path 2
path 2

A Life of Excellence


Thank you, Jimbo, for that very generous introduction. Mike, I want to thank you for really putting this together. This was his vision to put on a breakfast like this, and you work hard at it and I’m just very appreciative of him for really pulling this off. I’m grateful to you for being here.

I do want to say this, really quick. People ask, why do you just work with men? Why does your organization just focus on the male population? And, I’m really serious when I say this, I get a laugh out of it, but it’s true. Women are just a lot healthier than men are. They are! Now, we walk around like we don’t have any problems and we don’t have any issues in our lives, and yet, we’re usually really good at hiding. And, I write about that a good bit in a book that Jimbo mentioned, The True Measure of a Man. That’s how I answer that question, and I’m being sincere when I say it.

I had a contractor come by a couple of months ago, and he came in to buy a case of the book, A Life of Excellence. And, he said something to me, and I thought about it. He said,

“You know, I really wish that I had known the teaching in this book, I wish I had known this when I was 21 years old.”

He’s 57. And, I shook my head in total agreement. But then we both said at least we’ve grasped it now. He 57, me just turning 60. And, I share that with you because the message I’m going to lay out this morning has had a dramatic impact on my life. And, hopefully, it will somehow be a benefit to you. I call it a wisdom message. How to live more effectively in the most strategic areas of your life.

And, I usually like to start by mentioning a few words, it’s really some questions, that Steven Covey likes to confront people with. Have any of you read any of Steven Covey, do you know Steven Covey? He died a couple of years ago. He’s a great business and personal consultant, but he is primarily known for having written probably one of the best-selling books of all time, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. But Covey was really big on people, like you and me, self-examining ourselves. He doesn’t think we do that very often. We fly through life, and rarely do we stop and take a good, hard look at how am I really doing in my life? Am I doing as a business person? How am I doing in my marriage? How am I as a husband or a wife? And what he liked to do, and I heard him a number of years ago at the Birmingham Sun, it was a packed house. And, he liked to start by asking three questions. And, the first question was,

“What is the one activity that you know if you do it superbly well, and consistently, would have significant positive results in your personal life?” And, then he’d stop and have them reflect on that. And, then he would ask the second question, “What is the one activity that you know if you did it superbly well, and did it consistently, you would see significant positive results in your professional life?” And, then, he’d pause and let everybody reflect on that. And, then, he’d ask this last pointed question. He said, “If you know these things would make such a significant difference, why are you not doing them right now?”

I wrote this book, A Life of Excellence because I began to notice a frustration that takes place in people’s lives. It usually starts somewhere in their 30’s and goes all the way, really, to the end of their lives. And, what is the frustration? Jimbo mentioned it in the introduction. You get to the point in life, you wonder, “Why is there such a gap between the life that I dreamed of and aspire to, and the life that I’m actually living today?” Now, you may be doing really well in one area of your life, but generally, I find there are other areas of your life where you may be falling short. And, there’s a frustration.

I couldn’t help but think of what Mark Twain said, who I think we would all agree was very accomplished, even though I know very little about his personal life. He said this at the end of his life,

“My despair came when I compared what I was with what I had hoped to be.”

And, this seems to be a reality in so many people’s lives. And, so, what I want to do this morning is share with you a few words to maybe help shrink the gap between the life you aspire to live, and the life that you’re actually living.

And, I want to start with a story. And, I’m accused of using sports analogies a good bit, and I guess it’s because I do like sports, but I think you will see that in the context, that this is a universal truth. But this first story, Bart Starr likes to tell. Most people don’t know who Vince Lombardi is, even though I look around this crowd and I think a number of you do, depending on your age. But The Sporting News did a poll that said he was the greatest NFL coach that ever coached. He coached for nine years with the Green Bay Packers and won five NFL Championships, and they won the first two Super Bowls, and then he retired.

