward the excellence end of the continuum. So what will?

Excellence requires short-term pain for long-term gain. It’s painful, in the short term, to get up at 5am and work out, for example. It’s painful to say no to a cookie. Long-term, though, those habits add up to incredible gains.

Complacency is the exact opposite compromise: short-term gain traded for long-term pain. For instance, if you snooze your alarm, you feel a little better in that moment. You get five more minutes of sleep. But if you do it every day, your productivity suffers in the long term.

People who exist at the excellence end of the bell curve are obsessively focused on long-term gain.

People who are successful in life, in business, in relationships, are leaning into a process that leads to excellence. These are the people who get up early to work out, who say no to crappy food, who carve out time for learning and mindfulness. They take the time to establish what’s important to them, and what habits will get them where they want to go. They don’t get hung up on the short term.

It can’t be overstated—that’s hard. It’s a constant dedication to habits and values that can be isolating. In the long term, though, the benefit will be unmatched.

Consider the graph at the top one more time. Each of us should be asking ourselves:

Where do I want to consider myself excellent but know deep down inside that I’ve slipped into complacency? What is the work necessary to get myself closer to excellence? Where can I be more committed to the long term?