Individual Excellence


Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way

– Booker T. Washington 1

By their very nature, human beings seek to gainfully employ their intrinsic abilities – whether in employment, professional service, entrepreneurial work, or even running a home. People yearn for the opportunity to perform challenging work that employs their capability and also helps to yield useful output at the same time. 

Individual workersare expected to achieve the assigned tasks through the diligent use of their personal skills in different functional areas. These people are referred to as “individual contributors.” Theyleverage technology,bring skilled knowledge into play, apply personal judgment, and make decisions such that the impediments to task accomplishment are suitably overcome.

Individual contributors work towards the accomplishment of specified tasks, such as the selling of a product, delivery of a certain service, or the repair of a system. Their external interactions typically involve a fixed number of customers or suppliers, within a framework of regular contact. For instance, salespeople working within a territory are likely to have a regular routine, a call pattern, and an indicative price list to work with.

The first few years in a career are usually spent in making individual contributions.However, there is at least a small component of individual contribution vested in every organizational role – regardless of its position in the accountability hierarchy.

In an organizational setting, individual contributors typically work in conjunction with the other members in a workgroup. They usually have access to large amounts of information as well as ample freedom to deploy their intrinsic capabilities, towards the delivery of results.

The quest of individual contributors is to make the job resemble “play”, which is marked by flexibility, variety, and challenge. Their performance ideal is to accomplish their assignments with excellence.

The Phenomenon of Excellence

Excellence is the act of doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. It representsa way of life in which the individual strives for accomplishing the very best in everything. 

The term “excellence”derives from the Latin excellentiathat translates as “primacy”. It is defined as a state of exalted virtue or the possession of good qualities to an eminent degree. Excellence ischaracterized by flawlessness and impeccability.

The desire to excel embodies a developmental attitude. The idea is to do things better the next time, regardless of the heights already attained. Excellence thus constitutes the difference between merely “delivering as committed” and “reaching for the stars”.

However, excellence is the very opposite of perfectionism. The latter involves an attempt to satisfy social demands while losing one’s true self in the process. Perfectionism is about spending 90% of the time on achieving the final 10% improvement in a project. On the other hand, excellence is about creatively and mindfully identifying how to accomplish 80% of the outcome exceedingly well in 20% of the time without any loss in quality.

The gaze of excellence is usually directed inwards. Current attainment levels are benchmarked with the results obtained in the immediate past. Excellence does not involve making very many external or competitive comparisons, except for the purpose of learning and development. Driven by an inner sense of purpose, the endeavour to excel is an attempt to do things differently – and thus create a game-changing impact.

Excellenceis a win-win endeavour. It is rewarding for the organization as well as the individual. 

When people work at a task with their head, hand as well as the heart, the parameters of quality, cost, time and responsiveness, are often transcended. This serves the organizational interest. 

At the same time, excellence requires the involvement of one’s complete being in whatever the person is engaged with. This is individually fulfilling.

The achievement of excellence requires the conquest of physical and mental distractions. These are enumerated by the sage Patanjali (The Yoga Sutras, Samadhi Pada, Sutra 30) as a) illness, b) dullness, c) d) doubt, e) negligence, f) laziness, g) cravings, h) misperceptions, and i) failure.2

The phenomenon of excellenceis aptly illustrated in the manner that the ancient Indian treatise Natya Shastracharacterizes the performance of the dancing arts:“Where the hand goes, there the eyes should follow; Where the eyes go, the mind should follow; Where the mind goes, the feelings are generated; Where the feelings are, the sentiment of {excellence}will be experienced there.”

The Pursuit of Excellence

Excellence represents a measure of consistently superior performance that surpasses requirements or expectations, without demonstrating significant flaws or waste.3Its pursuit involves going the extra mile, and working with complete dedication. The quest for excellence is marked by the formulation of clear goals, sustained involvement with the task, and the enjoyment of the immediate experience.

Excellence is obtained when one cares more than others think is wise; risks more than what others believe is safe; dream more than what others consider as practical; and expect more than what others conceive as possible. It is achieved through the practice of integrity, the crafting of simple and natural solutions, learning continuously in real time, and making a comprehensive improvement on all the fronts. 

Individual excellence requires all the intrinsic elements of the human personality to be synchronously brought to bear upon the task, as per a defined process. In the pursuit of excellence, people transform the limitations and constraints of their environment into opportunities for expressing their creativity.

