Excellence — When and When Not

by Krishna on March 6, 2007

My statistics professor used to say, “You don’t have to do anything difficult to get average points on this paper. But if you either want to fail or get a high percentage, you have to actively do something.” He meant what he said — as everyone in the class realized when they got the scores from their papers.

The statement made by the professor is relevant to most skills. It is not very tough to become reasonably competent at many tasks. In fact, if you don’t want to learn something, you have to actively decide against learning it. For example, let us take something like cooking. If you never cooked before in your entire life, it is easy to learn to make a few dishes by spending a few hours observing someone. To get through life without learning to cook something is indeed an achievement. 🙂 The same can be said about other skills.

However, becoming an expert or a leader in an activity is an entirely different issue as it requires dedicating an enormous amount of time and effort. Becoming a top-notch cook is quite different than making your own food. It is far easier to become a competent driver than acquiring the skills required to take part in a Formula One race.

The question is: What do one do? Strive for perfection and excellence? Or achieve the necessary level of competence?

The answer lies in what one’s goals and priorities are. If you want to be a great doctor, engineer, salesperson, priest, salesman, etc., the answer is that every moment you spend towards achieving that goal is worth it. Of course, this principle is not just about one’s career. It could be about becoming an excellent parent, spouse, child, friend, mentor or social worker. The activity you want to become an expert in could even be a hobby like stamp collecting.

So, the principle is to work hard towards what you want to be and what you want to do. For other things, it is quite enough to be sufficiently capable. However often, people have a tendency to get drawn into things that they neither like nor want to do, and sometimes even what they don’t need to do.

One of the common causes of this situation is competition. For example, if one person starts planting roses and beautifying their lawn, the likelihood of his/her neighbors and friends doing the same (despite their possible distaste for gardening) is very high. Generally speaking, in a network of peers, if somebody does something perceived as beneficial to him or her, many others in the same network are likely to imitate that person.

The other common trend is trying to learn something long after the need has passed. For example, a developer who has had difficulties with a particular technology or business domain in a project can sometimes be found neck-deep in books on those topics after the project has ended — this sometimes when the possibility of working in the same environment is very low.

It is easy to fall prey to one of the two mistakes above. So, it is worthwhile to take a quick look at what activities one is spending time on and seeing whether that investment is in line with one’s goals and necessities.

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