He had little interest in going to West Point. Yet he became one of the most influential figures of the American Civil War
He had frequent attacks on his character, like the myth that he was an alcoholic. Yet he never wavered in his resolve
He was a mild-mannered, perhaps even introverted man. Yet his leadership inspired both sides of a torn nation
He had no interest in politics. Yet he rose to the call of President of United States when his nation needed him
Ulysses Hyriam Grant serves as a great example of an ordinary man who found excellence and remained committed to it throughout his life. As a result, he was well positioned when the circumstances of history knocked at his door. Like all people who have found excellence, he had a personal code of sorts that he lived by and influenced his every action.
Not everyone will grow up to become President of The United States and history typically only has room for one; Steve Jobs, Einstein, Ben Franklin or Gandhi. And that’s ok because success is a purely subjective term and excellence can be found without necessarily achieving fortune or fame.
In fact there are probably far more examples of people who have found excellence in their personal and professional lives, most have seemingly ordinary careers such as insurance agents, fire fighters, teachers and many others. What’s different about these people is their unrelenting sense of purpose, to do more. They refuse to live within the median and this competitive spirit is not with others but with the person in the mirror.
Amongst these people who seem to find and sustain excellence, there are many common denominators. They share many of the same attitudes and philosophies, focus on developing the same types of skills and have the same balanced approach to career and living. To illustrate, here is an example of one theme that comes up over and over with the concept of excellence.
The Skill That Changed Everything
It was over twenty years ago when I first heard the phrase that would become a core business axiom and it would be much later when I began to appreciate and understand its depth. I was asking a respected business mentor whether or not I should take a job in a very unglamorous industry and he said, “it’s all the same, regardless of the industry, sales is sales. Products are all the same; it’s a can of soup on a shelf. If people are hungry, they will buy it. Would you care if you were selling toilet seats if the money was good?” He was never one to sugar coat anything but his philosophy would prove to be both profound and recurring.
“It’s a can of soup, on a shelf. If people are hungry they will buy it.”
A little over a decade later, this idea would reemerge in a significant way. This time it was over dinner conversation with my father-in-law. A man whom I have great respect and admiration for, both as a mentor and someone committed to excellence in all things, he does not come across as a “sales man”. A Vietnam veteran, my father-in-law has both the discipline and confidence of a military man yet a calming demeanor much like my own father. Further, with over forty years of business success, my father-in-law’s words carry credibility worth careful consideration.
When our conversation turned to sales, it caught me off guard when he stated, “it really does matter what industry you’re in or job you have, it’s all sales”. Over the next few weeks I would ponder that statement. That pondering became an experiment to test my father-in-law’s theory that would last for the next few years.
“It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in or job you have, it’s all sales.”
Testing The Theory
Over the next few years, the goal of the experiment was simple, “find a profession that did not involve sales at any level”. Starting with the easy stuff, I interviewed people who excelled within the traditional core areas of business and asked the questions;
What is Customer Service?Selling the experience to the end user so that they will come back and tell others.
What is Human Resource?Selling the benefits and opportunities of a career within our company.
What is Recruiting?Selling an applicant on working at our company
What is an Interview?Selling yourself to get the job
Next, I challenged any associate to pick a profession that they believed did not involve sales. Subsequently, I would find someone who excelled in that profession and interview them without any tipoff as to the real topic of interest. At some point I would ask the question, “Do you think that your profession involves sales at any level?” Here are some of the responses over the years;
Police Officers:“Absolutely, the toughest part of our job is selling ourselves in the community”
Teachers:“Of course, we’re selling the love of learning”
Preachers:“In a sense, yes. We’re influencing people on the fate of their soul”
The point was driven home when I spoke to John, a noted PhD and extremely busy archeologist who stated,
“Are you kidding me? Have you ever tried to get funding for a dig? You have to put a proposal together then pitch it to those who have the money. Then you have to put a team together and pitch them on being on the project. Then you have to sell the results so the project doesn’t get cut off.”
Pink & Others Bring It Home
In 2012, author Daniel Pink published the book; To Sell Is Human, The Surprising Truth about Moving Others. In it he combines the recent history of sales from the time of The Fuller Brush Man with sound research to validate the idea that every profession involves influencing others to action. In other words, it’s all sales. In an interesting twist of irony, I sat down with my father-in-law when the book was published to discuss it as well as my findings. He informed me that his father was one of the famous Fuller Brush Men.