The following anecdote is illustrative of excellence as a striving to operate at peak potential: 4

A visitor to a temple that was under construction saw a sculptor making an idol of God. Casually looking around, he noticed a similar idol lying nearby. Surprised, he asked the sculptor, “Do you really need two statues of the same idol?” “No,” said the sculptor – without looking up. He then continued, “We need only one, but the original statue got damaged at the last stage.” 

The visitor examined the discarded idol and found no apparent fault with it. “Where is the damage?” he asked. Still busy with his work, the sculptor replied, “There is a scratch on the nose of the idol.” The visitor then asked, “Where are you going to install the idol?” The sculptor indicated that it would be installed on a pillar that was twenty feet high. 

“If the idol shall be placed that high, who is going to know that there is a scratch on the nose?” the gentleman asked. The sculptor stopped his work, smiled sweetly, and said, “I will know it.”

The Attainment of Individual Excellence

Outstanding human achievements in the arts, the sciences as well as in the sports arena have always captivated the human imagination. Such extraordinary accomplishments are highly creative. They are believed to be not easily transferable across different situations or contexts. 

However, careful examination reveals that a natural, holistic and readily replicable process underlies all of these exceptional phenomena. An assiduous adherence to this mechanism enables people to deliver excellence in actual practice.

The technology of excellence entails a natural, three-step process that helps to arrive at a specific solution to any problem or to obtain a desired result as the output. The three stages are simultaneous and synchronous (and not sequential) in nature. These may be described as follows:

a) Frame: Organize, or gather together, the input resources

b) Focus: Align the input resources so as to direct these towards a focal point

c) Flow: Carefully synchronize the resources, in order to initiate the result

At the operational level, the technology of excellence may be grasped by examining how an ordinary sheet of paper is naturally ignited through the use of solar energy – with the help of a magnifying glass.

As a first step, the input resource is organized through the gathering of sunbeams upon the sheet of paper. This is achieved by turning its face to the sun. 

Next, environmental influence is applied upon the input resource so as to bend it to a focal point. This is accomplished by the introduction of the magnifying glass between the sun and the paper. The energy of the sun is thereby transmitted on to the paper, through the phenomenon of resonance. 

Finally, the process is continued for a sufficient duration of time, so that the temperature of the paper progressively increases to combustion point. Lo and behold, the paper catches fire!

At the conceptuallevel, this elegant process of excellence may be comprehended by examining how a judge delivers an accurate judgment in the courtroom. Suppose two vehicles collide at a street corner. This results in an accident. The police register a case and bring it to the courtroom. The judge needs to pin down the cause of the event, and deliver justice.

The judge is able to accomplish this par excellence, by means of the following process: 

  1. As a first step, the judge divides the horizontal field of vision around the accident into a number of equal segments. She calls for a number of eyewitnesses (one from each sector) to relate their observations with respect to the accident. The judge notes down their statements. 
  2. Once the recording of witnesses is complete, the judge starts to rationalize the different statements. She finds similar and complementary statements emanating from the witnesses located in adjacent segments. 

However, the facts appear to differ slightly from one eyewitness account to the next one. This is due to the slight relative difference in the physical location and perspective of each witness. Of course, the observations related by witnesses located in diametrically opposite sectors are found to be mutually opposing.

  • In the third step, the judge matches the opposing accounts of the event as well as the varying perspectives of the different witnesses, until the specific cause of every deviation is accounted for. 

When all the facts are fitted precisely and unambiguously in her mind, the judge finds that she is actually able to witness the accident in her mind’s eye. In that instant, she comes to an unequivocal conclusion regarding the cause of the accident. Now, the judge is ready to pass judgment on the matter with complete confidence.

The judge thus followed the three-step process of collecting the information (Frame), mutually aligning the different elements of information (Focus), and analyzing the permutations and combinations so as to unambiguously fit all the facts together (Flow) in order to arrive at a unique and accurate solution. 

The beauty and elegance of this process arises from the fact that the view of the accident arrived at by the judge is more accurate than that of the witnesses actually present at the site. Each eyewitness was erroneously committed to the belief that his observation was totally correct. He was surprisingly unaware that a “bird’s eye view’ of the accident could give a more holistic and accurate view of the accident. 