But he entered a room with all the players for their very first meeting. The year previous to that they had won one game. They were, kind of, the laughing stock of the NFL. And, he comes in, and he says,

“Gentlemen, first I do want to thank the Packers for this great opportunity that they’ve given me.” And, then he launched into this very short talk. And, he culminated by saying, “We are going to relentlessly pursue perfection, knowing that no person or no organization will ever be perfect. But we are going to relentlessly pursue perfection, with the hope that we will catch excellence.” And, then he said, “I am not remotely interested in just being good.”

And that last sentence, really kind of struck a chord with me. Because, it struck me that so many people I think are content with just being average, just being kind of good. I’m not a bad employee. I’m an okay husband or wife. I do a decent job as a parent. But what Lombardi was challenging them to was a life of excellence in football. I don’t know about you, but the idea of excellence in my personal life, in every area of my life, has great appeal. It almost sounds even noble. But the question is, what does that really mean? A life of excellence. Well, it simply means to be the very best you can be in every area of your life.

The word excellence comes from two Latin root words that mean to rise out from. The idea of rising out from your potential. And, so, I find that people really desire this in their lives. This is not a new phenomenon, a new teaching. This is what Socrates taught his students, to live a life of excellence. And, of course, the question is, as good as it sounds, how does it become a reality in my life? And, so, I’m going to share with you this morning, it takes about 20-25 minutes, three principals that can truly help you achieve a life of excellence.

Now, when I use that word principle, you need to understand that there are certain laws and principals that govern this life. And, the great thing about principles is they’re not good or bad. They’re not moral or immoral. They’re simply true. And, this is what you need to know about principles; they make life predictable. They create the potential for certain outcomes in your life, and most significantly, if you and I will live our lives in harmony with these principals, our lives will flourish.

Now, the first principle is probably the most important of the three. And, I’m going to spend more time on it than I amon the last two. But I would be so bold to say that this principle will ultimately determine the outcome of your life. It’s called “The Principle of the Path.” And, I have to say I got it from a minister over in Atlanta, Georgia by the name of Andy Stanley. “The Principle of the Path.” And, “The Principle of the Path” is pretty simple. You’ll see, it’s very profound. “The Principle of the Path” is this; every single one of “us is on a pathway that’s leading to a certain destination. And, “The Principal of the Path: is not a respecter of persons. He doesn’t care who you are, or where you’re from. You see, the path that you’re on right now leads to where it leads, regardless of how talented you are, how wealthy you are, how intelligent you are, how good looking you are. And, the best way to visualize this principle is to consider this question. Whenever you meet somebody, and from time-to-time, you will encounter somebody, that truly is leading an extraordinary life in every single area of their lives. And, you have to step back and ask the question, “Why is that? What makes this person different? Were they just lucky? Were they just born with so much more talent than everyone else?” You see, what you will always discover is that people are where they are in life as a result of a series of decisions, which together form the path leading to their present circumstance.

I had a father share with me, two years ago, his son went to a football camp in the summer. Now, apparently every college, Alabama, Auburn, Stanford, any college that has a college football team has a football camp for kids. And, I’m assuming it’s a way that you can introduce kids to their program, I guess. But, this father’s son happened to be in Tuscaloosa with 700 other kids. Imagine! And, his son was in one of the groups, and his group had to be out on the field at 7 am Saturday morning. He said, “Dad, you’re not going to believe what happened” This was in the Summer of 2010. The fall prior to that, Mark Ingram had won the Heisman Trophy, which you may remember. He said,

“Dad, you’re not going to believe this! We were out there on the field, and on the other end of the field, on a Saturday morning at 7 o’clock, was Mark Ingram, by himself with a graduate assistant. And, this graduate assistant was feeding footballs into a machine that was throwing balls to Ingram. He was working on his receiving skills.”

Now, I share that with you just to say this; Mark Ingram did not win the Heisman Trophy, was not a first-round draft choice in the NFL, just because he was talented, or because he was lucky. What Mark Ingram did was he got on a path that enabled him to develop his skills so that he could become an exceptional football player.

