Did you do your best work today?
by Linwood Rose, president
James Madison University
Are you proud of your effort? Does it represent the way you wish to be known by others?
It is my honor and pleasure to be the first guest contributor to Dean Reid’s column on personal excellence. It is my hope that it will be the first of many such articles authored by alumni and friends of the University to benefit our students. I do harbor some fear and hesitancy knowing the subject and recognizing my penchant for misspelling a word or creating a grammatically misguided sentence!
Feodor Dostoevski said, “The second half of a man’s life is made up of nothing but the habits he has acquired during the first half.” I suspect that women are subject to the same fate. Since most Madison students and many of our graduates are of the age at which habits are still being established, I think it timely to discuss the habit of excellence. I think it is important to bring it to your attention for one reason: I don’t see enough of it! If it were routinely observed, what would be the point?
If commitment to a life of personal excellence is not in your current being, I hope in the next few days you will succumb to the appeal of excellence in the little things that you do. You know what I am talking about… “the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Before you know it you will be hooked. I think you will find excellence to be addictive. Soon you will know that your almost automatic routines of behavior have become the way you choose to live your life—without even being aware of it consciously. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle.
Since this piece is about “personal” excellence, I will reveal my first recollection of a conscious commitment to excellence, in this case, read as “doing things right the first time.” It did not come as a result of a mentor or role model, nor from a book or a teacher. Rather, I would put it under the heading of a life lesson inspired by experience.
At age 20 I was rebuilding a British sports car of the period. Reassembling a vehicle teaches one quickly that short cuts to save time or taking the easiest route to complete a task will, without fail, result in doing the job over, thereby taking more time, not less. For example, if screwing two components together requires four screws one should always “start” each of the four before tightening down any. If you don’t believe me, just try it the other way—I did many times, but I ultimately learned that the right way is the only way. Perhaps a simple example, but that experience stuck with me and it ended up influencing how I write a paper or develop a speech years later. Sequence and discipline are important, though often not referenced in the instruction manual! For me, this approach to accomplishing a task was habit forming and extended to other aspects of my life.
We typically think of excellence as the quality of being extremely good. A check with a few dictionaries will also confirm that it often is construed as outstanding performance that exceeds others, or suggests superiority. But, I think you miss the real value of the virtue if you think excellence is about glory or recognition. It is not about what others think, although you will find that it is a quality that is much appreciated by your professors, and your employers. It also should not be confused with success. It is more about a personal code of conduct for living one’s life. Since most of you are business students, let me share a business example.
In Search of Excellence, by Peters and Waterman, a runaway business best seller for years, made the mistake of thinking that excellence was the same as success. The authors studied the “excellent” organizations of the day and concluded that eight key principles were the key to their market prowess. A few short years later, many of the same companies were in substantial financial straights.
More recently, Jim Collins and Jerry Poras, in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies made an effort to add sustained success to the formula for a business best seller, but alas, a number in their hit parade have also fallen on difficult times.
A commitment to excellence does not ensure success; it does offer a great sense of satisfaction and personal reward. Brian Harbour in Rising Above the Crowd points out the distinction between success and excellence. “Success, to many, means being better than everyone else. Excellence means being better tomorrow than you were yesterday. Success means exceeding the achievements of other people. Excellence means matching your practice with your potential.”
When it is all said and done, and your life is judged by others, will they say “farewell to mediocrity,” or “she inspired others through her passion for excellence”? Think about it when you turn in the next paper or make the next presentation. Jim Ryun, the famous American distance runner said, “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” Perhaps this little essay will be a motivator for a few. Whether personal excellence becomes a habit, is up to you. Go Dukes!
James Madison University
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Cartoon by Hugh Macleod (www.gapingvoid.com)