Search for Excellence

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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“What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘excellence’?”

I posed the question to my good friend Stuart Evey, age 71. In the 1970s, Stuart was a high-ranking executive with Getty Oil. In fact, he was over the development and launch of ESPN and was chairman until 1985 when he orchestrated ESPN’s sale to ABC-TV.

“I never knew what excellence was,” Evey said to me, “until someone above me observed that I had done something beyond average and told me that I could become even better. This kind of acknowledgement and belief in my potential seemed to unleash creative excellence within me, for which I’m thankful.”

Evey paused. Then he said, “I think of excellence as the ultimate success, like the top of the achievement ladder.”

For most of my 20 years as a broadcast sports journalist, I did too. How many times have I told stories on the subject of excellence—stories about athletes at the top of their games, men and women head-and-shoulders above those around them?

The Webster’s on my desk backs me up. It says excellence is about being excellent, of the highest quality. Yet at that point, my mind veers another direction, to the countless times I heard excellent athletes express gratitude for the quality of their competition. Past the obvious talk about their own prowess, I have observed that most top athletes are just as quick to credit their competitors for pushing them past greatness to excellence. Another athlete’s drive, in other words, propelled these men and women to new levels of achievement, new discoveries of their own abilities, chances to be even better.

Those times that I hear both winners and losers speak of primo competition, it strikes me that excellence is not merely what perches at the top of the ladder. Excellence also is joy—that internal byproduct of finding out who we are on the way.

In my attempts to define a quality with many faces, it came to me—of course!—that excellence resists any effort to bottle and label it. Excellence is what sparks our desire to be more than we are . . . drives us to choose a distant star and aim for it. Excellence has links directly to the caliber of the people around us . . . and it is that thing that happens to us just as we learn to keep trying harder.

One of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time, John Wooden, rarely used the word "excellence." Yet leading executives all over the world use his Pyramid of Success as a model to achieve it. “Success,” Wooden says, “is the peace of mind that is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”

That’s what I was trying to say . . .