Excellence is not a destination we reach, but is an unending process of constant improvement

Good enough never is (Debbi Field)

According to one study, a meager 25% of workers believe they are performing at full potential. One half admit they do no more than necessary to get by, and 60% confess they do less now than they did in the past. Three quarters of those surveyed admitted they were not doing their best.

Debbi Field did not share the attitude of the majority, for she felt that good enough never is. Her philosophy was simple and could be expressed in four words: do a little more. She believes that no matter how common the task, it should be done uncommonly well. She doesn’t believe in mediocrity and chose to follow the path of excellence. Such a choice is always wise; after all, the path of excellence is never crowded and is a highway that leads to the top. In Mrs. Field’s case, the small company she founded in 1977 grew into a one-half billion dollar business called Mrs. Field’s Cookies.

Whether we are cookie lovers or not, we can all benefit from aspiring to excellence. Excellence is not a destination we reach, but is an unending process of constant improvement. What better way to live than by growing better each day? Those who pursue excellence aren’t in direct competition with others, for they measure themselves against their own accomplishments. Geoffrey Gaberino explains, “The real contest is always between what you’ve done and what you’re capable of doing. You measure yourself against yourself and nobody else.”

Excellence is deliberate, not an accident that we stumble upon. It is about asking of ourselves more than others do; it is about harboring thoughts of excellence in our breast. As long as we aim for a more ideal self, success will naturally follow. And the good news is excellence is within the grasp of all, for it is merely about doing our best at every moment. It is not about perfection, which is an unattainable goal, but about becoming what we are capable of being. Those who stand by the sidelines and watch others succeed, know what is necessary, but are unwilling to devote the time and effort to bettering themselves. So, each of us have to make a decision. Do we wish to become another statistic by merging with the mediocre majority or do we wish to make a difference by embracing excellence?

Some people rationalize by telling themselves that they will strive for excellence later, when they have a better job. They try to conceal from themselves the fact that better jobs come after attaining excellence, not the other way around. “Why should I do my best now,” they argue, “when all I’m doing is flipping burgers, cleaning toilets, or waiting on others?” Perhaps they don’t realize there are no dead-end jobs, only deadbeats; there are no menial jobs, only menial attitudes. For as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well.”

After college Jerry Wipf started pumping gas. Is that a menial job? It is if you make it so. But Jerry had the Martin Luther King Jr. attitude. He believed in excellence. He believed in being the best gas station attendant possible. Excellence came first. Success followed. Jerry worked his way up in the company by becoming assistant manager, station manager, area manager, buyer, regional manager, merchandise manager, vice president and general manager. In 1996 he joined Valvoline and today is President of Valvoline Instant Oil Change, a company with more than 600 corporate and franchise lube centers throughout the United States.

Today, we expect to find high quality merchandise and good service in department stores. However, it wasn’t always that way. In the nineteenth century, unethical merchandising practices and shoddy merchandise were the rule of the day. However, Marshall Field (1834 ~ 1906) believed in excellence. When he established Marshall Field and Company in 1881, he introduced credit, the one-price system, the right to return merchandise, and a department store restaurant for shoppers. Here in his own words are his ideas about excellence:

“To do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way; to do some things better than they were ever done before; to eliminate errors; to know both sides of the question; to be courteous; to be an example; to work for the love of work; to anticipate requirements; to develop resources; to recognize no impediments; to master circumstances; to act from reason rather than rule; to be satisfied with nothing short of perfection.”

Although I’ve been using examples of excellence in the business world, the art of doing our best applies to every aspect of our lives. Or in the words of James A. Michener, “The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he’s always doing both.”

Those who are successful in their quest for excellence simply do what they do better and do more of it. They go about life always alert for better ways of doing things. Every endeavor they engage in is imprinted with their mark of excellence. They understand that if you do a job quickly, people will forget about it. But if you do it well, people will remember. And like Bertie Charles (B.C.) Forbes (1880 ~ 1954), they believe, “If you consistently do your best, the worst won’t happen.”

Here’s some good advice for us from the Founder of IBM, Thomas J. Watson (1874 ~ 1956), “If you want to achieve excellence, you can get there today. As of this second, quit doing less-than-excellent work.” Even when drinking coffee we can learn about the path to excellence, for the first four lines of the advice below were taken from a coffee mug.

The Path to Excellence
Care more than others think is wise.
Risk more than others think is safe.
Dream more than others think is practical.
Expect more than others think is possible.
Strive more than others think is worthwhile
Do more than others think is necessary
Be more than others think is sufficient