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Keys to Excellence – Passion, Practice, Persistence, Patience

The Excellent Habit

If I omit practice one day, I notice it; if two days, my friends notice it; if three days, the public notices it.” Pianist Arthur Rubinstein

Althea Gibson: Excellence

Have you ever listened to the greats discuss the habits that made them that way? The underlying rationale may differ – Jerry Rice’s ever-present fear, Michael Jordan’s push for revenge or Oprah’s desire to be number one in the ratings – but the path was the same. Passion first, then push. Dedication to the craft, an investment of time and steely focus followed.

1. Passion. You’ve got to love it.

The first critical step in building the excellence habit is choosing what you love. The passion may be the craft itself or the act of creating it. But somewhere in the process, you’ve got to love something about it. Once you’ve established the passion, then it’s possible to move on to the necessary consistent practice.

2. Practice. There are no short cuts.

More people remember Arthur Rubinstein for his famous answer about the path to Carnegie Hall (“Practice. Practice. Practice.”) than remember his music. Apparently, if you look at those who made it to the top and stayed there, the practice never st0ps. In a recent HBR blog post, Tony Schwartz lists “Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything.” He, too, highly prioritizes the passion necessary to set the foundation for the everyday, scheduled time to work on your skill or craft.

3. Persistence: Results may vary. Keep pushing.

Octavia Butler, my favorite author and winner of the MacArthur  Foundation Genius Grant, said this about the third step: “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. ” Boy was she right! But I liken it to baking a cake – you start out with a good first try and over time, you fiddle with the recipe, baking time and ingredients until it’s perfect. At one point, I was describing what I considered drudgery to my friend Tessa. She sent me an audiobook version of Seth Godin’s The Dip, which discusses how persistence separates those at the top from those who stop short of greater success. I’ve listened to it 50 times if I’ve listened to it once, each time when I need that push. There’s nothing to say that you have to be the lone source of your persistence. It helps having friends and loved ones who also believe in your ability to reach your dream – even if they don’t understand it.

4. Patience. Trust and respect the process.

After you’ve chosen your path and begun your practice, you will hit a wall. Sometimes, that wall can feel 10 feet tall with no side entrance. The only way to get past it is to climb it – slowly. I’ve tried to move to quickly or find routes to avoid the walls. Those routes didn’t exist and often added another 2 or 3 steps that I didn’t need. Ten years into business, I can now more easily understand that there’s a reason the wall is there. Sometimes, it’s to teach me a critical step. Others, it’s a divine intervention to save me from a costly misstep. No matter where or when the block appears, there’s a reason. Only by patiently working through it – sometimes for months or years – do I find the ultimate reason.

How do you get to excellence? There’s only one way. “Practice. Practice. Practice.”

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