Excellence, Success, and Knowing the Difference

First day of summer swim practice. You two little ones are following in big sisters foot steps (bubbles).

First day of summer swim practice. You two little ones are following in big sisters foot steps (bubbles).

Dear Izzy, Max, and Kate,

I wrote the article below recently for my LinkedIN blog. As I watch each of you discover your gifting in sports, subjects at school, and personal interaction, I wonder how you’ll grow. How you’ll find those things that you excel at. And how you’ll know what “excellence” means vs. what “success” means.

It came to me that for each of you, and for me, and all of us that “Excellence” and “Success” are related, but are very different – because one is essential to a full life and the other is completely subjective.

Only excellence in your life will make you happy: excellence in work, your athletic pursuits, your eventual marriage, perhaps your ability to find contentment, and mostly importantly in your Faith. I find that when I’m not at least striving for excellence I often become discouraged about myself. Deep down I know I’m cheating myself.  You can take striving for Excellence too far – and as I’ve consulted with people – sometimes you need to let yourself “off the hook a little” and be okay with not being “perfect” all of the time, but most of the time you should be striving for your best (excellence). And that’s enough. That’s success.

“Success” as determined by our culture’s standards, can’t be measured as easily. Bigger? Better? Faster? Richer? Smarter? Maybe happier, content, loved, self aware, children who honor tradition/parents/God, grounded in Faith?

If you had 10 people make a list of things that would make them successful I think all 10 lists would look very different. But excellence remains the same.

I don’t want many of the same things others want in life. And there are people who don’t want what I’ve got. Regardless of what you want for your life success is excellence in the effort over time. You have to find the things that you are excellent at and practice them over time.

Here’s what I wrote on Linkedin:

I love you,

– Daddy


I jumped to my feet, exhausted, weary and dreading the next one.

The heat being generated inside of my sweat suit, and in the heated room, drained me. My ribs were like a cage on my thin 112lb frame beneath the drenched suit. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. My mind swirled somewhere far away. Any place but where I was in that moment.

The whistle. Again. Back in the moment.

Another straight double leg. Hips exploding towards the ceiling. To the mat.  Straight to a wrist and half. And back on my feet.

The whistle again.

“With pace!” he screamed. “Hard! On your feet! Up! Up! Next whistle is coming….”

It echoed in our practice room.

That was the dreaded “whistle practice” as a high school wrestler. We spent two and a half hours drilling “on the whistle” followed by live wrestling and conditioning. We got those practices when Coach didn’t like the intensity with which we chose to drill the basics on our own.

In the wrestling room there was very little room, and an even shorter leash, for personal choice. Mostly we did it his way. Sometimes even when we did it right on our own, we’d still end up doing it his way.

To this day I’m grateful for those mind numbing and often grueling practices. I learned then that “repetition is the motor of learning”, as John Miller, author ofQBQ, puts it.

When I became a coach I often implemented whistle practices. I’ve tried to function as a career professional in that way as well.

Not too long ago I talked with a colleague at Provisions Group whose son started wrestling in junior high recently. He asked a few questions and I shared my philosophy about learning the sport. The conversation led to a discussion about work life.

I told my colleague that his son would learn a thousand moves, takedowns, escapes, turns, over the course of his wrestling career, but the reality is in order to be great you have to master a few. Defining the term “master” is what sets kids apart.

My Coach defined it for me as “doing something perfectly, with intensity, until it becomes second nature.”

I knew hundreds of “camp moves” as a kid – those moves you learn at summer camps or from touring clinicians – but in the end I won championships with 3 simple high percentage takedowns from my feet, a straight stand up from the bottom with subtle variations, and a wrist and half on top.

It goes back to whistle practices and doing the same thing 100 times each and every day for years. I’d learn a complicated throw from my feet, drill it a couple of times, and file it away in my memory as a just in case kind of move. But when push came to shove in the biggest moments of my wrestling life I always went back to the moves I drilled a 100 times each and every day – straight double, outside single, snap down. One sets up the other. The daily repetition hard wires into your muscle memory, and that makes you unstoppable.

Now 25 years later, when I watch wrestling matches my body twitches involuntarily. It’s hard wired from the repetition all those years ago.

As a business development leader and consultant I’ve found that simple high percentage efforts – practiced and repeated over and over, along with a strong unfailing work ethic – are what work best.

Repeating the basics day in and day out with excellence leads to mastery. And only mastery leads to success.

Double leg 100x on the whistle.

Outside single 100x on the whistle.

Snap downs 100x on the whistle.

100 stand ups.


When it’s all second nature you’ve defeated the possibility of failure in your career.

3 steps for career mastery:

  1. Learn from someone who is a master in your field; the coach with the whistle. – At camps I used to ask the clinicians to wrestle with me. Over the years that included Olympians, world champs, and NCAA champions. I’d ask them to show me what works and how to make it work for me and my style. I took a lot of bumps and bruises, but I learned. My coach provided a lot of daily instruction – including hard wrestling and whistle practices. Who is the best salesperson in your company? Why? The best project manager? Why? The executive with the most loyal team? Why? Luke had Yoda. Daniel had Miyagi. Find a mentor. Ask for advice. Then let them shape you. Be teachable. Trust people.
  2. Practice daily repetition of the skills and tasks; what are the key things you do daily in your work that actually deliver results? What are other successful people in your field doing that you could do more of? Once you identify the core job requirements you have to practice them over and over. Phone calls. Emails. Networking meetings. Keeping up with changing technology. Practice on your colleagues. A commitment to basics, daily without fail, makes the difference. Repetition helps you manage your time as well. Schedule the basics first – and the rest around the non-negotiable parts of your day. (I’ll write another time about “time blocking”.
  3. Excellence in that repetition leads to success; lazy repetition won’t get it done – excellence alone leads to mastery. Here’s the part where a lot of people fall; Know-how is great. Repetition of that know how is even better. But without excellence in the repetition you are practicing poor/lazy/losing habits. Without a commitment to excellence the rest doesn’t matter.

Discover what works (high percentage over a long period of time). Do it every day before everything else. Do it with excellence.

Go hard! On your feet! Up! Up! Next whistle is coming……