Accelerate Excellence – How to sustain excellence for a lifetime

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 9, Issue No. 4
July, 2010

By Dan Coughlin



In eight weeks I’m speaking to the Honors students at a local high school. The administrators asked me to speak on the topic of excellence. To be honest, I can’t wait. I’m excited about the group and the topic. Here’s a preview of what I will say.

Defining Excellence

Since the word “excellence” means a lot of different things to different people, I’m going to start with my definition of excellence just so we’re all working off of the same page.

To me, excellence means doing an activity as well as you can do it right now and searching for ways to do it better in the future.

Consequently, excellence can be achieved at any point in your life. It’s in your hands. If you are doing an activity as well as you can do it and you are looking for ways to do it better, you are achieving excellence.

Here are ten habits on how to sustain excellence for a lifetime:

Habit of Excellence #1: Be Ready For Your Moment

My senior year in high school I was in a play. It was the only play that I was ever in. I had four lines to say, two in the first act and two in the second act. In the first act I delivered my two lines perfectly. I then had 45 minutes before my next scene. I stood behind the curtain and watched part of the play, I talked with the other actors and actresses, and then I went into the restroom to check my hat. I had to wear this big brown hat, and I wanted to make sure it looked ok.

Then with what I thought was about 10 minutes before my next scene I went behind the curtain to relax for a moment. In that instant the lead actress saw me, and yelled, “Coughlin, you are on right now!!!” And she pushed me from behind the curtain onto the stage. Without even looking up, I said my two lines as fast as I could and then went over and sat down. For the rest of that scene I sat there sweating profusely. I had almost ruined the play for everyone else because I was not ready for my moment. I wasn’t alert and well prepared. Truth be told, I was lucky that the lead actress spotted me when she did.

To achieve excellence and to do the best you are capable of doing in whatever you are doing you have to be ready for your moment. You have to be prepared, and you have to be alert.

Habit of Excellence #2: Don’t Compare Yourself to Other People, Learn From Them

Comparing yourself to other people is an absolute waste of time and energy.

It eats up time and energy that you could be using to get better at what you are doing. You will always be able to find people who get lower grades than you, who are less popular than you, who are less athletic and less theatrical and less committed to the community than you, who have less stellar careers than you, and who make less money than you do.

However, if finding these people is what you have to do to feel good about yourself, then I have really bad news for you. You will also always be able to find people who get better grades than you, who are more popular than you, who are more athletic and more theatrical and more committed to the community than you, who have more stellar careers than you, and who make more money than you.

Comparing yourself to others will absolutely drive you batty over time and keep you from ever achieving excellence.

Instead of comparing yourself to others, learn from other people. Learn from people you admire and from people you can’t stand being around. Ask yourself, “What does this person do well that I might be able to use myself?” “What does this person do that really turns me off, and how can I make sure that I don’t do it.” If you learn something from one other person every week, you will assemble an incredible toolbox for achieving excellence.

Habit of Excellence #3: Schedule Thinking Time

When I was in high school, I was in constant motion. I was either sitting in class, doing homework, playing soccer, attending church or a church-related event, or being involved in a number of other activities. I averaged over three hours of homework every night for those four years.

However, I almost never took the time to think. My entire focus was on the task at hand. I had six classes each semester and my vision rarely ever went beyond the next set of tests. That focus created a short-term benefit with a long-term problem. I did very well academically and had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do in college or in my career. I barely even thought about college until the second semester of my senior year.

I encourage you not to make the same mistake I did. Instead look at your calendar for the next week and block out one hour to really think. Put your homework to the side and pull out a blank sheet of paper. At the top of that sheet of paper write down one important objective you want to achieve or one important issue that you want to resolve. Then turn that objective or issue into an open-ended question. It might say something like:

  • “How can I get an A in math?”
  • “How can I use my study time more efficiently?”
  • “How can I build a better relationship with my friends?”
  • “What do I want to major in at college and why did I select that major?”

Then answer that question from a variety of perspectives: your perspective, a teacher’s perspective, your parent’s perspective, your friend’s perspective, and the perspective of a student at another school. For 35 minutes answer that question with as many ideas as you can. Then take the next ten minutes to combine ideas together to make even better ideas. At the end of those ten minutes select your best idea. Then spend the next 15 minutes putting together a plan of how you can use your best idea.

If you do that every week throughout high school you will have thought through a wide variety of important issues. More importantly, you will have greatly strengthened your ability to really think when you get out of college.

Habit of Excellence #4: Schedule Non-Thinking Time

Give yourself a break on a regular basis. Slow down for ten minutes each day and go for a walk without your cell phone. Take three consecutive hours a week and get away from your responsibilities and just relax. Save some fun television shows that you are really going to watch and enjoy them each week. Every quarter take two days in a row to relax.

Your brain needs to rest in order to come up with better ideas. If you remain in never-ending activity, you will eventually burn out physically and mentally. Burnout is a real danger if your goal is to sustain excellence for a lifetime.

By my junior year in college I hit burnout. I simply stopped caring about my grades and whether or not I was learning anything. I had gone six solid years of continuous studying to get good grades, and then one day I said to myself, “What am I doing? Why am I doing this? What’s the point?” Because I never gave myself time to rest and I never really spent time thinking in a purposeful way I ran directly into a brick wall. I was mentally fried. And then I wasted my last two years in college just going through the academic motions. When my learning could have been at a peak, it reached a valley. Looking back I realize what happened.

