The Price of Excellence

I’m currently reading a book written by Ryan Holiday called The Obstacle is the Way. It’s basically a treatise on stoicism, and how meeting obstacles with the right perspective, energy, and will can let you convert them into opportunities. If you’re a subscriber to the stoic philosophy, or if you want to read stories about people from history who exemplified this way of living, then I recommend that you read this book.

Saying that, this is one of those self-help books that lends itself to occasional oversimplification; hard not to do that when you’re making strong, prescriptive statements.

One part of the book I take issue with is its call for people to pursue excellence, regardless of the circumstances. Basically, the author’s thesis for that chapter is that if someone has to motivate you to do something well, then something’s wrong with your attitude. What you have to cultivate is to attack any task in front of you to the best of your ability. You need to bring to bear an excellence ethic, a perspective that says “this is something I made with my hands, a product of my mind, a service from my effort; it must be great no matter what.”

Excellence is a Premium Product…

The thing is, if you’re going to bring heroic effort to everything you produce, then you’re going to run yourself into the ground eventually. Even machines wear out or burn out; human beings need to eat, sleep, play, and fulfill themselves in far more aspects beyond their work in order to be satisfied and productive. So while I do appreciate the romance behind single-focused, eye-on-the-object workmanship, I also appreciate that the worker is a person.

Also, one has to recognize the value of the workmanship in terms of the time value of mastery. No one is born a master, or even becomes a master overnight. It takes a lot of failures to get to mastery, and those failures have a cost that the master happily paid.

…That Clients Don’t Often Appreciate

The tragedy of it is that in a lot of industries, there’s no consideration made for this. Editors, proofreaders, and copy editors (yes, those are different things) are often not compensated well because their expertise isn’t appreciated: experts, the ones who know what they’re doing, should charge more because of their attention to detail, meticulousness, appreciation of nuances in style, syntax, punctuation, and what-have-you. But because clients don’t appreciate the difference between someone claiming to be an expert editor/proofreader/copy editor and someone who actually is one, the truly skilled are forced to compete in a lopsided wage war against those who provide a defective product.

Similar arguments can be made for many creative industries. Musicians have to scrape by for their gigs. There are video editors who are forced to churn out hundreds of videos a month. Many graphic artists, writers, and designers are approached by clients and publishers who have no idea what they want, and want to pay them little to produce it (Internet personality Wil Wheaton has actually spoken out, slamming the use of “exposure on a unique platform” as a substitute for monetary incentives).

In a Perfect World, There’s No Settling for Dirt

There’s a popular story about Pablo Picasso: supposedly, he was once approached by a woman who asked him to draw her portrait, which he did with a single stroke. The woman was delighted at the result, but dismayed when Picasso asked her for five thousand dollars for it. She asked “Why so expensive? It took you only a moment to do it!”

Picasso replied, “Madam, it took me my entire life.”

While not all of us are Picassos, many of us are engaged in some sort of creative work, which clients often take for granted. In the mad dash towards “gaining the edge in customer service,” many companies and freelancers are pressured to sell themselves short. A video recently released on YouTube also calls out the unfairness in the common advertising industry practice of asking for RFS. Check out the video below to learn more about it (in a tongue-in-cheek) way:

In the Philippines, many Filipino workers are concerned about the impending competition that would be introduced by the APEC integration next year. They’re afraid that skilled workers from other countries could easily take jobs away from us because they are more qualified. That may be true, but consider this: how many of them would want to? With our country’s high income tax rate, slow Internet connection, and poor transportation infrastructure, there are many things that would turn off foreign businessmen and workers from entering our job market. I’m sure at least some of them would walk away from invitations from our employers. That’s the kind of leverage being skilled should get you.

Basically, there’s just one point that I think should be made about excellence: No one is asking anybody to be all about the money. No one is saying that your excellence should only be pursued when there’s an incentive to pursue it. However, you also have to respect yourself enough to know when someone isn’t recognizing the worth of your work.

