We see excellence all around us. LeBron James's game Thursday night (48-9-7 and the Cavs' last 25!): Excellence. In some sense, that is the goal: to reach a point in your sport/job/studies/whatever where you are universally recognized as "the best". But realistically, only one person can be "the best". In running, maybe a few people can, if you introduce categories like different distances, nationalities, age-levels, etc.
What about all those people who aren't going to be "the best"? Should they just quit? Seth Godin, in his new book The Dip argues that they should. Then again, Seth defines excellence in one and only one way: how your performance stacks up to external comparisons. That's the way it is in business. "The market" is the ultimate norm-referenced evaluator of value or worth.
Quitting makes sense in business, because nobody cares if you're the best you can be, only if you are the best for them, meaning the best period. You are constantly evaluated against your competition. If you are the best, you are rewarded. But only if you are "the best."
Is this always the case, though? Is it only worth doing something if you can realistically become "the best"? Should you give up if you don't see yourself earning things like World Records, Olympic gold medals, MVP trophies, Hall of Fame membership, etc.?
I don't think so. But it's an important topic for discussion. What Seth is talking about is called Norm-referenced Excellence. It is excellence judged against external benchmarks: competition, market share, records, endorsements,etc. This is a valid and important measure of excellence. But it is important to understand what this kind of excellence is and what it isn't.
- what we commonly refer to when we speak about "excellence"
- easily noticeable; this type of excellence stands out
- the definition of excellence that leads to fame and fortune, and
- what the Olympics and professional leagues are a showcase for
But it is not:
- the only legitimate measure of excellence
- the measure of excellence that leads to pride and self-discovery
- transferrable from one activity to another, nor
- where runners should be focusing your energy!
As money enters the equation, norm-referenced excellence becomes more and more important. But the path to norm-referenced excellence can be incredibly long, filled with short-term frustration, and ultimately unachievable. Especially in running.
This isn't to say you shouldn't have norm-referenced excellence as a goal, or that you shouldn't pursue it if you think you can achieve it. In the short-term, if you have the opportunity to win a race, you should certainly try to win it. But winning the race should be just one measure of your success.
Winning a race is nice. Really. It feels good. But who do you think feels better: the person who jogs and wins a race, or the person who executes their race plan perfectly to finish in 100th place with a new personal record? I guarantee you it's the person who finished in 100th place.
Why? Because the winner didn't run an excellent race. The person who finished 100th did.
Self-referenced Excellence matters. You should not only compare yourself to your competition, but to how good you think you can be. Self-referenced excellence focuses on quality of execution. That is, self-referenced excellence focuses not on where you finish, but how you get there.
Being "your best" is fundamentally different from being "the best". The vast majority of cheating occurs precisely when people are evaluated on a norm-referenced basis. When the need to win takes precedence over the need to challenge your limits. This also leads to doing "just enough". Think again about the guy who jogs and wins a race. Does he take pride in that performance? Has he learned anything about himself?
Maybe. Norm-referenced excellence offers no guarantee, though. When you focus on doing what you can do to the best of your ability, however, you are virtually assured of learning about yourself and feeling good about your performance. (If you make mistakes and execute poorly, you may kick yourself, but then you should be learning even more!)
Similarly, self-referenced excellence is transferrable across fields. For example, the act of setting self-referenced goals and focusing on execution rather than outcome is an approach that can be used in running, business, school and every other field. It teaches you to think in a way that places value on the process of taking on unfamiliar challenges.
Finally, self-referenced excellence allows you to take risks. If winning isn't the only measure of success, then you can attempt to execute race plans that won't guarantee you a top finish, but that may teach you about how you respond to different situations. Norm-referenced excellence can lead people to play it safe, to accept "good enough". (Or it can lead people to act recklessly, like when their backs are against the wall. The results are sometimes great, but the downside is also huge.)
In short, you need self-referenced goals, benchmarks and expectations in both your short-term and long-term planning. They are how you sustain excellence.
On Sustaining Excellence
Achieving norm-referenced excellence is hard. It takes about 10 years of quality training before any runner has a realistic shot at realizing their potential. And that's self-referenced excellence. Norm-referenced excellence requires a runner to beat everyone else on top of being their best. There's no telling how much time and energy it would take you to become the best in the world, but you'd better have at least a 10-15 year plan to getting there.
And that path won't always be filled with success. You may win a lot early in your career, but at some point your competition will catch up or you'll move up to the next level. At some point, you'll have to deal with a lot of frustration.
You also may get injured. In fact, I guarantee you'll get injured. It's tough to know your limits until you surpass them. What do you do when recovering from setbacks makes norm-referenced excellence unobtainable? How do you handle that period of time when it seems impossible, when it's a lot of work for little reward, when you're not sure if it will ever happen?
Seth Godin argues you need to be prepared for it and "lean into it", by which he means rededicate yourself to the pursuit. I totally agree with this. But I think he left something out, at least in terms of running. You have to focus on yourself.
You can't control what your competition is doing. But you can control what you are doing. If you run your best race and still lose, that's not a failure. You just ran your best race! That's a huge accomplishment, something even great runners have a difficult time doing.
But make no mistake. Running their best race is what great runners are focused on. Just as playing his best game is what LeBron James is focused on, and making its best cars is what Toyota is focused on. Those who achieve norm-referenced excellence do it by focusing on themselves. They focus on realizing their potential, on accepting nothing less their best.
Focus on being your best. If you do that long enough and well enough, the fame, fortune and norm-referenced success will follow. And if they don't, you can still be proud of your performance.