Submitted Tuesday, September 24th 2013 4:25 pm by Timothy S. Jacobson
The Nonprofit Provocateur
STRIVING FOR PERSONAL EXCELLENCE
By Tim Jacobson
Not too long ago, I was asked to give a keynote speech to a college crowd about personal excellence. The first thing I did when I started to prepare the speech was to review quotes from famous and successful people about their thoughts on excellence:
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." -Aristotle
"Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren't used to an environment where excellence is expected." -Steve Jobs
"Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence." -Vince Lombardi
"The quality of a person's life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor." -Vince Lombardi
I have my own thoughts about what excellence means. I believe that personal excellence is the act of continually striving to do one’s best, while at the same time exhibiting resilience during the inevitable times when one utterly fails.
Excellence isn’t necessarily about doing great things. I think it’s more about doing good things, and doing them well.
I really like what 1 Corinthians 13:1 says about this. “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” What I understand that to mean is that we can have excellence in certain things that we do or certain skills that we develop in life, but if our goal strays from using our excellence to help and care for others, then our excellence has no more value than noisy static on the radio. Our brilliance becomes nothing more than light pollution.
It’s imperative that we ground everything we do in values. Our values need to extend beyond ourselves and extend beyond merely satisfying our own desires. I’m not sure how much that concept is taught in schools and colleges. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is much in the commercial saturation of our society that communicates such virtue.
LESSONS FROM BUDDHISM
While I'm not a Buddhist, per se, I think there are some excellent lessons to learn from Buddhism. Buddhism teaches Four Noble Truths.
The first noble truth is that life means suffering i.e., life includes pain.
The second truth is that suffering is caused by craving or attachment. We will suffer if we expect other people to conform to our expectation, if we want others to like us, if we do not get something we want, etc. In other words, getting what you want does not guarantee happiness.
The third truth is that suffering can be overcome and happiness can be attained. If we give up useless craving and learn to live each day at a time (not dwelling in the past or the imagined future) then we can become happy and free. We then have more time and energy to help others.
The fourth truth is that the Eightfold Path is the route which leads to the end of suffering. In summary, the Eightfold Path is being moral, focusing the mind on being fully aware of our thoughts and actions, and developing wisdom by understanding the Four Noble Truths and by developing compassion for others.
The Eightfold Path is the middle way between the two extremes of excessive self-indulgence (hedonism) and excessive self-mortification (asceticism).
I really like the concept of “the middle way.” This way of living can be compared to the strings of a guitar. If the strings are too loose, no sound will be made from strumming them. If the strings are too tight, they risk being broken. The strings need to be tuned and re-tuned to find the right balance for making beautiful music.
Back to my personal definition of personal excellence: Continually striving to do one’s best, while at the same time exhibiting resilience during the inevitable times when one utterly fails.
Nothing great in this world is achieved in the absence of failure. When Thomas Edison invented the first commercially practical incandescent light, it was the result of experimenting with, and failing with, thousands of different filaments to find just the right materials to glow well and be long-lasting.
Everyone who has done great things has experienced great failures.
Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. The Beatles were rejected by Decca Recording Studios who said they had no future in show business. Steve Jobs was devastated at age 30 when he was kicked out of Apple Computer. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper for "lacking imagination." Oprah Winfrey was demoted from her news anchor job because she "wasn't fit for television." Albert Einstein wasn't able to speak until he was almost 4 years old, and his teachers said he would "never amount to much." John Grisham couldn’t get his first novel published until after he achieved success with his second book “The Firm.”
If you've never failed, you've never tried anything new.
Einstein described failure as “success in progress.”
Ralph Heath (the former president of the board of directors at a land trust I where I was executive director) published a book entitled “Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big.” He wrote:
"Companies and employees with the highest performance have the lowest fear of failure—and a high failure rate. Surprised? They have a high failure rate because they are comfortable with failure as a vehicle for growth. Rather than be embarrassed by failure, they wear it as a badge of honor. They are always experimenting, trying to find the next great idea that will take them or their clients out of their comfort zones, to reach new highs of business success."
In my own life, I’ve had some nice successes and some miserable failures.
I’ve been thrilled to earn a law degree, earn a pilot’s license, have an organization I ran named Land Trust of the Year for the State of Wisconsin, earn national accreditation for my land trust, get named Super Lawyer for Wisconsin, get my first novel published and onto a best seller list, and serve as executive producer for a documentary film that’s slated for release on Public Television. I’ve also been thrilled to have many opportunities to give back to the community and help people. I’ve served on a half-dozen nonprofit boards of directors and have done a lot of volunteer work.
But not everything I do works out so well. In fact, I’ve had plenty of failures along the way.
Life can be like planning a wintertime road trip from the Upper Midwest to a beach destination on the coast. You might be all pumped up about all the fun you’re going to have at your destination, but you might find yourself and your car in the ditch before you even leave town. Do you have the resilience to finish the journey, or are you going to give up?
The novel I wrote was a lesson in perseverance. I started writing it in 1995, and I had the first version done by 1997 or so. I still have the thick stack of rejection letters from publishers the first time I tried to get a book contract. Eventually, I hired a freelance editor to critique my work, and then I convinced a literary agent to represent me. But after several years of trying to get published, I gave up. The manuscript sat for a decade unread. Then a filmmaker I started working with inspired me to dust off the manuscript, update it and try again. A year-and-a-half ago, I was thrilled to break into the publishing world.
I hit another detour a few years ago. I was working on a steep Mississippi River bluff in the middle of January—removing invasive trees from a bluff prairie—when I fell off a 20-foot cliff. I fell, backwards and upside-down. In the few seconds it took to hit bottom, I had enough time to wonder if I was going to die or be severely injured. And then when I didn’t die, I found myself sliding headfirst, on my back, further down the bluff. All I could think of then was to hope that there wasn’t another cliff below me where I would repeat the fall.
Life can be scary. Life can be challenging. Life includes pain, embarrassment and failure.
But that’s okay. Like Vince Lombardi said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”
Don’t expect to be perfect. You’ll have enough failures in life without adding one more that’s guaranteed.
But shoot high, reach for excellence, and infuse all you do with the value of caring for others. If you do those things, I’ll guarantee you that you’ll achieve personal excellence.
Tim Jacobson is president of Visjonær Consulting & Communications. He's been a board member and executive of a number of nonprofit and for-profit organizations over the past two decades. He's the executive producer of a documentary film, Mysteries of the Driftless, broadcast on PBS and author of the book Explosive Marketing for Nonprofits: Trajectory for Success, to be published in 2014. He has led successful efforts to raise millions of dollars for nonprofit organizations in the form of grants and individual donations. He's been featured numerous times in magazines, newspapers and on TV for his organizational consulting, nonprofit and business leadership, his film and writing projects, and his exploration of international peace issues.
This article is copyright (c) 2013, Timothy S. Jacobson. All rights reserved.