Despite not being physically present on site at the time of the accident, the judge comes across as the only expert witness of the event. She could accurately recount the happenings, on account of a diligent adherence to this simple, natural and elegant process that yields excellence. 

The Individual Excellence Framework

Excellence emerges from an active progression through the stages of Frame, Focus, and Flow. Each stage operates concurrently across the affective, cognitive and behavioural dimensions of the personality. This model draws upon ancient Sankhyaphilosophy, and has been originally developed by the author.

At the behavioural level, the process of excellence progresses through discipline(the capacity to exercise self-direction and inner control over one’s personality) that facilitates mindfulness(the maintenance of a moment-by-moment awareness of one’s subjective conscious, experience) and culminates into efficacy(the capacity to produce the defined amount of a desired effect).

With respect to the cognitive dimension, excellence arises from paying attention(the conscious application of the mind to any thought or sense object) followed by immersion(the complete submergence into something, or the deep mental engagement with some activity), leading to the capacity for mastery(the possession of comprehensive knowledge or consummate skill).

On the affective plane, the phenomenon of direction(a clear line of thought or action) naturally facilitates dedication(a strong physical connection or adherence towards something) that eventually leads to a state of fulfillment(a feeling of intense satisfaction and happiness).

Discipline is the starting point of the excellence endeavor. It signifies the organization of the relevant resources. Immersion is the pivot, as also the very crux of excellence. This is because it represents the complete alignment of all the personality dimensions. Fulfillment is the final outcome of the process of excellence, as also the ideal end product of human effort.

The Frame Phase

A frame is any structure or form that admits or defines the context for some entity. It establishes the basic nature or constitution of something, through the organic assembly or uniting together of its constituent parts. The English word “frame” has its roots in the German term Weltanschauungthat means “a comprehensive conception of the world, especially from a specific standpoint.” 

In the case of human beings, life events carry a sense of meaning that is never absolute in nature. The individual decides upon the salience of every experience by passing it through a “prism” or “frame” that comprises of biological, cultural and mental filters. These biases influence one’s perception of the world.

Framing is a psychological process wherein an object, person, issue or scenario is put into a certain context. Consequently, the frame causes or explains the individual’s opinions, choices as well as actions.  A frame may thus be regarded as a set of ideasor factsthat a personaccepts as true.

At the behavioural level, “frame” refers to the capacity for disciplinethat is denoted by orderliness in bearing and conduct. In the mental domain, “frame” connotes the capacity to devote mental energy and attentionexclusively upon a chosen object or endeavour. On the affective plane, “frame” implies a sense of personal directionthrough the discovery or gathering together of the cognitive, affective and conative capabilities that are potentially resident within the individual.

Discipline

Discipline is the capacity to exercise self-direction and inner control over one’s personality. It refers to the process of the learning or training of an individual’s physical, mental or moral faculties. 

Discipline builds the person’s capacity to proceed in an organized manner, according to a given plan of action. It is an opportunity to free oneself from weakness and distraction. 

Biological research has identified over one hundred internal clocks that govern our heartbeat, breathing, metabolism, body temperature, sense of time, memory and other parameters. When the biorhythms created by these tickers operate in mutual alignment with one another, the human being naturally experiences a sense of order and discipline in one’s life.

Discipline reflects an individual’s capacity to break dysfunctional habit patterns, restrain impulses, regulate desires and accept internal authority. External behavior and attitudes are aligned with one’s basic motives and deeper values. Discipline is thus a vehicle for personal transformation.

Attention

Attention is the state or act of applying the mind to any object of sense or thought. It is the cognitive process of deliberate concentration upon a discrete aspect of information, to the exclusion of other events. 

Attention is the act of directing one’s awareness upon a single entity, or a limited sphere that is selected from among the multitude. It involves a selective narrowing of consciousness, in order to deal effectively with some things, while momentarily withdrawing from others. 6 Page 404

A governing process deep within the human psyche selects a particular sensory input (to the exclusion of numerous others), and provides it entry into awareness. The faculty of attention then allows the person to engage with the selected stimulus. Attention thus refers to the human ability to:

Direction

The term “direction” generally refers to a line of thought, action, inclination or path along which a person or thing begins to move or develop. 7A direction may also be referred to as one’s Swadharma, whichisa mode of life and action that arises out of an intrinsic sense of duty and responsibility in accordance with one’s inherent nature.

