In Part I of this series we introduced the Excellence Trap, and diagnosed its drivers and shortcomings. Here in Part II, we’ll take a close look at the costs we incur when we’re in the Excellence Trap, in order to see clearly what unsustainable people and organizations suffer. Then we’ll turn to the solution, introduce mastery and five shifts we must make to become sustainable. And in Part III we’ll discuss the way to get there, as well as the way not to.
Unfortunately, and ironically, when the five drivers that make us excellent in the first place start to flag (see Part I), a common response is to push harder on them, demanding more of them. But if they are depleting and we push ourselves with them, we will only injure ourselves; we are using them past their ability to help us, beyond their areas of effectiveness. When we do this, we pass the point of diminishing returns and actually start to do damage and incur costs, physically, emotionally, mentally — all of which makes us unsustainable while reducing performance and wellness alike. And then this puts downward pressure on us that can lead to mediocrity, pain, joylessness, burn out and losing our edge, eventually for good. When the excellence drivers run out, a sickness is released.
The more we rely upon what made us excellent after reaching the falling point, the more effort becomes entropy, proficiency becomes technocracy, expertise becomes rigidity, commitment becomes fixation, and acumen becomes cunning. And that’s not pretty. It’s costly and painful. Yet paradoxically, without a redirect, it is often the best people and companies that will suffer from the excellence trap the most, because they are the first to deplete, to empty the storehouse of what made them excellent in the first place. But a company full of cunning, rigid, egoistic, tired, risk averse, turf conscious people hellbent on outcomes is no fun, and extraordinarily inefficient.
Consider: This hard use after the sell-by date is the largest hidden cost in business, for individuals and teams, and therefore for the business itself. In the world of athletics or the arts, it is responsible for things such as injury, choking, stunning defeats, writer's block, and loss of ideas and inspiration. In business, we witness it in tired people, infrequent or shrinking innovation, dead wood, turf wars, incrementalism, misalignment, poor morale, increased sick time, increased attrition, and a general malaise that hurts the bottom line — and all for reasons few understand. But once we are armed with this knowledge, if we look closely at individuals, teams or entire organizations that appear off their mark, even for all their talent, good intensions and hard work, it doesn’t take long to diagnose the effects of the excellence trap. After all, everyone is working as hard as they can to be excellent. But this is like miners in a depleted mine saying, “We’re mining as hard as we can!” Result: wasted effort, depleted human resources, needless costs, injury, failure. It is unsustainable.
But ironically, the medicine usually prescribed, to be more excellent, to do more of what made us excellent — the rush for more energy, proficiency, expertise, commitment and acumen, after they have depleted or outlived their usefulness — is just more of what is hurting us. This is like flushing out the system with water when the water itself is stagnant, funky and germ-infested.
So something new is needed, something beyond excellence, and truly sustainable in relation to performance and wellness. Fortunately areas such as athletics, the arts and others have always known a better way. We’ve cracked the code, so let’s learn from them.
The Mastery Solution
Let’s call the thing beyond excellence "mastery." It is what great athletes, performers, improv comics, martial artists, composers, visionaries, sages and the greatest leaders have been steeped and coached in, but it has remained all but unknown to business. It promises self-sustaining peak performance, with greater outcomes and lower costs.
There are two things that are crucial to know about this kind of mastery right away. The first is that mastery is qualitatively different from excellence; it is not a higher level of excellence, not the most excellent excellence — it is different in kind, not in degree. Here I differ emphatically with Malcolm Gladwell’s dubious claim that mastery is a function of, on average, 10,000 hours of effort. Nonsense. 10,000 hours' work only earns you mere proficiency, even if it is very advanced proficiency. Mastery is not a super skill. Every master knows this (Think of the vapid virtuoso, the stunning technician with no taste and nothing to say).
Second, mastery requires that we replace the five drivers of excellence with five new specific drivers of mastery, making five shifts to attain this. (Note: As we transition to mastery we’re leaving talk of achievement behind and replacing it with attainment).
Energy is the stuff of life itself. It is dynamic and self-sustaining. As physics tells us, you can transform energy, but you can’t destroy it. It never goes away, it only changes form. Energy is also the capacity for work. And it is fundamentally generative, so it demands to be expressed in action. Energy can’t be suppressed; it can’t sit still. Importantly, we don’t create it, we simply leverage it. We don’t spend it — we release it, we tap into it. Masters know this. That’s why they are fundamentally relaxed and at peace, never choking, even when the heat is on and they are pushed to the limit.
Expression, specifically self-expression, is energy in action. It is the state of real uninhibition that has the ability to drive change. Expression doesn’t require self-motivation or have concern for outcomes; it simply puts it out there.
Perspective provides an authoritative interpretation of the here and now, as well as what is to come. It sees deeply into the nature of people and circumstances with honesty, integrity, insight and fearlessness. It knows the score, the real story. Perspective makes us truly visionary. Many people in excellence try to have a vision and lead from it. But a vision without perspective is merely an ego-fantasy. It does more harm than good. Masters have perspective.
Intention has the power to make vision real. It is what happens when we get free from distraction and decide to come from our core. Intention says “yes,” with confidence and purity of purpose. True intention is different from will. Will is about ego and power, and it’s prevalent in the Excellence Trap. Not so with Intention. True intention is rare, so it both inspires people and attracts the necessary resources to make vision real.
Wisdom is the sum of our Energy, Expression, Perspective, and Intention. It’s all about knowing what is true, right, or lasting based upon experience and understanding, discernment and insight. Wisdom is self-validating: It evolves us from being merely correct to being right, and to envision and bring about emergent futures. Wisdom is also directly linked to our legacy: it lives beyond us and abides in everyone and everything that we touch. Wisdom inspires loyalty and is the ultimate source of authority.
So there you have a portrait of what life can be, and must be, when freed from the Excellence Trap and pivoting to Mastery: a series of self-sustaining drivers that replace what came before.
Now the time is ripe to talk about how to achieve it, and how not to. The answer may surprise you. Stay tuned for Part III, where the rubber meets the road.