A lot of people — people I admire — talk about the importance of pursuing excellence. We agree there. But they also talk about the importance of being a “top performer,” or “the top 1% in the world” (In terms of skill, not income.) Here I am in less agreement.

First of all, it begs the question that there can be any agreement about who the top performer is. In the second place, designating someone as a top performer and setting your sights on being where they are tends to cause tunnel vision. That tunnel-vision then tends to cause superficial imitation without the foundation to back it up. In other words, you try to do what they do without having the same insight about why they are doing it.

(This is why I invited people to share the why and the how of their routines. It’s not enough to say “Get up at 4am.” How do you get up at 4am, and what do you do with that time. It’s not as obvious as it seems.)

The difference? The fox knows can hear the field mice under the snow. The other guy? He just wants to be a fox. (Okay, he’s probably drunk, too.)

It’s an easy trap to fall into, to be sure. I mean, if you’re running a business, you have to keep track of what your competitors are doing, don’t you?

Well, no, not really.

You’re not Nike. You’re not that big. Your customer base is a tiny, tiny fraction of the number of people who hypothetically might buy your service or product. You are more like an indie musician than you are a multinational conglomerate. You do you, and enough people will like that enough to support you.

Run Your Own Race

This is a particularly tricky time of year. Everybody is shouting their resolutions from the rooftops. They’re banding together in big groups to offer each other support and encouragement — not a bad thing, but the pressure to do what everyone else is doing is substantial.

Some ideas:

  • What’s something you could do for business with do downside and little effort? How many of these low-hanging fruits could you knock out of the park in January?
  • What do you want to be better at? Narrow it down to your top three. Then, make a specific plan for the structures and reminders you will need to help you improve.
  • Think about who you were a year ago. Or five years ago. Now look at who you are now. What kind of strides have you made? How can you improve on that foundation?
  • Imagine what you’d like people to say at your eulogy. Is there one or two things you could change to be closer to that person they loved and admired right now?
  • What items on your list will you be embarrassed if they are still on the list next year? That’s a signal you better put up or shut up.

You Do You

There’s something so awesome about a globalized society where you can support yourself with such a small slice of any given market. If you lived in Nowheresville, OH, you had to be everything to everyone, just for volume’s sake. Now all you have to do is tease out your target market and do your own thing really, really well.

This incentivizes you, not just to work on your business, but to work on yourself, because everyone wants to work with and plug into businesses and people that are vibrant and are really going after something. It speaks to our values, and where possible, we like to support things that line up with our values.

I don’t suppose that I changed anyone’s mind with that last paragraph. People are going to go after what’s important to them if they can. I just want to point out that it’s not an either/or situation like your lizard brain likes to believe. Although it’s hard to imagine how sometimes, bringing all of yourself to the table will improve your business. Showing your no-bullshit side to your customers because that’s how Ramit does it is not at all the same thing.

The Problem With “The Big Overhaul”

The other big problem with this time of year is The Big Overhaul.

People start going nuts, starting new habits and regimens willy-nilly. This is

  • difficult to implement
  • inefficient; and
  • often destroys other valuable habits at the same time

For the love of all that’s holy do not do this. There are a few rare occasions where things are going so wrong in your life that you should flip the table and start over. But you’re probably not in that situation unless you are reading this post in rehab.

Kaizen. Take a look at what you are already doing.

Most of it is working pretty good for you, no? Your bills get paid and you wear clean clothes most days, right? So start from where you’re at and tweak.

Not only will you improve faster, there will be far less disruption to your life. Your habits will keep being your habits, but slightly improved.

The Question Of Excellence

I certainly agree that excellence is worth pursuing. I’m just not as certain that the best way to do that is to compare your progress with that of others. You didn’t start in the same place, and you won’t end in the same place, so what’s the point, really? You’ll have the ego gratification or deflation on the basis of a flawed comparison.

Being “Better” this year, the next year, and every year of your life, simply requires you to look at yourself, and decide what can be tweaked to get a little closer to your ideal.

It really is that simple.

What tweak will get you closer to your ideal?


6 thoughts on “Better”

  1. The only time I flipped the table and said, “Screw you, self! I’m outta here,” and had it work was the beginning of my personal renaissance in 2010. Otherwise, it’s been inefficient or downright counter-productive.

    But you hit on something important, Shanna. What’s the motivation for changing? Does it come from within, or is it because of external influences? Trying to improve to get to where someone else is (comparison), well, that’s not a splendid idea. That’s not just me talking … 

    “Life isn’t graded on a curve. How you measure up against others holds absolutely no importance in your life anyway. The goal of life is not to be better than 50% of the other people on the planet. The goal of life is to be the best you that you can possibly be.” – Joshua Becker

    “Envy is ever joined with the comparing of a man’s self; and where there is no comparison, no envy.” – Francis Bacon

    Oh, and one more because I can’t resist:

    “Are you normal or are you just common? Just because something is common doesn’t make it normal. For humans in the United States and other developed nations, being overweight and on pills is common. For the human animal given access to sunlight, good food, regular movement, and a healthy happy community life, leanness and effortless metabolic health are normal. That’s the normal we should be aiming for, not the common state of health we see on a daily basis.” – Mark Sisson

    I want to be better, but only a better version of myself. I don’t need to be better so I can compete in an arena I don’t want to be in.

  2. I used to feel like I should wait until January to start new self-improvement type projects. Project 365 x 2, which we started in the middle of April, broke me of that habit. I actually find resolutions a little depressing, because no one actually sticks to them anyway — making one for me carries that discouragement built right in.

    I’m a big believer in feeling your way into things. There’s a reason for the change, then there’s the mechanics of the change, then there’s checking to make sure the change is having the desired effect, and finally there’s the iteration from there. Just saying “Starting today I will do X forevermore!” is, uh, not generally effective 🙂

  3. “Being “Better” this year, the next year, and every year of your life, simply requires you to look at yourself, and decide what can be tweaked to get a little closer to your ideal.” That is so apt. Thanks for that way of putting it. It reminds me of the phrase “Progress, not perfection.” I also like the whole question, what bunch of things can I knock off the list fast?

    For me personally, the tweak is to knock off a bits of my writing time. I’m too slow. I can do that in small measurable steps. How? I’m not sure, but your idea to make a plan is the next step.

  4. “Functional Excellence” was a term that got thrown around during performance review time at my old corporate gigs, and it always made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up straight. I hated the bullshit measures of trying to be a “top performer” and having to quantify everything about a knowledge work job that was largely intangible and difficult to measure. 

    That aside, I think that being in the top 1 percent is not really that important. In fact, as long as you’re not in the bottom one percent, there will be people to look up to you. As long as you are teaching those people or giving them some value, you’ll have something to offer.

  5. ethanwaldman What is this “Functional Excellence” of which you speak? It sounds like an alright concept, but it kind of depends on what other unsupportable bullshit you try to smuggle in with it. Is functional excellence shipping, but improving later? or is it “hey, lets hit these meaningless targets because if you hit your targets you must be doing something right!”?

    “1% Top Performer” is a great example of something that sounds like a sound concept until you examine it. According to whom? Based on what metrics? and lastly, how much time are you going to waste finding and emulating these mysterious “top performers” when you should be doing your work. It’s one thing when you’re an athlete. Rankings and metrics are nicely clear. But how the fuck am I going to the 1% top business coach? The idea is ludicrous, because I could never work with the same people, or even the same issues, as any other coach to draw a decent comparison.

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