You see, what we don’t realize, every single one of us is on certain paths right now, leading us in a certain direction. For instance, every single person in this room is on a physical health path, and it’s taking you in a certain direction. And, in all likelihood, if you stay on that path, it will, in all likelihood, determine how long you live and the quality of your life in old age. If you’re like me and you’re married, your marriage is on a path right now. I don’t think sometimes we think like that, think in those terms. But it’s on a path, and it’s moving in a direction, and hopefully, it’s a direction of growth, and of deepening love, and of intimacy. But, because of the work I do, and then men I council, for most men, their marriages are kind-of flat-lined. They really aren’t going anywhere. Or, they’re in decline. But it’s on a path.

Also, if you’re like me, I have three teenagers. I’m on a very serious child-rearing path right now. And, the path that we’re on is going to have an influence on the kind of people that my children become. If you have a business, your business is on a path. Your career is on a path. Every single person in this room is on a financial path of some kind, and it’s taking us in a certain direction. We’re on a spiritual path. We’re on a moral path. And, every path is taking us toward a particular destination, which leads back to my original question. Why do people choose paths that don’t lead toward their intended hopes and dreams? Why is there such a discrepancy between what we actually desire in our hearts and what we end up doing in our lives? And, most significantly, and this is a really good question. Why would anybody choose to waste their talents and their abilities? And, yet, this is what so often happens.

This may be one of the best parts of this presentation. To understand the three reasons why this happens, why we don’t become the very best we can be. And, it’s for these three reasons, it was very helpful to me, personally. The first reason that we don’t get on paths that lead to lives of excellence is that in our approach to life, we have great intentions for our lives. But that’s usually it. We have great intentions, but we don’t pay much attention to the paths we’re on. And, let me just tell you that good intention are worthless. Good intentions don’t help you get where you’re trying to go in life. At the end of the day, it’s the direction of the path, not one’s intentions, that will ultimately determine a person’s destination.

In the July 10, 2010 Harvard Business Review, there was an article written by Clayton Christensen. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him. He was a Rhodes Scholar. He went to Harvard Business School, he now teaches there. He made this observation. He said,

“Over the years, I have watched the fates of my Harvard Business School classmates from 1979 unfold, and I’ve seen more and more of them come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. And, I can guarantee not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would be estranged from them. Yet, they went down a path that led to this consequence.”

Now, I am very sensitive to the issue of divorce because I can guarantee you that every person in this room has somehow been touched by it. But this is a reality. We’re going to a wedding this weekend. Two young people. Anytime they come out of the wedding ceremony, with grins on their faces, laughing, I mean, their intentions are a great life together. And yet, without realizing, they often get on paths that lead to the demise of their marriage. That’s one of the reasons that we have a man that works with us that works with couples in premarital counseling, to help them get on a path that will lead to a marriage that does grow and deepen in love and deepen in intimacy as time goes by.

Now, I spoke to a dad, this was probably a year ago, maybe a little longer, who’s son had gone to college at a major university here in the South. And, this son was in a fraternity. And, the dad shared with me that during his son’s four years in college, that six of his fraternity brothers died of either a drug overdose or alcohol asphyxiation. Six! You know, my heart really goes out to all of those families. I couldn’t help but think of my own son, who will be graduating a year from now from high school. But I couldn’t help but think of these six young men, graduating from high school, knowing they were going to college, knowing their whole life was in front of them. And, I could just see them, their whole future, their hopes, their dreams were high. They were all excited. They had great intentions for their lives, I’m sure. But you see what happened? They got on a path that led to their tragic and premature deaths. Great intentions. As good as they may feel, they don’t help you at all. It’s the path you get on that really matters.

Now, a second reason people don’t get on paths that lead to excellence, and this is really pertinent to modern life, particularly today. That is this; modern people are not on a truth and wisdom and learning and skill development quest. Instead, they’re on more of a pleasure, fun, and happiness quest. And, that is what often becomes predominant in life. And, what ends up happening is that we are guided by our feelings instead of using good judgment. Our desires for pleasurable feelings have a far greater power over our ability to reason and think clearly.

