Everyone wants the rewards that come with achievement; knowing that we’ve excelled at something brings great satisfaction, perhaps in part because it doesn’t happen as often as we’d like. So how can we excel consistently?
That’s a question that raises another: What is excellence? Is it simply achievement above a certain level, an external recognition of one’s accomplishments in comparison to those of others? Might it instead be internally defined as a matter of consistent effort and focus?
Three recent books provide insight into how to better find and practice excellence, and how to avoid those habits and instincts that too often derail our efforts.
Wisdom From Coach Wooden
“The closest I can come to one secret of success is this: a lot of little things done well.” This was the answer legendary basketball coach John Wooden gave Pat Williams when he asked him for “just one secret of success in life.”
Williams’s role as senior vice president of the Orlando Magic basketball team follows a long history of collegiate and professional sports involvement. In the last decade of Wooden’s life, Williams and the coach shared many conversations, and these form the basis of his 2014 book, Coach Wooden’s Greatest Secret, written in collaboration with freelance writer Jim Denney.
While Wooden is quoted extensively throughout this book, it is not a biography. It is a motivational read that cites numerous sports, military, business, educational, political and historical figures—among them Jesus, Mother Teresa and Ronald Reagan—in support of the coach’s philosophies.
To highlight Wooden’s attention to the smallest details, Williams cites an article the coach wrote for Newsweek in October 1999: “The first thing I would show our players at our first meeting was how to take a little extra time putting on their shoes and socks properly. The most important part of your equipment is your shoes and socks. You play on a hard floor. So you must have shoes that fit right. And you must not permit your socks to have wrinkles around the little toe—where you generally get blisters—or around the heels.”
A simple thing, a little thing, easily overlooked, can thus help form the foundation of excellence. Williams spoke with several of Wooden’s former players and quotes them on the lasting influence this principle had on them, with dividends far beyond the game. A few years of Wooden’s coaching, it seems, affected lives for years to come.
“Swen Nater,” Williams relates, “who played center for Coach Wooden from 1971 to 1973, is now an executive with Costco. He once told me, ‘I still live by the rules Coach taught me. Every time I leave a hotel room, I make sure the towels are picked up off the floor, the pillows are neatly placed on the bed, and every piece of trash is in the wastebaskets. Every morning when I get dressed, I put on my socks exactly as Coach taught us on our first day at UCLA. I put my toes in just so, adjust the heel, and smooth out the wrinkles. I do that whether I’m wearing basketball socks or business socks. And you know what? I’ve never had a blister, thanks to the little things Coach taught me when I was at UCLA.’”
“Pete Blackman,” writes Williams, “who played for Coach Wooden from 1958 through 1962, recited to me some unforgettable wisdom he learned from Coach Wooden: ‘Do the basics right and do as well as you can with what God gave you, and you will be surprised at how far you can get in life.’”
“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”
André McCarter played for UCLA from 1973 to 1976 and was severely corrected by the coach for a stunt play at the first practice of his sophomore year. This seemingly little thing posed too great a risk; if not executed perfectly, it could cost them the ball and, conceivably, the game. It therefore had to be addressed: “A few days later, Coach Wooden talked to the team about consistency. ‘Winning basketball,’ he said, ‘has nothing to do with the highlight plays you see on television. Teams win because they play unselfishly, and their players have solid fundamentals.’ As McCarter listened to Coach speak, everything clicked into place. He realized that Coach Wooden was not just preparing them to play basketball. ‘Basketball,’ McCarter concluded, ‘was just something to prepare us to be good students of life.’”
The book’s main weakness is its verbosity. The author makes an almost overwhelming number of recommendations for the reader to follow; by the final pages he has proffered more than 85 separate principles, a number that would seem to violate the second chapter’s advice to keep things simple.
Simplicity clearly describes how Coach Wooden operated. At the beginning of each year, he gave his players two pieces of paper. The first listed 10 recommendations, none exceeding two lines, for achieving academic excellence and excellence in character. The second was headed “Normal Expectations” and included only three rules:
1. Be on time.
2. Do not use profanity at any time.
3. Never criticize a teammate.
These simple principles were surely expanded on in the course of his coaching, but the basics were critical.
Wooden was a deeply religious man, so it’s no surprise that the principle of doing little things well has a biblical basis. Luke 16:10 records that “the one who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and the one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (New English Translation). Williams quotes this verse to support his assertion that “by guarding your character in the little things, you make sure you can be trusted with the big things.”