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The Road to Right

I used to be a big CSI fan. Say what you will about how unrealistic some parts of it are and how it has affected expectations in the real-life justice system, but the characters were just too damn awesome. Gil Grissom, the lead protagonist of the flagship series who described himself in high school as a “ghost”, was my hero. He was smart, he was stoic, and he was wise. There’s probably a collection of his best quotes from the series out there, and I’m willing to bet more than half of those would be great nuggets that philosophers, scientists, managers, and practically anyone can learn from.

Hat tip to Pinterest user Maddie Marsh: https://www.pinterest.com/maddiemarsh14/csicriminal-minds/

But the one quote of his that sticks out for me, from the minute I heard it until now, is this: “I’m wrong all the time. That’s how I get to right”.

One-Strike Perfection Doesn’t Exist

Businesses talk about how it’s important to get things right the first time. It all has to do with cost minimization, of course; the fewer times something has to be done, the less time and energy and fewer resources have to be invested in that thing, so less money spent. The thing is, in the real world, we know that hardly happens. It’s not like Tiger Woods picked up a golf club and hit a hole-in-one his first time out on the green, and I’m sure Bruce Lee didn’t get the one-inch punch down perfect overnight.

And it’s the same for me. In anything I do, I never could get it right the first time. For example, people might have thought me smart during my school days, and to some degree they were right. But I wasn’t smart… at least, not in the way they thought I was.

Everyone’s Aiming for the Bullseye

We live in a highly competitive world. Each person added to the population is a drain on the planet. Resources are limited, wealth is rationed, and every person has to prove their worth every day. So it’s hardly surprising why businesses don’t like the idea of mistakes being made. It makes sense; each time you miss a point in the first quarter makes it easier for your opponent to win the game, and the game is made so one side can win. And everyone understandably wants to win. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that this justifies being a jerk. DO NOT BE A JERK, OR AT LEAST TRY NOT TO BE ONE.)

However, perfection isn’t a target you hit the first time. It takes practice; you aim for it, and it takes hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of attempts before you get it right. Anyone who’s ever tried to coach or teach anyone else knows that it’s unreasonable to expect much from a newbie.

Frigging Perfect

So what’s the answer? How do you reconcile the reality and necessity of mistakes with the need to get things right?

It’s simple. There’s no secret to it.

Don’t Be Wrong for Long

Art. Sketches. Boxing. Sparring. Singing. Rehearsal. Marathons. Training.

For every field of endeavor that requires perfection, there is a mechanism that allows for mistakes… and those mechanisms allow people to make mistakes before they count.

As a student, I didn’t pick lessons up in the class the first time I heard them; I started picking them up the day or the week before, when I studied them in the textbooks, and went over them repeatedly until I got them through my thick skull and imprinted into the grey matter of my brain. (Personally, I think few students appreciate the value of a course outline or syllabus anymore; the real world is not kind enough to provide a heads up, so the young ones should enjoy the privilege.)

Each perfect swing Tiger Woods makes is not purely a product of raw talent. Bruce Lee didn’t get his martial arts mastery handed to him on a silver plate. And everyone remembers that commercial where His Airness recognizes the value of his mistakes.

The skills these masters are associated with took honing and polishing. These were not divine, supernaturally sharp blades handed down from on high; they were honed on whetstones or grindstones, forged in furnaces, created from iron and carbon extracted from the earth. They were products of a long, long process.

What is one thing that you’ve done that you really worked hard at to achieve or get right? What were the drills, exercises, and routines you had to do to achieve it? Did anyone help you with it, or did you do it all on your own? I’d like to see your input in the comments below. 🙂

P.S: It took me ten drafts to get this blog post to a point where I’m satisfied with it. Sometimes I added something, sometimes I removed something else. It’s a messy, unsystematic method, and it’s a process I spend a lot of time immersed in. But it’s my way, so it’s well worth it.