I was reading about Oscar Wilde, who the English believe is probably the greatest literary figure they ever produced, next to Shakespeare. The problem is, Oscar Wilde, squandered his life. These are his words,

“I must say to myself that I ruined myself and that nobody, great or small, can be ruined except by his own hand. Terrible is what the world did to me. What I did to myself was far more terrible still.”

And, once you read and find out about Oscar Wilde is that his great desire in life was to be, he wanted to live a long life and produce great works of literature and poetry. The problem and he admitted it,

“I loved pleasure more.” These are his own words. “I allowed pleasure to dominate me, and I have ended in horrible disgrace.”

And, this what so often happens. He died at the age of 45 penniless.

You see, the path that leads to excellence is often difficult. And this is the key that I learned, particularly getting started. Anything difficult, the hardest part is getting started. That’s why we have a family motto, when my kids are complaining about something, to Do Hard Things. Do hard things. And, I tell them, the path that leads to a life of excellence is generally going to be difficult, particularly as you get started. But this is such a key to the understanding of life. As we begin these difficult tasks, as we go down these difficult paths, you know what happens? Over time, they become easier. Not because the nature of the task has changed, but your ability to do it increases.

I always use this example of my wife. My wife is very physically fit. She exercises a lot. A year and a half ago, she decided for some reason, she was going to take up swimming. Now, the only problem is, she wasn’t a very good swimmer. She didn’t grow up swimming competitively. And so, she started, three times a week, and she says,

“It was brutal. You wouldn’t realize how much pool water I would swallow.”

But what had happened, she got better and better and better at it. In fact, this is really kind of funny. Just last week, she was swimming at the Y, and she got out of the pool, and this young guy said, “Where did you swim collegially?” My wife won’t tell you she loves to swim, but she will tell you that she really enjoys it now, and she really enjoys the benefits that come from it.

I think John Piper said it best when he said,

“All training is painful and frustrating as you develop certain skills. However, over time, as these skills become second-nature, they lead to greater joy in your life.”

And, so, I think it’s a good question to ask. As I look at the driving force of my life, am I on a truth and wisdom and skill-development and learning quest? Or, am I just on a fun, pleasure, feel-good quest? Because they lead in almost opposite directions.

Now, the third and final reason we don’t get on paths that lead to lives of excellence, and this is a biggie, and I warn my kids about it a lot. But this is a part of modern life. We’re always looking for shortcuts. We’re always looking for shortcuts. And, we think we can do this with easy techniques and formulas. All you have to do is go to Book Civilian. Go to the self-help section, and you’ll see books all over the place. Books like Seven Easy Steps to Have a Perfect Marriage. Five Simple Techniques to Double your Sales. You know, when I was in the insurance industry, that was one of the things salespeople were always hearing some kind of formula, some kind of technique, something that could help me double my sales.

I was listening to CNBC recently. There was a quote, “Easy stock trading techniques that will make you millions.” One thing you have to notice about this, they’re always easy steps! Because, you see in today’s world, if you have a problem, there is somebody out there that will promise you a formula to easily overcome it. And, unfortunately, this often becomes so many people’s approach to life.

It’s kind of funny. I know we probably have some golfers in this room. Golfers are the worst when it comes to this. This guy, Rick Jensen is a sports psychologist. He works with professional golfers. He says,

“When a golfer’s putting game goes bad, instead of getting out on the putting green and working at it, they just go buy another putter.” He says, “They want a quick-fix that will cure the slice with minimal effort. Instead, what generally happens is the tip they get doesn’t transfer to the course under pressure, and they wind up blaming their teacher, walking across the street to see another pro. Or, they go and buy a book or read a magazine article in hopes of finding a better tip that is the magic pill they’re seeking.”

