Waking Up to Excellence

Excellence Is the Next Five Minutes

“Excellence is the next five minutes”. So says Tom Peters, author of innumerable management books from 1982’s In Search of Excellence to 2018’s The Excellence Dividend.

This excellence thesis says that excellence is not some grand strategic thing. It’s a decision about how to approach each moment. Excellence is the next email. It’s how you say, “thank you”. It’s how you respond to a mistake.

If you’re supposed to be giving someone feedback on a presentation, genuinely pay attention and frame what you say with the presenter’s objectives in mind. If you’re supposed to be playing Bananagrams with your children, play the game well, engage with your kids, and try not to worry about dinner, or work, or the effects of loose monetary policy.

Excellence is not something you aspire to; it’s something you do. “Forget vision,” Peters says. “Forget dreams. Do the best you can right now.”

In The Excellence Dividend, he quotes former IBM chairman Thomas Watson. When asked how long it took to achieve excellence, he replied, “One minute. You make up your mind to never again consciously do something that is less than excellent.”

“Then,” Peters says in The Pursuit of WOW!, “you work like hell for the rest of your life to stay on the wagon.”

On the one hand, this is a relief. There’s no need to torment yourself coming up with a 25-year Excellence Strategy – just make sure that you do a good job of that next email. Consider the person on the other end. Be thoughtful and helpful. That much, we can all do.

It also kills dead the number one fault with grand resolutions, the idea that once they’re broken it’s all over. You don’t need to wait until the next big reset to try again. If you didn’t make it to the gym on the 3rd of January, the rest of 2019 can still be fine.

On the other hand, the idea can be intimidating. There are 288 five-minuteses in a day. That’s a lot of excellence to live up to. Even if I take the heat off when I’m asleep, that’s still 192 times I need to be on top of my game.

I just spent ten minutes idling around on Google image search pretending to look for pictures to illustrate this post. That wasn’t excellence. That was my brain switching into power-saving mode. Now it’s nearly lunch time and I’ve only got 132 chances left today to be excellent.

Worrying about every five minutes is just another version of the grand resolution fallacy. It’s just being smuggled in in five-minute chunks. Forget what’s been and what’s still to come. Just think about the one thing at hand.

Lessons from Meditation

There’s an analogy with meditation that I think is useful here. The first myth of meditation is that you need to empty your brain and if you have thoughts, fantasies, and all the other monkeys-of-the-mind popping up and distracting you, then you’re doing it wrong.

The opposite is true. The whole point of mindfulness is to notice the noise – which is going on the whole time regardless – and to return your attention to your breath or whatever your point of focus is.

As Dan Harris says in Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, “Meditation is unlike anything else you do in life, in that here, ‘failing’ – that is, noticing you’ve gotten distracted and starting again – is succeeding.”

Meditators call the moment of noticing that you’ve been distracted, that flash of alertness, “waking up”. Noticing the distraction and refocusing isn’t getting it wrong; it’s exactly the thing that you’re practicing.

A similar “waking up” can be applied to the pursuit of excellence. You won’t be excellent, whatever standard you hold yourself to, every minute of every day. The point is to notice when you’ve drifted off, when you’re half-assing it, when you’re phoning it in, accept that calmly, and then recommit to doing a better job. And when you inevitably drift off again, repeat.

It doesn’t matter what’s happened in the last five minutes or the last twenty-five years. You can always “wake up” to excellence.

You don’t have to do anything fancy.

Excellence is the next five minutes.

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