He then raises good character traits to the spiritual level, listing “the fruit of the Spirit” from Galatians 5:22–23. Any of these familiar traits would be useful, not only on the basketball court but in everyday personal and professional life: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (English Standard Version). Who would argue that getting these things right will produce good outcomes?
No stranger to the Scriptures, nor to sports analogies, Williams highlights a passage written by the apostle Paul. Using sports parlance, Paul addressed the last of these fruits of the Spirit: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. . . . So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control . . .” (1 Corinthians 9:24–27).
Williams also suggests that the reader “start each day with a habit of positive, healthy thinking. The moment your eyes pop open, before you even roll out of bed, take time to thank God for the new day.” He points to Psalm 59:16–17 in support of this habit and goes on to recommend that one “build a habit of thankfulness. Make gratitude a daily habit. Be grateful for the things that make life enjoyable. Thank God for your health, your freedom, your family and friends, and the opportunities you have to serve God and others. The more things you think of to be thankful for, the more grateful you will be.” One could do far worse than to follow this advice.
Lots of little things done well accrete—like a stalactite taking shape, one water drop at a time. Focusing diligently on excellence in small actions leads to the formation of good habits, which, as many whom Coach Wooden trained can attest, grow into a pattern of excellence in one’s professional and personal life. The book provides an ample exposition of Wooden’s principles, but the simple fundamentals he taught shine through to the reader. His secret is worth implementing.
The note read, “If you ever want to see your Excellence again, open your eyes and pay the ransom.” Police detectives were everywhere, but so far they had more questions than answers; no one knew what had become of Excellence.
Who Kidnapped Excellence? examines this critical quality in the workplace and in our personal lives with the goal of understanding key factors to pursue and to avoid.
The book does a superb job of laying out the characteristics that lead to excellence. What sets this work apart is its personification of these traits as actual characters with dialog and emotions—the “team” of Excellence: Passion creates “that zest inside us for life that causes us to smile even when circumstances are against us, to go that extra mile, and to see our life and work as an opportunity.” Competency, for its part, “ensures everyone has all the skills needed to do their best” in both professional and personal arenas. Flexibility allows us to respond to changing conditions and situations, while Communication clearly conveys roles and expectations: “Perception is everything, and perception is created by Communication. Communication respects that there is a delicate balance between listening and talking.” Finally we have Ownership, which “ensures everyone gives their best and takes 100 percent responsibility for their jobs. Ownership is a personal value that promotes the knowledge that we have power and influence when we accept our responsibilities. Even in the face of constraints and barriers, we have the choice to operate using our judgment.”
“Average doesn’t work to suppress Passion, Competency, Flexibility, Communication, and Ownership all at one time. . . . He knows that if he can quell just one or two of them at a time, he can keep true excellence away.”
The authors are well qualified to write on the subject. Harry Paul has spent over 30 years helping people and organizations to be their best, and during his time as a senior vice president at management expert Ken Blanchard’s training and consulting firm, he coauthored Fish! A Proven Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results. The book was a best-seller for six years and the first of six books he coauthored. John Britt’s vantage point as a registered nurse in a hospital emergency room caused him to take note of the disconnect between management and frontline employees. After earning a bachelor’s degree in management of human resources and a master’s degree in organizational management, he coauthored Who Killed Change? with Blanchard. Ed Jent has served as a minister of education for several church organizations and has developed a focus on excellence in areas such as customer service, conflict management and counseling.
Given these writers’ credentials, does this book’s unique approach work? As well versed as the three coauthors are in their subject, novelists they are not. Thus, what starts off as an intriguing approach to the topic is sadly little more than an inferior veneer laid over otherwise superb content. Plot points are started and never resolved, and the characters themselves, although representing critical aspects of the subject, are poorly developed and appear to be present only for the sake of a literary device.
The antagonists in the book are likewise crucial concepts but clumsily villainized. Leading the way in the slow, methodical takedown of Excellence is Average, who has his own team of named characters: N. Different, N. Ept, N. Flexibility, Miss Communication, and Poser. The obvious puns detract from rather than support the otherwise well-thought-out and insightful content. Wading through the unnecessary mire of a poorly constructed and executed narrative thus becomes a distraction in even this short read.
The book’s message, however, is worth the reader’s time. How do we avoid average? We’re to have a deep passion, zest and zeal, and thus shun indifference. We have to be competent in our subject matter and be dedicated to learning and practice in order to keep ineptitude at bay. Difficult times require flexibility; and clear, open communication is key to preventing misunderstandings and even deception from taking hold. When we take ownership of and responsibility for our actions and decisions, we avoid simply going through the motions to keep up appearances.
