It’s really hard to talk about excellence as a value. Excellence can mean different things in different contexts, and sometimes our ambition far exceeds what we can do. “Commitment to excellence” can easily become a platitude, so it’s important to sit back and consider what excellence means to us.
One of my favourite quotes of the internet generation is from Ira Glass, who talks about the gap between one’s taste and ability, particularly when starting out. It’s worth listening to the whole segment.
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
I consider myself an idealist. Not in the philosophical sense, but in the sense of placing ideals before practical considerations. I love the concept of an ideal: the perfect form, the perfect manifestation of a particular solution, a product, a design. I often miss out on living in the moment, because I’m busy designing another moment in my head of a parallel universe where a situation conforms to some ideal or other.
The biggest pitfall of being an idealist in this sense is that it can lead to perfectionism. Real artists ship. When it comes to perfectionism, I often think of one of my favourite chefs, Thomas Keller, who says:
When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.
Chef Keller here is obviously talking about cooking, but I feel he could be talking about anything. Product design, event organisation, writing. Perfection is only an idea; happiness is the true goal.
Striving toward perfection
If we take Ira Glass’s point, then excellence is about bridging the gap between our taste and our ability.
We often hear debates about what is more important in business: the idea or the execution. It’s one of those arguments that will never be won, because like many things: it depends. It’s a chicken and egg argument. One without with the other leaves you with nothing.
What’s more interesting is to think about the gap between the idea and the execution. A great idea can be ruined if it’s executed poorly. An average idea, or at least a non-novel idea can be transformed depending on how it’s executed.
Excellence clearly lives in the gap, and the narrower the gap the better.
We are what we repeatedly do
An oft-misattributed quote tells us that excellence is a habit, rather than a once-off act. A commitment to excellence then is about bridging the gap between idea and execution over, and over, and over until it becomes part of the DNA of a project, a product, a team or a company.
If we accept this, then we can be more pragmatic about our approach, and pull away from perfectionism more to develop a more healthy habit: consistency.
In “It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work”, DHH and Jason Fried write:
We compromise on quality all the time at Basecamp. We launch features that aren’t good enough for everyone (but will be Just Fine for plenty of people). We duct-tape bugs when they’re not bad enough to warrant a true root-cause fix. We publish essays on our blog that may have a grammatical error or two.
You just can’t bring your A-Game to every situation. Knowing when to embrace Good Enough is what gives you the opportunity to be truly excellent when you need to be.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. A large part of excellence is self-care, particularly mentally, and knowing when good enough is good enough is part of that.
One thing that Kim often repeats is “it’s not the intention that matters, but the impact” of what you do. I think this fits really well into a discussion about excellence.
Accidents happen, and sometimes things turn out better than we had intended. Perhaps more often, our intentions are good, but bridging the gap between taste and ability, we fall short on impact.
Excellence lies at the point where our intentions and their impact are closely aligned, and we are able to achieve this over and over again.
In summary, it’s about consistently striving for an ideal that we know we’ll never meet. As long as we keep it in our sights, and keep trying to get closer, we increase the chances of producing consistently effective results.
Putting it all together
The core-value keywords we discovered that embody our philosophy at Tito are integrity, excellence, and delight. In my mind, I visualise this as something of a Maslow’s hierarchy, with integrity at the bottom, excellence in the middle, and delight layered on top.
Integrity is the most important value to me. Everything else sits on top of that. But it’s completely abstract. Integrity is quite hard to talk about in isolation, independent of examples. Integrity is the ideal.
Excellence is the doing. Through the lens of integrity, excellence is doing things with due consideration both for intent and impact, and aiming to close the gap between them.
In practice, day-to-day, instead of a commitment to excellence being one over-arching philosophy, many little decisions, many little shifts in behaviour toward ideals add up to huge impact. The company that most exemplifies this that I have regular contact with is Stripe (unsurprisingly they are #1 in the Forbes Cloud 100). A recent Twitter thread from Brianna Woolfson highlights the many small things that Stripe does to align the whole company with a commitment to excellent work.
The high-level is important, but as Brianna writes:
Stripe is obsessed with turpentine. Turpentine is what is really going on at the one-inch altitude
Michael Lopp puts it like this:
You are underestimating the compounding awesomeness of continually fixing small broken things.
In that sense, saying that we are committed to excellence is one thing, but doing it is something else. Big plans are the ideal. Small things, done well, consistently, toward that ideal. That’s how we get to excellence.