What is Excellence?
What is excellence? What does it mean to you? Excellence is not about being perfect. It is a value: a state of ownership in your work and a mark of your craft. Unfortunately, in today’s busy world, excellence is sacrificed for speedy work and quick profits. Quantity over quality. I’d argue that excellence is no longer a priority. But why not? Do we perceive it as something too idealistic? Are we afraid to fail or to fall short? Perhaps it’s simply because we don’t really know what excellence is and how we can achieve it. Consider the following poem by Marge Piercy:
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
Of course, excellence often depends on the quality of the tools, the materials, skills, and the processes used. Furthermore, most services or products are touched by many people, so it’s difficult to have a sense of personal ownership. Even so, each of us has the possibility to do work well done, to connect with meaningful and satisfying work. We must have an eye for details and bring excellence back. And how do we do that? Why should we care about excellence?
A) What is Seen
There is excellence in the evident. Aesthetics matter. Does the work look well executed? Were the materials chosen appropriately and with quality? There is no doubt quality is a component of excellence. We all know when work was done without cutting corners. We know when we work hard and when others do. In whatever is done, it’s our responsibility to deliver with quality and reliability. And yet, why is there a significant amount of lousy, inadequate, and faulty work still being delivered? Don’t we know better? Why does it seem that the world is giving up on excellence?
I believe part of the reason is because we perceive excellence as something unattainable. However, excellence is not being perfect or flawless. These ideas of perfection may be precisely what’s discouraging us from delivering our best work. Excellence, as opposed to perfection, is in the commitment to make it right. It’s taking ownership and responsibility to do our best. How do you do that? By setting clear expectations and establishing what the baseline quality work will be.
What is seen is the lowest common denominator (but not least important) of excellence. When you buy a flight ticket, you know exactly what you expect. When you subcontract a project, you envision what the end result will look like. You want a well executed project. You want the specifications to be met. What’s promised. But we also want beauty. Excellence in what is seen is functional, looks pleasant, is durable, and simply delivers in full. In terms of service, we want attentive, human, empathetic, effective, and even personalized customer service.
B) What is Unseen
But that’s only part of the story. What is seen is only the standard expectations. It’s meeting the requirements. What is unseen, in contrast, is where excellence takes shape and form. These are the areas where people without your expertise can’t see. Excellence lingers in these hidden details. If we know this, why is it so widely avoided? Is it because we don’t get compensated for it, it costs more, it’s more time consuming, or it’ll go unnoticed anyways? Those are certainly valid reasons if we fail to communicate what makes the work worthwhile. Excellence is not automatically understood. We must show why it’s important.
Fundamentally, we must show (even teach) our end-users where to look. What is unseen needs to be carefully executed and clearly communicated. You say: “This is what you expect to see. This is what you won’t see, but we care to do. And this is why it matters.” You are the expert in your field. You know where to look and you take pride in delivering work with excellence. Are you afraid you’ll lose your competitive advantage by showing what makes you the best? Don’t be. You will build long-lasting trust as a result. This is how you cement customer loyalty. It is how professionals and small companies avoid going bankrupt in the long run.
So be bold about communicating how you care about the unseen. Make this your strength. This is how you keep and grow customers, how you shift the odds of getting hired in your favor, and how you show excellence. For example, consider the “triple-washed” salads. They care about making them safe and ready-to-eat (excellence) and they don’t hesitate to let us know about it (communication). How do you achieve this? Do the work when no one is watching, when no one is asking for it, and when no one knows where to look, but you do. How invaluable is that? How much better could the world be?
C) The Pursuit of Excellence
Like Marge Piercy said: “But the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.” And now you know, the thing worth doing well done is in what is not evident as well. And there’s one more component. The pursuit of excellence. That means work is never excellent per se—it is always evolving. The more you learn, the better you see. Expertise is not something stagnant. It’s not about knowing everything, but in your attitude to always be learning.
The pursuit of excellence is based on being honest with ourselves and others, compassionate with our work, and committed to keep learning. From here is where we can begin our journey and shape our story. In the pursuit of excellence is where we’re able to create delightful experiences for others. It involves caring about what happens before and especially after the sale. This is how reputation is built. Do you care to ask: “How did I do? How did it go? Where did we fall short? How do I make it right? This is the signature of excellence. Not flawlessness. Not perfection. But our commitment and our care in the work we do.
I think excellence is more of a human trait than it is an industrial one. There’s a moral component to human excellence. We want work to be done properly and with intent. And to me the urgency to strive for excellence comes from the need for it: we need products that last longer (not planned obsolescence) and are more sustainable. We need services that bet on humanity and promote it, not less of it. Tasks and processes that remain mediocre, annoying, and repetitive will most likely be automated shortly with the rise of Artificial Intelligence. People will still want people—and excellence is how we’ll stay relevant.
When you mind excellence you become credible, trustworthy, and indispensable. You develop new or existing relationships. You’ll earn trust and gain expertise. We must commit to deliver our best, show where to look, teach why it matters, and to keep learning. But not to the point of burnout or exhaustion. On the contrary, you know when you’re doing it right because it invigorates you, it’s meaningful, and you feel a sense of pride. You contribute to our world the kind of work that we all need.
Juan F. Diaz
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