An interesting feature of this book is a section toward the end, titled “People and Companies Who ‘Get It.’” As the heading suggests, these 23 pages provide a brief profile of several influential individuals and organizations who have developed a reputation for excellence. “Excellence is a journey,” write the authors, “not a destination.”
Who Kidnapped Excellence? breaks down the complex and critical issue of pursuing quality in our professional and personal lives. While it suffers from the contrived framework of its delivery, those looking for a quick, thought-provoking read will still find plenty to consider.
The Importance of Focus
Psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman wrote for the New York Times for many years and is perhaps best known for his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, with over 5 million copies in print in 40 languages. He describes his 2013 book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, as one that “delves into new, surprising findings from neuroscience labs and explains why attention is a little-noticed mental asset that makes a huge difference in how well we find our way in our personal lives, our careers, as parents and partners, and in virtually everything we do.”
That the ability to concentrate one’s attention or effort should be a prerequisite to success may seem obvious. Many recent writers have opined that modern Western culture increasingly challenges that ability. Goleman, too, starts out to address the commonly held belief that as life’s pace seems to increase—as we become more deeply surrounded by data and information from radio, television, computers and smartphones—we are ever more distracted. As more and more potential subjects arise to be aware of (and to have an opinion about), we are less and less able to focus. Busyness and multitasking have become a badge of honor; we may find ourselves jumping from one task to the next, the last thought unfinished before the next overtakes us.
“We must ask ourselves: in the service of what exactly are we using whatever talents we may have? If our focus serves only our personal ends—self-interest, immediate reward, and our own small group—then in the long run all of us, as a species, are doomed.”
Yet Goleman sets himself a much broader task than simply addressing our current dilemma of shrinking attention. He covers a number of fields in a comprehensive survey of his topic. The book’s seven main sections dip into subjects as diverse as brain structure and chemistry; emotional sensitivity (how we read others); gut decisions and logic; self-deception; pattern detection; and truly effective practice that results in improvement.
One main thread that the author draws through the book is that of “inner, other, and outer focus.”
The first “attunes us to our intuitions, guiding values, and better decisions,” he writes. It’s a point worth pondering. Our intuition can steer us true, but does it always? Our inner focus, whether based on guiding values or not, can be flawed, even fatally. The prophet Jeremiah cautioned against relying on our own internal compass, noting that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV). The irony of self-deception, according to Jeremiah, is that we may not even realize that we’re going off the rails, nor what it is that leads us astray. If there are standards we can rely on to guide our interactions and successfully manage our own conduct, we should look to them to achieve an excellent outcome.
Goleman continues: “Other focus smooths our connections to the people in our lives.” It describes how we deal with others, correctly interpreting and responding to their signals. Other focus is a form of empathy; how should we treat our friends, our coworkers, those with whom we disagree? If we hark back to Jeremiah’s words, then to truly be excellent to each other, our focus needs to be guided by values that originate elsewhere than from the human heart—values that are beneficial for all.
Goleman goes on: “And outer focus lets us navigate in the larger world.” He describes it as “systems awareness,” understanding the larger forces at work. Without an understanding of the context in which we operate, we can be caught unaware when the world changes around us.
Summing up the importance of these three aspects of focus, he writes: “A leader tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless. One blind to the world of others will be clueless; those indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided.” Each of these kinds of focus requires a different kind of practice and a different kind of attention, but when understood and aligned, they can become the basis of habits that consistently lead to better outcomes.
Focus is a wide-ranging book, but therein lies what may be its greatest weakness. It is less a cohesive whole and more a collection of research and anecdote, like a series of blog posts with little to connect one section with the next. It lacks, as various other reviewers have noted, focus.
This observation aside, the book offers useful insight into the subject of achieving excellence, a subject as old as human history; it should come as no surprise that the Bible not only recommends excellence as a goal but that it identifies focus as a method: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things” (Philippians 4:8–9, ESV, emphasis added).
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might.”
Excellence is a worthy goal in all that we set our hands (and minds) to do. Coach Wooden encourages us to focus diligently on doing little things—all of them—well. Who Kidnapped Excellence? reminds us to actively avoid the tendency to settle for average, for merely “good enough.” Goleman’s book provides some insights on why focus can sometimes be difficult, and how beneficial it can be if we are nimble in each of its facets. The solution is closer than we may realize—to focus on what is excellent, and to practice those things.