Really, what I’m saying is this. Folks, there is an art to living this life, and it’s not a simple, easy formula. In fact, really, to make progress in this life, it requires going down certain paths. Often, it requires plodding down certain paths. Slow, diligent plodding. And, this is very difficult in a culture that’s into instant gratification. But you need to know this, excellence is not a door that you can just walk through and automatically have it, or a switch that you can flip and automatically have it.

A life of excellence is a long, patient quest that doesn’t come quickly, which is why these next two principals are so important. I’m not going to spend much time on this. But this first principal, “The Principal of the Path”, and the reasons we don’t get on that path, is crucial to grasp.
Now, these second two give you kind of an application to this.

And, before I share this second principle, it’s called “The Vector Principal”, I want to share with you some words, a sentence, from John Maxwell. It could be the most important thing you hear. He says,

“You will never change your life until you change something you do daily.”

And, this can apply to your work, to your marriage, raising your kids. You will not change your life that you have right now until you change something you do daily.

Now, “The Vector Principal,” I don’t know if you know that term vector. Vector is a term of mathematics and physics that quantifies the speed and direction of an object. If you were the pilot of a jetliner, you would use vectors to define the course to your destination. When you’re given a new vector by the control center, you turn the plane to line up with that heading on the compass, creating a new vector angle. Obviously, even making a small vector change in the cockpit can make a big difference in the plane’s ultimate destination. Though it may seem an imperceptible change, with every mile traveled, you are further from your previous course. For example, you can make a tiny vector change while flying between New York and Seattle and end up in Los Angeles instead.

“The Vector Principal” applies in our lives in the same manner. Even if you never fly an airplane, you are vectoring through life by the choices you make. You are currently on a path that was determined by the choices you have made since you were aware of your capacity to choose. Many of these choices seem rather insignificant at the time, but this is the heart of the principal. But small changes make a big difference over time. Small changes make a big difference over time.

Nido Qubein, a business consultant, he says,

“One of the greatest people can’t mobilize themselves is that they’re always dreaming of some grand accomplishment that they hope, one day, will come to pass. Most worthwhile achievements are the result of many, little things done in a strategic direction.”

This is the approach Abraham Lincoln took to winning the Civil War. In Donald Phillips book, he said,

“Lincoln realized that the attainment of such a successful outcome had to be accomplished in small steps. So, he constantly set specific short-term goals that his generals and cabinet members could focus on with intent and immediacy.”

I think everybody in this room is familiar with the company Alcoa, I think the biggest producer of aluminum in the world. What you might not know, is back in 1987, it looked like Alcoa might be going under. And so, they fired their CEO and hired Paul O’Neil from International Paper to come in and turn the ship around. And, in his first meeting after having been there on the job for a day or two, he was in a room, maybe about this size, at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. All the analysts were out there. And, O’Neil gets up, and he begins to tell them his primary objective at Alcoa. And, he said this,

“We are going to become the safest company in the world, the safest workplace,” because they had really struggled with lost-time injuries at all their plants. And, he goes on and tells them how they’re going to become the safest place to work in the world. And, he finishes his talk, and a hand shoots up. “Well, what about your margins? Your profit margins are the worst in the industry?” Another hand shot up, “What about your sales?” He said, “Don’t you all hear what I’m saying? The first thing we’re going to focus on is worker safety.” And, the meeting ended. And, every analyst flew out of these, got on the phone, called their clients, and said, “Alcoa has hired a nut. Sell your holdings.” Well, 13 years later, if you’d been an institution, and say you had invested $1 million in Alcoa, in that 13 years, you would have received $1 million in dividends, and the stock had gone up five-fold. And, in the process, Alcoa had become one of the safest workplaces in the country. And, when asked about this, years later, this is what O’Neil said. He said, “This was my approach, attacking one habit, and then watching the changes ripple through the organization.” He said, “I knew I had to transform Alcoa, but you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So, I decided I was going to start on focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

You see, what most people don’t realize is that all great accomplishments, all significant goals reached, is the result of a lot of small objectives, a lot of little things done well. So, now, personally, at the beginning of every year, I make two or three small changes in the most strategic areas of my life. And, my goal is, in that first 40 days, to make that become a habit in my life. And, once it becomes a habit in your life, you gain momentum. It gives you a sense of optimism about your life, and what you can do, and what you can become. There’s kind of a ripple effect. And, you know what it really is? It’s a compounding effect.