When I was a freshman in high school my counselor said, “Dan, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t burn yourself out now and expect to have anything left later on. Pace yourself. Enjoy yourself while you are learning.” I ignored his advice. Now I get it. Whether you are in high school or in the 20th year of your career, you have to pace yourself. Excellence is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to build in non-thinking time to relax.

When it comes to thinking and non-thinking time, a lot of adults have never done either one. They just keep going and going and going. They don’t take the time to really think in a focused way, and they never relax long enough to give their brains a rest.

Habit of Excellence #5: Review Past Successes, Preview Future Successes

I was at a meeting recently where the organization had achieved very good results in a very tough economic environment. One of the biggest concerns of the person in charge of the organization was that people never seemed to celebrate their successes. He didn’t sense that anyone was proud of what they had done, and he couldn’t figure out why that was happening.

Since I had done a lot of research on this company, I felt like raising my hand and saying, “It’s because you folks never pause long enough to review your successes. You’re off to the next race before the last one is finished.”

If you want to achieve excellence, self-confidence is critically important. Self-confidence is the degree to which you believe you are going to be successful in an upcoming challenge. There are two ways to build self-confidence. First, review your past successes, and, second, preview your future successes.

A past success is anytime you overcame the odds. You achieved something that someone else thought you couldn’t achieve, or maybe that you thought you couldn’t achieve. To relive your past success answer these five questions:

  1. What was your goal?
  2. What were the obstacles that could have kept you from achieving your goal?
  3. How did you persevere long enough to achieve the goal?
  4. What did it feel like when you achieved the goal?
  5. What lessons did you learn from that experience that you can use today to do better at whatever you are doing?

Take the time to write down your answers. It will take you less than five minutes.

Then preview a future success. Write down your answers to these three questions:

  1. What goal do I want to achieve?
  2. What are the benefits if I do achieve that goal? How will I benefit and how will other people benefit if I achieve that goal?
  3. Why do I fully expect to achieve that goal?

Take your time and answer the questions in depth. For questions two and three, after you’ve written down everything you can think of, go back and invest one more minute in answering each question. Really challenge yourself. This will take you less than ten minutes total.

If you do that once a month, you will greatly strengthen your self-confidence.

Habit of Excellence #6: Perform with Precision

In whatever you are doing, pay attention to the details and do each detail as well as you can. Develop the habit of achieving excellence on a regular basis. This doesn’t mean you have to get all A’s or score the most goals or get the lead in the school play. It simply means that while you are doing something do it as well as you can do it and search for ways to do it better. If you develop that habit, then you will always be ready to deliver excellence at any point in your life.

Don’t try to do four things at once. Focus your attention on the one activity you are doing. Do that activity as well as you can. Search for ways to do it better.

Habit of Excellence #7: Have Fun

Drudgery is not a formula for excellence. If you hate every minute of doing a certain thing, then you will never do it as well as you can do it. Have fun. Enjoy it. Turn it into a game. Don’t be consumed with the result. Focus on the doing of the activity. Pretend you’re a detective, and you are searching for clues on how to do it better.

Habit of Excellence #8: Do it as a Team

Excellence in a vacuum isn’t much fun. Look for opportunities to be a part of something bigger than just yourself. If your total focus is you, you are going to have a pretty boring life, one that is not going to generate excellence over the long term.

Look for ways to contribute your excellence to a cause that you believe in. Honing your skills in the classroom and through homework is a valuable activity. However, those skills need to be applied toward something that you really believe in. As you’re working toward great grades and better knowledge imagine what you can do with that increased talent. Talent is the capacity to add value to other people. What will you do with your talent to help others today, tomorrow, and twenty years from now?

Habit of Excellence #9: Don’t Let Anyone Talk You Out of Achieving Your Dreams

Life is funny. When you’re in high school, everyone asks you, “What are you going to do with your life when you grow up?” People want you to dream big dreams. They want you to reach for the sky. Then you get grown up and start to pursue those wild dreams, and people say, “When are you going to get serious and get a real job and make real money so you can raise kids to go after their dreams?”

If you don’t go after your dreams, why should your kids go after theirs?

If you believe in a dream, then go after it. Find something you really believe in and work toward achieving it. Not every dream will be realized, and that’s ok. But don’t let someone else talk you out of achieving what you want to pursue. If you will maintain the habit of going after your dreams in high school and in college, then there’s a chance you will do it for the rest of your life.

Habit of Excellence #10: Avoid Arrogance

The one guaranteed way to never achieve excellence is to be arrogant. Arrogance means you believe you already have all of the answers. I’m continually stunned by the number of mediocre performers who believe they have already learned all there is to know. I’m equally surprised by the amazing performers who keep working to get better every single day. They inspire me.

Again, excellence means doing something as well as you can do it right now and searching for ways to do it better in the future. If you do that over and over and over throughout your lifetime, you will develop the habit of excellence.

My new book, Find a Way to Win: Management Insights from Terry Michler, America’s All-Time Winningest Soccer Coach

Of all the people I’ve studied, met, observed, and coached in the last 25 years, Terry Michler is in the top five in terms of demonstrating excellence. For the past six months I’ve interviewed Terry on a wide range of topics and observed in a dozen different scenarios. As a high school soccer coach, Terry demonstrates all ten habits of excellence that I’ve described in this article.

I believe if you will carefully read Find a Way to Win and apply the ideas in it you will increase your chances of achieving excellence as a business manager. I define a manager as the person who is responsible for the results of a group effort. It doesn’t matter whether you are the CEO or a front-line manager. If you are responsible for the results of a group effort, you are a manager.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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