As you know, this is the third episode in a series on excellence. If you missed the previous episodes, here are the links to Episode 124 and Episode 125. This is a fun series for me and hopefully, you find key learnings along the way. I am always looking for what I didn’t know previously and this episode is no exception. The title for this episode actually drops from a quote mistakenly attributed to Aristotle. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Unfortunately, he is not the one who originally came up with that clever quote. And while the words are not Aristotle’s, the thoughts certainly are his. So, in this wrap up of the topic, I will share a few helpful examples of his thoughts in practice. And just to clarify, the quote, is accurately attributed to Will Durant. He wrote those words in a book he titled “The Story of Philosophy.”
Aristotle and Will Durant
In it, he took a couple of different thoughts from Aristotle. The first is a quote which said,
“As it is not one swallow or a fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”Aristotle
I find those words compelling and want to hang onto the thought for a moment. A swallow or a fine day is not responsible for making the season. And it isn’t a day, or a moment, that is responsible for making a man blessed and happy. I would also argue that it isn’t a day or moment that makes a man cursed and miserable. Certainly, we often exaggerate the impact of a single moment, positively or negatively.
And the other quote speaking of virtues said,
These virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions…Aristotle
So Mr. Durant’s combination of the two phrases produced the now-famous quote misattributed to Aristotle where Will said,
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.Will Durant
The words communicate an important message to us who are trying to develop excellence. This isn’t a one-time event. Subsequently, excellence is formed in what we repeatedly do.
A Holistic Commitment To Quality
Robert Glazer from Acceleration Partners sends a weekly email that he calls Friday Forward. In a recent email, he describes excellence as a holistic commitment to quality. Additionally, he says that inherent in the principle of excellence is improvement. For instance, to emphasize this point, he uses an example of being an excellent horse and buggy repair shop…in 2019.
Can that really be considered excellence? On this point, he and I might disagree. Because if you have attended a parade recently, or at any point in your life, it’s likely you saw a horse and buggy. There are still cadres of enthusiasts who love buggies. If you have a reputation for being excellent at restoring buggies, is it possible that you have an audience to serve with your talents? I would say the answer is a qualified ‘Yes.’
That talent is not unlike those who restore cars or build hot rods. The passion is deep. And these men and women dedicate a large part of their life to their craft. I don’t know if they could ever experience adequate compensation for their talent. Yet, I seriously doubt any of them would stop doing it just because they could make more money doing something else.
If you are able to offer a valuable service to a niche interest group, then it’s possible that your excellence can secure revenue for performing your talent. Everyone has to earn a living, so it’s not like money is not an issue. I’m not convinced it’s the main issue when you are repeatedly practicing your craft. Because I’m not convinced you can dedicate this level of effort to something you aren’t truly passionate about.
Change And Re-examination
In fairness to Robert, this isn’t his point. His point is that change and reexamination are necessary to determine whether this is still relevant or could be done better. Imagine for a moment being content with DOS or Windows 3.1. Or the first luggable phone from Motorola… Those things were great for that moment but weren’t meant to be the answer for all time.
To clarify, this is why yesterday’s successes are not sufficient for today’s problems. A constant cycle of ideation, validation, implementation, evaluation, and iteration or change where we repeatedly do is necessary to incubate excellence. You must repeatedly do. Create a habit.
Do you let circumstances interfere with excellence? Do you bring your best each day? More importantly, do you expect that from your team?
Building On Past Experience
Excellence builds on past experience. You create a culture of excellence by starting with a commitment to do the little things right. If you don’t know whether you are doing the little things right, ask! I’m certain your employees, team members, customers, and vendors would be happy to share their perspective. Small things make a big difference.
So how do we see excellence in action? Well, sometimes it’s a combined effort of seeing what it isn’t in contrast to what it is or should be. For example, Robert Glazer has a post on his Friday Forward blog that describes just such a scenario by one of his reader’s, Daniel Gross. Daniel had a problem with a gas forced air heater for his house. If you have ever lived in a cold climate, you know how important this piece of hardware is to not just your comfort, but in the extreme cold, it’s the ability to keep your pipes from freezing and your heart pumping.
So Daniel had purchased a maintenance contract on the heater from his gas supplier…you know, just in case. Probably will never need it…but just in case…The gas supplier logically outsources that contract to a local HVAC shop. Upon inspection, the technician noticed a gas leak at a control valve and in wanting to keep Daniel’s family safe, suggested that the heater be turned off until it could be repaired. Well, the weather started to cool off and after five days of no heat and lots of phone calls to the company, they finally scheduled to come out to replace the valve.
The technician arrives on the scheduled date, with a new valve in hand, and….it doesn’t work for that model furnace. An important detail here: before leaving, the tech (who remember didn’t do any repair and was likely there for only a few minutes) asked to use the restroom and doesn’t bother to flush the toilet when he’s done. Two more days of phone calls with the company and no heater. Finally, the company declares the furnace obsolete and unrepairable. In addition, they tell Daniel that they are voiding the agreement.
Obligation vs. Passion
Can you feel the tension and frustration building? Truly, there are few things more frustrating than trying to BEG someone to do what they should already be doing. No one likes to feel as if their problem doesn’t matter. The cynic in all of us wonders if the revenue generated in a maintenance contract might have long been forgotten and now you have just become a non-paying customer who we are obligated to serve.
There’s a big difference in feeling an obligation to and being passionate about those you serve. This doesn’t sound like passion to me, and we are a long way from the repeated practice that is leading to excellence.
So Daniel calls his local plumber, Jason Green. Jason had the part on his truck. Wait? I thought the furnace was unrepairable and obsolete? He would come out the next day to do the repair. Now Jason is a busy dude. He does good work and has a full book of business. And in spite of this, Jason shows up…ON A SATURDAY…to get Daniel’s furnace back in operation. AND, unlike many in this space, he cleaned up after himself when the job was finished.
While Jason was making the repairs, Daniel had gone outside and noticed these words on one of the doors of Jason’s work truck: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Quite a contrast, isn’t it? I’ll take a Jason any day of the week in any industry. The repeated practice of making good decisions each day, large or small, is producing excellence. Robert ended this post with a very appropriate quote:
How you do anything is how you do everything. Your “character” or “nature” just refers to how you handle all the day-to-day things in life, no matter how small.Derek Sivers
So, I’ll leave you with this question. What actions are you repeating that are building excellence? No matter how small, those actions repeated, those little things which become a habit can point you to developing the kind of reputation you want with your customers, your team, your manager, and your family.
Excellence: the quality of being outstanding or extremely good – it’s within your grasp. Repeatedly practice doing small things right and develop good habits. It’s right there for you, so go do it!
Resources Mentioned In This Episode:
The Leader to Leader Podcast Episode 124: What Does Excellence Look Like In Leadership
The Leader to Leader Podcast Episode 125: Four Areas Of Focus To Increase Excellence
Robert Glazer’s post on fridayforward.com Being Excellent #98
Caelan Huntress’ article on mission.org My Favorite Quote Of All Time Is A Misattribution
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