Do you know the term compounding of interest? You know, Einstein said that was the most powerful force in the world. And, it’s true in finance, but it’s also true in our lives. Because, if you don’t realize what that habit can do with the passage of time. Five, 10, 15 years.

Now, the final principle is called “The Daffodil Principle.” I can’t tell you the number of people that have said this principle has changed my life! What is “The Daffodil Principle?” It’s a story about a woman who’s trying to get her mother to go see this beautiful field of daffodils up in the mountains, and the mother doesn’t want to go. She finally tricks her, and she gets to this place, they walk up a path, and there’s this most beautiful field of daffodils. Acres and acres of daffodils, with all different types of colors. And, the mother’s just overwhelmed, and says,

“Who did this? How did this come to pass?” And, the daughter said, “Well, it’s the little woman that lives up in that little house up there.” And, there was a path that led up to the house. And, the woman wasn’t there, but there was a big poster. And, the poster said, “Answers to the questions I know you are asking.” The first answer was simple, “50,000 bulbs.” The second answer was, “One at a time, by one woman.” The third answer was, “Began in 1972.” Then, the author that wrote it said, “There it is. That was it for me, “The Daffodil Principle.” For me, that moment was a life-changing experience. I thought of this woman, whom I had never met, who more than 40 years before had begun one bulb at a time, to bring her vision of beauty and joy to an obscure mountaintop. Still, just planting one bulb at a time, year-after-year, had changed this little part of the world. This unknown woman had forever changed the world in which she lived. And, in the process, created something of indescribable magnificence, beauty, and inspiration. The principle her daffodil garden taught was one of the greatest principles of celebration, that is, learning to move toward our goals and desires, one step at a time, often just one baby step at a time and learning to love the doing. Learning to use the accumulation of time. When we multiply tiny pieces of time with small increments of daily effort, we, too, will find that we can accomplish magnificent things. We can change the world in which we live in. ‘It makes me sad, in a way,’ she admitted to her daughter. ‘What might I had accomplished if I had thought of some wonderful goal 35 or 40 years ago, and worked away at it one bulb at a time for all those years. Just think what I might have been able to achieve.’ My daughter summed up the message of the day in her usual, direct way. ‘Well, start tomorrow, Mother,’ she said. It’s so pointless to think of the lost hours of yesterday. The way to make learning a lesson of celebration instead of a cause for regret is to only ask, ‘How can I put this to use today?”

So, as I wrap this up, I ask this question. How do you really change the course of your life, if it needs changing? How do you achieve a life of excellence? The idea of being the very best you can be in every area of your life. Learn to use the accumulation of time. Multiply tiny pieces of time with small increments of daily effort, in the strategic areas of your life, and you can accomplish magnificent things. You really can. But remember this, this is a warning. The most important areas of your life require regular deposits of time as the years go by. And, if these opportunities are missed, they really are lost forever.

And, so I leave you with this challenge. Based on what you’ve heard this morning, is there anything that you can take and put into practice? Because, ultimately, it’s a choice that you have to make. And, I think everybody knows this. Your life will always be determined by all of the choices that you make over the course of time.

I think the great, legendary coach John Wooden nailed it with these words.

“There is a choice you have to make in everything that you do. So, keep in mind, that in the end, the choices you make will ultimately make you.”

Because it’s your choices that determine the ultimate outcome of your life. And, so, I don’t care how old you are. Since your final destiny has not yet been determined, why not seek, from this day forward, seek to live an exceptional life. Seek to live a life of excellence, so that your hopes and dreams, in the end, will become a reality.

You’ve all been a great audience, and I really appreciate you being here. Thank you.

Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.


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