A sense of direction determines the behavior patterns and rhythms of a person’s daily life. Direction finds expression in the goals and objectives that people create, the effort devoted towards these aims, and decisions with respect to the time, energy and attention to be expended towards goal achievement. 

The direction is crystallized when a person finds a way to productively use one’s key strengths, talents, and values towards the economic, social as well as moral good.8 (Page 13, 160)It involves incessant reflection and exploration of one’s inner world.

The Focus Phase

Focus is defined as the main, centraland gathering point, or the condition of high convergence that permits a clear perception or understanding of some object or phenomenon. It is also the quality of directing attention, energy or activity to converge upon a pivotal point.

In the individual context, focus is a state of totality and alignment between the body, the mind and the emotions. It is a selective process that involves conscious intention and choice. 

The practice of focus helps to control the activity of the five senses as well as the sub-conscious mind. Upon attaining focus, the person can intervene at will to direct one’s attention upon a chosen area or object.

The process of “focus” involves the alignment of available resources, and directing these towards a specific point. This translates into concentrating all of one’s energy towards a definite purpose.

On the behavioural plane, focus takes the form of mindfulness– the openness and receptivity to the whole field of awareness so that it can be directed to the currently experienced sensations, thoughts, emotions, and memories. On the mental plane, focus may be achieved by the practice of deep immersionover an extended period of time. The intent is to expand our habitually limited capabilities through the careful channelization of psychosomatic power. In the emotional domain, focus reflects a sense of dedicationto the ideal.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness refers to the maintenance of moment-by-moment awareness of one’s subjective and conscious experience, from a first-person perspective. 9It is a flexible state of existence, an attitude of open acceptance, and the witnessing of one’s own perceptions and sensibilities. Mindfulness helps the person to experience a calm, relaxed and alert state of being. 

Mindfulness is characterized by an attentive awareness of the reality of things in the current instant, coupled with a clear comprehension of whatever is taking place. 10It involves five factors:

  1. Perceiving stimuli, emotions and the elements of inner experience without being reactive 
  2. Observing and noticing sensations or perceptions, even when they appear unpleasant or painful;
  3. Acting with awareness, and without distraction 
  4. Easy and nuanced articulation of beliefs, opinions, and expectations in words;
  5. Abstaining from judgment or criticism of oneself for having irrational thoughts and feelings 

Mindfulness shapes the learning experiences of human beings. It is particularly crucial in enabling people to competently deal with the uncertainty in their life and environment. 

Immersion

Immersion refers to the complete submergence into something, or deep mental engagement with some activity or interest. It is the state of being wholly engrossed or absorbed. 11

Immersion is a state of dynamic equilibrium. A fragile sense of balance is established between the availability of action opportunities and the individual’s capacity to capitalize upon these. If the challenges exceed the level of skill, the person becomes anxious. On the other hand, when the abilities exceed the challenges, one gets bored. 

The immersed person enters a subjective state that is marked by an intuitive state of knowing in the present moment. Action and awareness are merged. The activity is experienced as intrinsically rewarding, and leads to enhanced confidence and self-assurance.

The finest creative or intellectual work usually occurs only when a state of complete immersion is attained. For instance, the inventor solves the most daunting riddles when she is not conscious of any deliberate effort to solve a problem. The disappearance of self-consciousness that occurs in immersion opens the door to a new and blissful world, which is usually not accessible in normal life.

Dedication

Dedication is ordinarily defined as a feeling of strong support and loyalty towards a special ideal or activity. It refers to being enthusiastically involved in, and engaged with, one’s work. 12

Dedication is the quality of being deeply or uncommonly committed to a task or purpose. It is the act of earnest devoting oneself to a cause, irrespective of the opinionsthat other peoplemay hold. 

Dedication is an internal contract that guarantees the continuance of effort with regularity – even in the presence of apathy, hopelessness, and demotivation. Dedication is accompanied by passion. It provides energy to make things happen.

Dedicated people demonstrate a determination to do their best, and persist in the face of obstacles. They find ways to succeed, rather than reasons to fail. Dedication underpins the person’s sustained capacity to act in the identified direction, above and beyond the call of duty.

The Flow Phase

Flow refers to movement in a steady and effortless manner with unbroken continuity, as in a stream. It is a way of conduct or accomplishment that is easy, graceful, and without any pause or difficulty.13

Flow requires the complete harmonization or integration of the being with the activity, coupled with a logical ordering of the resources so as to secure the desired output or end result.

