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Excellence Is Not an Act

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”


The bookstores and the internet are chock-full of easy ways to change your life. 7 steps to eternal happiness; how to be rich quickly; lose 30 pounds by next week. Unfortunately, this illusion seems to have infected the brains of many of the students in my sales and speaking classes. They think that a couple days of training will unlock the secrets of excellence. Once they punch the appropriate training ticket they now know how to do it.

Here’s a dirty little secret about my training, or anyone else’s training: You will not be an excellent speaker or salesperson just because you took my course. (Please don’t spread that around—it’s bad for business.)

Don’t get me wrong— training in both fundamental and advanced skills can quickly take you from average to pretty good.  And sometimes pretty good is good enough, depending on your competition. But to reach excellence, which I define very loosely as having a rare level of skill that makes your presentations eagerly anticipated and long-remembered, takes much more than a training session. Going through training is like getting brand new running shoes, but you still have to lace them on and run the miles. (I love this analogy, which I first heard from Paul Cook of Fonterra)

Researchers have learned  that genius in any particular skill or knowledge domain comes from one primary factor: simple hard work. In any field, from chess to composing to surgery, the best only reach that level after approximately 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

Let me break that down. 10,000 hours means that mastery requires twenty-hour weeks of practice for ten years. It even applies to speakers. By the time Churchill “sent the English language into battle” in 1940, he had been speaking in Parliament for 40 years. In 1963 alone, Martin Luther King delivered 350 speeches.

Excellence isn’t genius, though, so you can achieve it with far less than 10,000 hours of work. But you do need the deliberate practice part of the equation. Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent. Deliberate practice means that you don’t keep practicing only what you’re good at or what you like to do. You carefully study your performance and then work hard on your weaknesses one by one. You take chances, you fail over and over until you get it right, and then you tackle the next one. It takes self awareness and guts.  It’s not much fun, but by the time the big moment comes, excellent performance has been hardwired into your brain.

My own experience in writing this blog illustrates the process. I’m only two months into it, but I’ve actually been writing regularly for about 6 months. As I considered launching the blog, my greatest concern was whether I would have the discipline to keep up the writing, and whether my writing would be any good. I started writing four months before launch, partly to store ideas and material, but mostly to consciously develop the habit.

I set myself a goal of writing a page a day, every day, even on travel days and even on vacation. A page only takes about 20 minutes, so how hard could it be? It turned out to be one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in a long time. I would force myself to sit at the computer, stare at it for what seemed like hours, find an excuse to check email or cruise the web, and do anything but write.

But I stuck with it, and a funny thing happened. One page a day become easy, and now I’m entering the stage where not writing is somehow more painful than writing used to be. So, Step 1, establishing the habit, is done. On to Step 2: achieving excellence. Am I there yet? Of course not. Will I ever get there? Maybe. I do know one thing, though, I am better today than I was six months ago, and six months from now I will be better than today.

If you are willing to embark on the journey to excellence, here are some ideas that will help:

Seek out opportunities. Excellent speakers put in the time by seeking out opportunities to speak. They might join a local Toastmasters club, or take on roles that make them present often. When they do, they find that things that require effort become natural, freeing up mental energy for even greater improvements. They even find that the habit of developing habits becomes easier for them. When you know how to work toward a goal, excellence in many areas comes within reach.

Become self aware. Be honest with yourself where you need to improve. Develop your strengths, sure, but also expose your weaknesses and get them at least into the neutral column. Seek out feedback from people you respect. Videotape yourself when possible, however painful it may be. Do after action reviews: immediately after every presentation, take a few minutes to reflect on what went well, and what you need to work on for the next time. Then, work on it.

Keep track. I keep a log of my writing time and production. It works for me, because I’m very self-competitive—I always want to beat the guy I was yesterday. I also use metrics in a little game I play when I write. I will do a word count on a paragraph or an entire article, and then challenge myself to reduce that count by at least 25%. I believe it makes my writing tighter and helps me to clarify my own thinking.

Be patient. It won’t happen overnight. If it could, everybody could do it, then you wouldn’t be special. Use kaizen—constant and continuous improvement. Small actions are easier to do, and don’t engage the resistance of your emotional brain as much as large actions. And they add up over time.

Cut stuff out. You can’t add hours to the day to do this, so the only place to find time is to cut out the unproductive stuff. Sacrifice. Pay the price. (What I gave up: sleeping past 6:30am)

Space your efforts. Excellence does not come from spurts of efforts far apart. It comes from consistent, action over a long period of time; in short, excellence is not an act—it is a habit.

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  • Some very interesting points but i think your analysis and bias leaves rather a lot to be desired. Then of course, that’s just my opinion. Have an ideal day undoubtedly a thought-upsetting post.

  • Jack,

    This is a great post–all trainers need to remind their clients that they are there to lay the groundwork, not to wave the magic wand that permanently changes behavior before you hand out the evaluations at 5:00. In fact, I’d suggest that the best training *requires* the kind of sustained effort you describe here.

  • […] customers and their career. Personal integrity falls under the heading of excellence as well.  In a prior post I wrote about Aristotle’s dictum that excellence is a habit rather than an act. The pursuit of excellence, then, leads to consistent […]

  • Krishnan

    Very nice blog! The analogy of the new pair of shoes makes the message stick very well. Everyone of us has encountered that in our lives.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • More great stuff, Jack – thanks!

    I think this is a list that many people may wish to execute, but it’s been my experience that many may struggle to consistently follow through with some (or even all) of these suggestions – even those who agree with them 100%. Here is the article we recently spoke about outlining 5 areas to think about when attempting to implement good advice like the list above. It may help people develop a realistic plan for implementing your good list above:

    Hope all’s well, Jack – and thanks again for yet another thoughtful post!

  • […] was just reading a fantastic post by my good friend Jack Malcolm on his blog Practical Eloquence about what it truly takes to be superb at giving presentations and speeches. His article, entitled […]

  • As you mentioned, being self-aware is key. For speakers, I find the most essential element in making this happen is seeing yourself on video numerous times during practice until you like what you see.

  • Hey Jack,

    Mastering a skill is hard, tedious work but Aristotle was right, it is nothing more then a habit.
    It takes that you focus day in and day out, without letting up until you have sufficiently acquired the skill and the discipline to always perform at a high level.

    What is nice to know though is that it doesn’t take some innate skill or intelligence to become successful. It just takes practice.

    As we have seen with almost every successful person, to succeed you have to fail first. You have to fail many times, pick yourself up, learn something and try again. It is the same as mastering a skill. The first time you speak you might get booed of stage, the second you might get to finish your talk and so on until you have the audience listening intently to every word you speak.

    Keep up the great work!

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