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Defining Excellence

“Going above and beyond.”


“Going the extra mile.”


“Doing whatever it takes.”


These are the types of answers that you’ll often get whenever you ask someone to define excellence in his or her profession.


All of these have one thing in common: a focus on effort, not results.


If your spouse or child needed surgery, would you want a surgeon who “goes above and beyond” or one who consistently gets good surgical outcomes?


If you needed to hire a lawyer to deal with a serious issue, would you want one who “goes the extra mile” or one who has a proven track record for winning cases like yours?


What if going above and beyond keeps you off the ground where actual work needs to be done? What if the extra mile is one mile down the road from where you’re actually needed?

And just exactly what does “whatever it takes” even mean? To do what? Get results? If not, why not just say that?


When I was a kid playing little league baseball (and I was terrible), our coach would often say, “Good effort” if you messed up but at least showed that you likely learned something and, more importantly, were likely to change your behavior next time to get better (or at least acceptable) results. When the team counted on you, “good effort” only went so far and all of us knew it.


Unlike children playing sports, professionals like surgeons or lawyers work in high-stakes situations where failure means people can die, suffer needlessly, go to jail or lose their freedom / homes / savings / reputation / etc. To my knowledge, even in the most hyper-serious little league game, no one has ever died or gone to jail as the result of an error.

We won’t accept “good effort” in high-stakes situations. And yet, many people treat their work as games that are barely more serious.


Should you accept these definitions of excellence in your profession? If not, you are probably doing serious work. It matters. Not just to you but to others who are counting on you to show up at the place where you’re needed and put your feet on the ground to help. It also means that you shouldn’t accept these types of definitions from you peers either, especially if your work requires competent people to work together to get results.


Our moments of failure are often our “defining moments.” Moments when we decide who we are, what we’re willing to do, and what results we’re committed to achieve. But we don’t have to wait for failure to make those decisions. We can define ourselves at any time.


So, if your work really matters, how do you define excellence?

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