When good isn’t good enough: My story of entering the workforce

Why excellence is the only way to freedom

Having worked with a few young people just entering the workforce, I feel their number one roadblock is lack of commitment to excellence.

“I have time, I am still young, I can do it later” is an illusion. By sheer force of habit the more you do something, the better you become at it. Likewise, the more you give yourself slack and cut corners, the stronger the urge to keep doing so. And eventually, you’ll become a master at slacking and cutting corners. There are lots of reasons for not committing to excellence. Opportunities arise to tempt and distract you with things that don’t matter. It’s easy to feel like you can chill and do the pleasant things now, and figure out your dreams later.

“I’m young, there’s plenty of time.”

I’ve been trapped by this thinking and wasted years before realizing this simple truth. There is no other time but today. If you truly want to get somewhere, you need to start now.

Forget New Year’s resolutions, they are soap bubble daydreams destined to pop at the first breeze.

To have longevity of intention, you need to fuel it with passion. You need to feel like James Bond on a mission saving the world from impending doom.

He is focused, determined, collected. And he is not distracted by the girl. Or else he might be dead the next minute.

But that’s hard. You may not have discovered your calling in life yet; you may not even know what to do to find it.

Years ago when I was a new immigrant working a bunch of dead end jobs and living a depressing life of survival I was tormented by the constant urge to figure out how to change things. I didn’t have a clue “what” it would take, but one day I thought of “how” it would feel. I thought it would feel like I’m on a mission that would make me burn from the inside, jump out of bed with excitement and have the energy to move the mountains. That was just a glimpse, and it took many more glimpses and years of slow and painful growth to start manifesting the change in my life.

One of the crucial hinges, and quite possibly a tipping point, wascommitment to excellence. Not waiting for a perfect job or the perfect environment but committing to doing a great job at whatever I was doing.

I kept working incrementally better jobs, then took some courses and joined a small business where I quickly became a partner. I helped grow the business, but after a couple of years I hit a ceiling. That’s when, persuaded by the advice from my long time friend and an exceptional life coach Mila Ridout, I went back to school.

The nine months after graduation were tough. That’s how long it took me to get my first corporate gig. I was in debt, unemployed, frustrated. I had no money to live on, so I took a summer job taking care of the tennis club in a local park. They had clay courts that you needed to water and brush every morning before the first players showed, and afterwards clean the club facilities. It wasn’t a glamorous job, and I was feeling pretty miserable having to do it. That’s when I got this advice (from Mila again) — do it like it’s the most important job in the world, like the destiny of the universe depends on it. I had nothing to lose, so I did it. I imagined it, and put my heart into it as much as I could.

A few weeks later I got a very short contract at an ad agency, then a one-month extension, then another three months, and that was the beginning of a new life. I don’t know if that change of attitude played a magical role in me landing a job that lead to a successful career, but that’s not what’s important. What is important is the change in attitude that kept me evolving, pushing me out of my comfort zone and closer to freedom. It’s not something you can do once, and then kick back with a Cohiba in hand; it’s a lifelong effort, and always a work in progress.

Excellence is a subjective term open for debate. The following are a couple of points that I use as a way to figure it out for myself:

  • Have I done my absolute honest best?
    This doesn’t mean I didn’t have low points where I wasn’t 100% productive, but that I got through them, didn’t succumb to distractions and excuses and at the end truly did the best I could at the time.
  • Have I uncovered and validated the assumptions I made, explicit and implicit?
    Those assumptions that I couldn’t validate, have I acknowledged them as such, and thought about the risk involved and consciously accepted it?
  • Have I checked my own and others’ work before shipping it off?
    Everyone makes mistakes, and I need to minimize passing them off to other people if I can help it.
  • Have I looked at the situation from the angle of everyone involved and considered their point of view?
    This alone can provide an important insight that can make life so much easier.
  • And last, arguably most importantly, have I kept my ego in check?
    If things didn’t go well did I take responsibility? If things did go well did I credit others for our success? Did I make sure I didn’t complain, lash out or otherwise act infantile or impulsive?

If I can check off against each of these then I know I’ve done a reasonably good job. If things don’t work out I can learn a lesson by looking at what went wrong and how I can do better next time. If it worked out, great! We can all celebrate.

This is how I see the world: doing a good job isn’t good enough. Doing excellent work is crucial for growth and success.

If I lack the attitude of excellence I’m chaining myself to self-imposed mediocrity.

The only way excellence is achieved is by putting in 150% and not cutting corners. Going after excellence takes a lot of pain and grit, and it’s the only way to manifest your full potential. It’s the only way to make any sustainable good things happen. Everyday is a constant reminder to make this my attitude and the way to be in the world.

Start now. Stop never.

Title Photo Credit: flickr