Avoiding the Trap of Excellence

steel trap

I was one of the best in my business.

My business was covering breaking news for the NBC network, and I did it better than almost anyone: the 9/11 attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, mass shootings, natural disasters. I loved my work and was well rewarded and respected for it.

And then I gave all that up to do what I was really good at.

You see, I was excellent at covering breaking news. But I’m a genius at creating new possibilities for people as a corporate coach. Once I learned the difference between excellence and genius my life got easier, I had more fun, and I started accomplishing important things with less effort.

For me – and for many of the executives I work with – excellence is a trap that not only costs us dearly every day, but blinds us to what we’re really here to do with our lives.

What Excellence Looks Like

As a breaking news producer, I was doing important work, getting lots done, and literally saving the day for my company. I was lauded with big awards, showered with praise and a big salary, and felt important in my prestigious job at 30 Rock.

And it was extremely costly.

After a typical day meeting deadline (and often those days were 24-hour days), I would be so shattered from the frenetic tension that all I could do was ask someone to lead me to the bar, get me a double and put me in a black car home, where I’d have another double and sit alone in the living room until I could face my family.

My health, my family, and my friendships all paid a price for my success.

And that’s how I knew I wasn’t doing my best work.

What Genius Looks Like

You see, excellence can accomplish great things and earn you great rewards, but it’s costly. It’s work — you know you’re pushing to get your wins. But the wins are undeniable, and that’s why excellence is such a trap.

When I thought about changing my game and doing something else that wasn’t as costly (something my wife had pushed for year after year, to the point of threatening divorce), I felt a panic because I couldn’t conceive of another way to make a living. And then I felt hopeless, that I would be in this endless race forever.

But I did find another way, and it’s called genius.

Our genius is that thing we do well and find meaning in and yet it’s not costly. It’s that state of flow athletes know so well: we are accomplishing a lot and yet it doesn’t seem like work; time flies and we feel energized instead of depleted.

For many people it’s not so much a specific skill that is their genius as it is a more general approach to life, an underlying ability that they bring to many areas.

For me, genius is creating possibilities. Once I looked back across my life and saw how I’d been creating startups since I was a teenager, or how colleagues sought me out to get ideas for clearing some professional hurdle, or how young people looking to advance in their careers would thank me for helping see new avenues for growth — then I could see a pattern of creating value without suffering for it.

How to Escape Your Trap of Excellence

Sounds good, you say, but how can I move from my successful-but-costly life of excellence to one built around genius?

Here’s what I did:

First, inventory the costs of business as usual:

Write this stuff down so it’s there on paper, undeniable:

  1. Your health: Are you over/under weight, out of shape, sleep-deprived, etc.? How often are you sick? Do you feel as energetic as you want to be?
  2. Your relationships: How would you rate your marriage or intimate relationship on a 1-10 scale? Do you hear recurring complaints from your friends and family? How close are you to your kids? Do you have all the close friends you want?
  3. Your mind: Is your head full of thoughts all the time, things that must be done now? Can you fully enjoy what you’re doing at any one moment, or are you preoccupied and drifting? Can you focus or do you multi-task to the point of distraction? Do you have insightful breakthroughs, or do you feel like you’re just going in circles? Are you calm or peevish? Angry or forgiving?
  4. Your spirit: Do you feel fulfilled? Does your work seem meaningful? How much do you do because you want to do it versus feeling you have no choice but to do it? Do you feel connected to something bigger than yourself and your occupation?

Give each of these indicator areas (and any others you can think of that are meaningful) a 1-10 rating with 1 being poor and 10 being super. Then take a look — if you’re mostly in the 7 or below territory you’re probably living a costly existence despite the success you’re having.

(For more on this, the book “The Power of Full Engagement” contains some excellent lifestyle inventory tools.)

Next, consider flow. Think about the times in your life when you’ve accomplished meaningful things and yet it seemed easy. Perhaps it was leading your friends on a hiking trip, or helping your mother make dinner, or mentoring younger colleagues. Pick things that were meaningful to you regardless of whether they got you recognition from others.

Make a list of 5-10 of these “best stuff” moments and look for common threads. It’s those commonalities across diverse accomplishments that point to your genius qualities.

Your Choice Point

Now you have a choice. It’s not a black-and-white, either/or choice. You don’t have to abandon your work in excellence.

Instead, think about what it would take for you to spend an extra hour each week living in your zone of genius. After all, this is when you’re at your most creative and productive — think what another hour of you at your very best would do for you and those around you.

PHOTO: Minnesota Historical Society

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