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In literature, in media and most certainly in the workplace, mediocrity carries a decidedly negative connotation. Nobody wants to be merely mediocre.
Google ‘mediocrity’, and you’ll get results such as “What to Do About Mediocrity on Your Team” and “Mediocrity is a Virus – Here’s How to Banish it From Your Life”. Article after article tells us that mediocrity is a slippery slope to complete failure.
Excellence, on the other hand, has become an aspirational gold standard. To strive for excellence is to dodge mediocrity at all costs. Every day, news outlets publish stories telling us how to emulate the Steve Jobs, the Oprah Winfreys and the Tom Bradys of the world.
Once we wake up before sunrise, choose an outfit that reflects our personal brand, and eliminate gluten, alcohol and caffeine, we can finally unleash the superhumans hidden inside. Even school-aged children are encour-aged to pursue excellence – as soon as they can hold scissors.
But at a certain point in my own career, I started to question excellence. As the founder of JotForm, should I be encouraging our 130 employees to strive for excellence and nothing less? How did we arrive at this state of obses-sion with excellence – and more importantly, what should be the standard for success?
How the excellence obsession began
Since 1936, when Dale Carnegie published his now-iconic book How to Win Friends and Influence People, ambitious readers everywhere have been striving to improve themselves. More recently came the 10,000-Hour Rule, popularised by author Malcolm Gladwell, who claimed that achieving excel-lence was simply a matter of time and dedication – 10,000 hours of practice.
By offering a concrete, quantifiable goal, excellence seemed more achievable. Want to become an expert programmer, chef or hockey player? You can. We all can. It’s just a numbers game.
Gladwell’s theory is based on the research of Dr K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology who pioneered the study and science of peak performance. But Ericsson doesn’t entirely agree with Gladwell’s conclusions. In fact, he calls them “a popularized but simplistic view of our work … which suggests that anyone who has accumulated a sufficient number of hours of practice in a given domain will automatically become an expert and a champion”.
What happens when the quest to rack up the hours required for excellence ends up compromising our health, relationships and even our happiness?
What happens, though, when the quest to rack up the hours required for excellence ends up compromising our health, relation-ships and even our happiness? Is excellence the metric by which we should measure ourselves?
One-dimensional excellence might be the wrong goal
“There were times when I didn’t leave the factory for three or four days – days when I didn’t go outside.” That’s Tesla CEO Elon Musk, acknowledging the toll of work-related exhaustion. In a candid interview with the New York Times, he admitted that 120-hour weeks had become his norm.
He hadn’t taken more than a week off since 2001 when he was bedridden with malaria. His exhaustion had also led to less-than-exemplary leadership – like berating an analyst, which spurred him to publicly apologise.
Musk’s experience highlights another possible toll of excellence: relationships. Those 10,000 hours have to come from somewhere, and often we start skimming them from nights and weekends; precious hours that are typically dedicated to friends and family.
As Erin Callan, the former Lehman Brothers CFO, who left shortly before its collapse, wrote in a New York Times article: “When I wasn’t catching up on work, I spent my weekends recharging my batteries for the coming week. Work always came first, before my family, friends and marriage – which ended just a few years later.”
Musk and Callan aren’t the only successful figures who received the wake-up call. It took a personal health crisis for Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington to reshape her own idea of success. “It was a day I’ve talked and written about dozens of times – the day I collapsed from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, broke my cheekbone and woke up in a pool of blood,” she wrote in 2017. “For me, that day literally changed my life. It put me on a course in which I changed how I work and how I live.” Her latest venture, Thrive Global, is dedicated to “end[ing] the stress and burnout epidemic”.
Before we barrel blindly towards excellence or 10,000 hours of mastery, it’s important to consider the potential trade-offs. Sometimes we get so invested in a certain outcome that we lose sight of why we even started. We can’t see the bigger picture, and our passion and excitement fade.
Take elite athletes, many of whom have been groomed for greatness from a very young age. Sports psychologist Adam Naylor says he observes many college-level athletes who are now playing “out of obligation, not passion”. After a life spent in training, the excitement that first led them to pick up a hockey stick or tennis racket is long gone when they arrive at college.
When passion no longer fuels your drive, chances are you won’t achieve excellence – and you won’t be fulfi lled.
The history and pitfalls of pursuing excellence are convincing, but how do we redefine the meaning of success? I believe we should think less about excellence and more about personal fulfilment – a sense of achievement that’s balanced by wellness. The World Health Organization defines wellness as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.
Increasingly, we’re seeing more thriving, high-profile leaders who are openly prioritizing their wellness. Whether it’s meditating, exercising or clocking at least eight hours of sleep, wellness is slowly replacing the old masochistic work habits. For example, many CEOs have regular meditation practices, including Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Wellness also means checking in with yourself and being self-aware. Sleeping, meditating and exercising are great practices, but it’s equally important to step back and re-evaluate from time to time. Examine your short-and long-term goals and whether your work still feels inspiring. Sure, you might not be whistling while you work every day, but on the whole, your job should bring a sense of satisfaction and pride.
Will you ever make a name for yourself if you don’t chase excellence? By pursuing fulfilling work and living a balanced, healthy life, you might – because chances are you’re working from a place of inspiration instead of just going through the motions
So now you’re focusing on fulfilment, meditating daily and feeling good about your work-life balance. But will you ever make a name for yourself if you don’t chase excellence? Will you leave your mark on the world?
There’s no guarantee. But by pursuing fulfi lling work and living a balanced, healthy life, you might – because chances are you’re working from a place of inspiration instead of just going through the motions. And even if you never launch your own company or ascend to the C-suite, you can still make a strong contribution to your team, earn a good living and enjoy fulfilling hobbies outside of work.
Reaching for the top can have many negative consequences – on our health, our relationships, our passion and our happiness. By striving for fulfillment, we might end up happier and more successful than ever before.
Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of JotForm, an online form creation software with four million users worldwide and more than 100 employees. A developer by trade but writer by heart, Tank shares stories about how he exponentially grew his company without receiving any outside funding. For more information, visit jotform.com.