More recently Inc.com posted the article below where Mark Cuban further validates the idea sales is a core skill related to sustained excellence.
If that is not evidence enough, consider the recent presentation by Michael Bidwill, President of the Arizona Cardinals Football Club at the recent Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce luncheon. There he talked about business leaders responsibility to promote and sell the economic development of their communities. He cited Arizona Governor, Doug Ducey, as an excellent example of a civic leader selling his state across a global landscape.
Finding and sustaining excellence does not make a person perfect, nor will it ensure fame or fortune. It also won’t ensure one a good person. It can however lead to a greater depth of purpose in personal as well as professional life. There are common denominators to excellence in all things, embracing those skills is key to sustaining excellence. Chief among them is the idea that, “it’s all sales”.
I love libraries for many reasons, first and foremost they are are piece of history. For Western civilization, they stand as the icon of learning dating back to ancient Greece.
Libraries serve as the ultimate example of higher learning, available to anyone regardless of social or economic standing.
Libraries are a place of quiet contemplation
Today’s libraries with internet, wifi, computer and video resources provide information and resources to the public unlike any time in human history.
Then there are the books, rows and rows of books.
Now if libraries would offer fresh coffee, I’d never have another meeting in a coffee house of any kind!
There are also many examples of people who have found and sustained excellence because of the public library. Most notably is Mark Twain. With the death of his father at age eleven, he was forced to go to work and his formal education came to an end. He would go on to self-educate solely in public libraries and be awarded two honorary doctorate degrees.
It can be argued that success is a relative term. How wealthy, famous or educated does one have to be in order to be successful? How many accomplishments, awards or titles must be accumulated? The answer will of course depend upon whom you ask. For some, success is measured purely in financial terms while others view success as contributions and lasting impact.
Excellence on the other hand is something different; it involves action at a high level, above the median and much more objective in nature. There are many examples of people, past and present, who have achieved and sustained excellence throughout their lives yet have had modest wealth or limited notoriety.
One example is Tadashi Yamashita. Google the name, the image and for the general public his face might be vaguely familiar but the name even less so. For the martial arts community, however, Master Yamashita is stuff of legend. He is the martial artist that young kids watch and dream of emulating.
Having had the honor of training with Tadashi Yamashita, the quote above is as fresh in my mind as it was almost thirty years ago. It summarizes his commitment to excellence in martial arts and remains a metaphor that can be carried over to any aspect of life.
It’s not simply “feel good psychology” to get buy-in from a team and include them in the development of organizational change. Some argue that during crisis an organization cannot afford to be inclusive of all stake holders in the change management process as there is simply, ‘not enough time’. Can an organization really afford not to? Strategy without true buy-in typically has low execution and rarely lasts.
Author and marketer, Simon Sinek, has risen to popularity from his 2009 TED Talk called, “Start With Why – How great leaders inspire action”. Listed as one of the third most viewed TED Talks of all time, it only validates what I’ve called 5 Rings of Sustaining Excellence and how it can apply to all things. To illustrate how the two strategies parallel and can be applied universally, consider this;
Most people want to live healthier, have more energy and feel good about their day, this begins with the Circle of Mental Excellence and “Starting with Why”.
Circle of Mental Excellence = Why
Why is it important to exercise regularly?
To control weight
To have more energy
To relieve stress
Circle of Physical Excellence = How
How to create the habit of regular exercise?
Wake up an hour earlier each day
Hike every Tuesday & Thursday
Drink more water
Circle of Skills Excellence = What
What new skills can or should be developed to perpetuate this?
Learn Cross Fit
Train for a Spartan Race
Now consider how often people within your various groups (friends, family, coworkers, etc) have inspired you or others to action by “I’ve lost 40 lbs. and I feel better than ever!” This can spark “group think” or the Circle of Team Excellence and has led to developments like the popular Spartan Races. Often it will also grow within an organization, become institutionalized and evolves into corporate wellness programs. At the outermost ring, this can be called the Circle of Organizational Excellence.
It all begins with one person, looking in the mirror and asking…Why?