Flow tends to occur when a person faces a clear set of goals, and responds with an intuitive sense of correctness. Individual talents are deployed towards overcoming the task or challenge at hand. When in a state of flow, the articulation of a person is smooth – even in the face of complexity. Her confidence becomes self-evident. 

The metaphor of flow is one that many people have used to describe the felt sense of perfect action.14 It is marked by efficacy, mastery, and fulfillment.

At the level of behaviour, “efficacy” refers to the belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations, or to produce the desired result. In the domain of the psyche, “mastery” is the possession or display of superlative skill or technique. On the affective plane, flow is characterized by a feeling of fulfillment– a state of gentle happiness and deep satisfaction. 

Efficacy

Efficacy refers to the capacity for producing the defined amount of the desired effect. 15It is the quality of being successful in producing an intended result by expending effort. The “capacity to produce effects” is how Lord Buddha has defined the phenomenon of truth.

Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s confidence in her ability to organize and execute a course of action, towards the achievement of the necessary task or to succeed in a specific situation. A person’s efficacy is influenced by previous experiences of success, availability of role models, social persuasion, personal strengths and vulnerabilities, health and vitality, anddeeply held values and beliefs16 

A strong sense of efficacy leads the individual to approach difficult tasks as a challenge to be mastered. 

Mastery

Mastery refers to the possession of comprehensive knowledge or understanding of a subject, consummate skill in some area, or rectitude during an action that allows a person to do or use something very well. 17

Mastery is the capacity to produce outstanding results through the development of psychological expertise in the principles that underlie those outcomes. A master demonstrates competence(the ability to perform a range of skills), contextualization(knowing when to do what), contingency(the flexibility to cope, adapt, and respond when things go wrong), as well as creativity(the capacity to solve novel problems). 18

According to Hubert Dreyfus, individuals pass through six stages of learning in the course of gaining mastery in any endeavor. These are: a) novice, b) advanced beginner, c) competent, d) proficient, e) expert, and f) master19

A novice learns the basics of a subject by rigidly adhering to rules, plans or instructions. The advanced beginner connects the rules and facts to relevant contexts, but has very little sense of practical priority. A competent performer is able to contextually select rules or perspectives, and formulate an approach towards problem solving.

A proficient performer can take a holistic view of the situation, perceive deviations from the normal pattern, and select the best course of action by supplementing reasoning with intuition.

The expert transcends the reliance on rules, guidelines, and maxims. He or she tailors the method and approach through an intuitive grasp of situations, based on a deep and tacit understanding. 

The master creatively synthesizes the available methods and tools, in order to develop her own unique style and approach. She also contributes to the development of new domain knowledge.19

Fulfillment

Fulfillment is the state, process, or act of bringing oneself to flourish­ing completion. 20It relates to the fullest possible expression of the innate potentialities of a person. Fulfillment results in a feeling of intense satisfaction and happiness. 

The capacity of the fulfilled individual for accurate perception of people and situations is heightened. The tendency for gaining false impressions is diminished. The activity that arises from a fulfilled state of being is perennially fresh and authentic. It is characterized by a unique and distinctive quality.

In a fulfilled state, the different dimensions of the individual personality get re-integrated. This leads to an existential sense of completeness. True fulfillment is marked by a return to the subjective principle of consciousness, which is at once the core of the human self as well as the very foundation or ground of universal reality. The person operates effortlessly, and lives spontaneously from moment to moment.

Fulfillment is characterized by fearlessness. The psychological defense mechanisms that previously served to prop up a partial, incomplete or false sense of identity are now no longer required.

Concluding Reflections

The Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 2, Sutra 50) describes the phenomenon of excellence as “Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam.” This translates, “The performance of the allocated work in an excellent manner is Yoga.” 

Excellence thus represents the acme of human work and achievement on the individual plane. It can be effortlessly achieved through a simple and elegant process. 

The pursuit of excellence may appear esoteric to some people, and as a luxury to others. However, the truth is exactly the opposite. The achievement of excellent results has a transformational impact upon the individual, the organization, and the society itself. 

As an illustration, the next chapter explores the legendary story of how the late Steve Jobs inspired excellence at Apple Inc. He thereby helped the company to create history, in ways more than one.

References

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