4 Habits of Excellence

A career lasts decades. How can you sustain excellence for the long haul?

I’ve been asked to speak to the honors students at a local high school on the topic of excellence. The more I thought about it, the more I realized this is a topic for people who are searching for a job.

Defining excellence

To me, excellence means doing an activity as well as you can do it right now and searching for ways to do it better in the future.

That means you can achieve excellence at any point in your life. It’s in your hands. If you are doing an activity as well as you can do it and you are looking for ways to do it better, you are achieving excellence. Since you will be on a job search (either inside or outside of your current organization) every three to five years for the rest of your career, developing excellent job-search habits is a good idea.

Excellent job-search habit #1: Be ready for your moment

My senior year in high school, I was in a play. It was the only play that I was ever in. I had four lines to say, two in the first act and two in the second act. In the first act, I delivered my two lines perfectly. I then had 45 minutes before my next scene. I stood behind the curtain and watched part of the play, I talked with the other actors and actresses, and then I went into the restroom to check my hat. I had to wear this big brown hat, and I wanted to make sure it looked OK.

Then with what I thought was about 10 minutes before my next scene, I went behind the curtain to relax for a moment. In that instant the lead actress saw me, and yelled, “Coughlin, you are on right now!!!” And she pushed me from behind the curtain onto the stage. Without even looking up, I said my two lines as fast as I could and then went over and sat down. For the rest of that scene I sat there sweating profusely. I had almost ruined the play for everyone else because I was not ready for my moment. I wasn’t alert and well prepared. Truth be told, I was lucky that the lead actress saw me when she did.

To achieve excellence whatever you are doing, you have to be ready for your moment. You have to be prepared, and you have to be alert. Don’t depend on luck.

Be mentally prepared in case a job interview starts 10 minutes early or two hours late. Be prepared in case a new career opportunity opens tonight and you have to explain why you are the best person for the job. Know your strengths and passions, and have examples prepared to show how you move results in the right direction.

Excellent job-search habit #2: Schedule thinking time

When I was in high school, I was in constant motion. I was either sitting in class, doing homework, playing soccer, or attending church or a church-related event. I averaged over three hours of homework every night for those four years.

However, I almost never took the time to think. My entire focus was on the task at hand. I had six classes each semester and my vision rarely ever went beyond the next set of tests. That focus created a short-term benefit with a long-term problem. I did very well academically and had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do in college or in my career. I barely even thought about college until the second semester of my senior year.

I encourage you to avoid this mistake in your career. Don’t be consumed by today to the point that you never think about the future of your career. Instead, look at your calendar for the next week and block out one hour really to think. Put your work to the side and pull out a blank sheet of paper. At the top of that sheet of paper write down the No. 1 thing you want to be doing in your career in the next three years. Then write down this question: “How will I get there?”

Answer that question from a variety of perspectives: your perspective, your boss’ perspective, your co-worker’s perspective, your friend’s perspective, and the perspective of a competitor at another organization. For 35 minutes, answer that question with as many ideas as you can. Then take the next 10 minutes to combine ideas to make even better ideas. At the end of those 10 minutes, select your best idea. Then spend the next 15 minutes putting together a plan of how you can use your best idea.

If you do that every week, you will have thought through your career in great detail and will be on the way to making your desired situation a reality.

Excellent job-search habit #3: Schedule non-thinking time

Give yourself a break on a regular basis. Slow down for 10 minutes each day and go for a walk without your cell phone. Take three consecutive hours a week and get away from your responsibilities and just relax. Save some fun television shows that you are really going to watch and enjoy them each week. Every quarter, take two days in a row to relax.

Your brain needs to rest in order to come up with better ideas. If you remain in never-ending activity, you will eventually burn out physically and mentally. Burnout is a real danger if your goal is to sustain excellence for a lifetime.

By my junior year in college, I hit burnout. I simply stopped caring about my grades and whether or not I was learning anything. I had gone six solid years of continuous studying to get good grades, and then one day I said to myself, “What am I doing? Why am I doing this? What’s the point?” Because I never gave myself time to rest and I never really spent time thinking in a purposeful way, I ran directly into a brick wall. I was mentally fried. And then I wasted my last two years in college just going through the academic motions. When my learning could have been at a peak, it reached a valley. Looking back, I realize what happened.

When I was a freshman in high school, my counselor said, “Dan, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t burn yourself out now and expect to have anything left later on. Pace yourself. Enjoy yourself while you are learning.” I ignored his advice. Now I get it. Whether you are in the first year or the 20th year of your career, you have to pace yourself. Excellence is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to build in non-thinking time to relax. In doing so, you will be relaxed and energized as you search for your next career move.

When it comes to thinking and non-thinking time, a lot of adults have never done either one. They just keep going and going and going. They don’t take the time really to think in a focused way, and they never relax long enough to give their brains a rest.

Excellent job-search habit #4: Don’t let anyone talk you out of achieving your dreams

Life is funny. When you’re in high school, everyone asks you, “What are you going to do with your life when you grow up?” People want you to dream big dreams. They want you to reach for the sky. Then you get grown up and start to pursue those wild dreams, and people say, “When are you going to get serious and get a real job and make real money so you can raise kids to go after their dreams?”

If you don’t go after your dreams, why should your kids go after theirs?

If you believe in a dream, then go after it. Find something you really believe in and work toward getting that type of job opportunity. Not every dream will be realized, and that’s OK. But don’t let someone else talk you out of achieving what you want to pursue. If you maintain the habit of going after your dreams, then there’s a chance you will do it for the rest of your life, and so will your kids.

Dan Coughlin

Dan Coughlin Dan is a business keynote speaker and seminar leader on leadership, innovation, and branding. He is also an executive coach and author of four books on generating sustainable, profitable growth. His books include "Accelerate", "Corporate Catalysts", "The Management 500", and "Find a Way to Win". His clients include McDonald’s, GE, Toyota, Prudential, Coca-Cola, Marriott, Boeing, Abbott, SUBWAY, Kiewit, and the St. Louis Cardinals.

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