My grandparents lived in Milwaukie, OR (a suburb of Portland, OR) for over fifty years in a time before cell phones, the internet and believing that philosophies like Buddhism and mindfulness were akin to witchcraft. Yet, everyday without fail, my grandfather would make an early morning hike along the Johnson Creek for at least an hour and always alone. Occasionally he would take his overly inquisitive grandson but even as a child I intuitively knew that these walks were an abbreviated version of the morning ritual, simply to humor said grandson.
For years, the family joked in speculation as to what exactly grandpa did on these nature hikes. Did he dislike people so much that he needed ‘alone time’ daily? Did he have a stash of whiskey that he hid in the woods? Was he hunting Bigfoot (a joke only those in the Pacific Northwest would appreciate)?
As it turns out, he was intuitively practicing something that Eastern Thought has taught for millennia but the fields of Health and Psychology in the West are just now catching up to…the idea of Mindfulness or what I call, “Meditation in Motion”. Having grown up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I never realized nor appreciated that impact that mindfulness could have. And although there are some great foothills surrounding L.A. to hike, it was only after I moved to Arizona that the practice began to take hold.
For many, still discovering both the physical as well as mental benefits of meditation, practicing a form of meditation in motion can bridge the gap and demonstrate the positive affects of mindfulness in a very tangible way. In order to be affective, however, it’s essential to strip away some of the digital age habits that so many cling to today;
Leave Technology Behind
Find a natural place to hike or walk, like mountains, lakes or streams where you can disconnect from your normal surroundings. Leave the iPod, the Fitbit and other technologies at home. I typically only bring my cellphone for emergencies and put it on silent. Resist the urge to take the selfie and the Facebook photos.
The whole purpose of mindfulness is to focus internally, being alone with one’s thoughts and emotions. That cannot be achieved with the chatty hiking partner who wants to obsess over the feuds at work.
Embrace The Silence
No puns intended with the several songs so named, but the sole purpose is to get meditative, focused. Get quiet, focus on the base senses around you, the sound of your breathing.
For further reading, the recent post in WSJ below creates an excellent connection between the Eastern and Western thoughts around mindfulness.
In his LinkedIn article, Dustin McKissen asserts that we’re facing a decline in innovation as a result of declining cultural trust and increasing risk aversion. But innovation, particularly the big ones, do not follow a consistent time line and it’s easy to forget about how far things have come in a relatively short period of time.
Powered flight for example developed over several generations. Those who were around to see the Montgolfier Brother’s famous balloon flights in 1783 would not live long enough to hear of the Wright Brothers, let alone see their 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk. Further, consider this; it’s taken mankind a good 5,000 years to get to the point where the atom could be split.
Consider also, this short inventory of innovations in the last generation;
The Cell Phone
Landing on the Moon
True we haven’t traveled to Mars, solved the riddle of cold nuclear fusion, traveled back in time and self-driving cars are a far cry from flying cars but has innovation really declined?
The data on the decline in trust, however, is compelling. So what are the true implications and consequences of this decline in trust? What has caused it? More importantly, how do fix it?
One of the benefits of the digital age is the unprecedented volume of information and knowledge at the disposal of every person around the globe. Classic books, entire libraries and cutting edge technologies are all available by way of an internet connection, most at little or no charge. Even todays libraries provide free access to computers, internet connections as well as multimedia resources that past generations could never have imagined. Nonprofit universities like, University of The People offer an entire college education at virtually no cost.
Science and medicine continue to provide evidence that consistent brain stimulation through challenging learning can have longterm health benefits. Some studies have linked it to reducing the possibility of Alzheimer’s Disease in later years (visit the National Institute for Health & Aging for more).
History has repeatedly demonstrated that continuous learning is one of the keys to both finding and sustaining excellence. Take one of the most famous examples of the early 20th Century, Mark Twain;
His formal education ended at age 11, with the death of his father.
He subsequently self-educated in public libraries
He would be awarded two honorary Doctorate Degrees.
Mark Twain has become one of the most celebrated writers of the 20th Century.
Further example is found in The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. Depending upon the translated version, Musashi makes two assertions in the first few paragraphs; First that self-guided study is the key to finding and sustaining excellence. Second, the need to balance profession with continuous learning. In today’s terms, this is likely what he meant by his famous quote;
“The warrior’s way is the two-fold way of pen and sword.”
The list of examples goes on and there is further reading in the article post below. The evidence, however, is compelling and the conclusion hard to argue. In an ever polarized culture, continuous learning can be the competitive difference that today’s Ronin professional needs to thrive.
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