A Life of Excellence

Well, good morning. It’s a real honor for me to be with you today, to share with you a message that has had a significant impact on my life. And, my only wish though, in thinking through this, is that I had known these truths that I’m going to be sharing with you today, 40 years ago.

I want to start by reading to you a true story, as told by President Jimmy Carter. President Carter was applying for an officer’s position on a nuclear submarine. And, the final requirement was a personal interview with Admiral Hyman Rickover, who was head of the United States Nuclear Navy. In Carter’s own words, he said,

“I had applied for the nuclear submarine program, and Admiral Rickover was interviewing me for the job. It was the first time I met Admiral Rickover, and we sat in a large room by ourselves for more than two hours, and he let me choose any subject I wished to discuss. Very carefully, I chose those about which I knew most at the time. Current events, seamanship, music, literature, naval tactics, electronics, gunnery. And, he began to ask me a series of questions of increasing difficulty. In each instance, he soon proved that I knew relatively little about the subject that I had chosen. He always looked right into my eyes and he never smiled. I was saturated with cold sweat. Finally, he asked a question, and I thought I could redeem myself. He said, “How did you stand in your class at the Naval Academy?’ Since I had completed my sophomore year at Georgia Tech before Annapolis as a plebe, I had done very well. And, I swelled my chest with pride, and answered him, “Sir, I stood 59th in a class of 820.’ I sat back to wait for the congratulations, which never came. Instead, the question, ‘Did you do your best?’ I started to say ‘Yes, Sir,’ but I remembered who this was, and I recall several of the many times in the academy when I could have learned more about our allies, our enemies, weapons, strategy, and so forth. But I was just human. I finally gulped and said, ‘No, Sir. I didn’t always do my best.’ He looked at me for a long time and then turned his chair around to end the interview. He asked one final question, which I have never been able to forget or to answer. He said, ‘Why not?’ I sat there for a while, shaken and then slowly left the room.”

Carter said that this one conversation caused him to completely reorient his life, and later inspired his bestselling book, Why Not the Best. I share that story with you this morning because it’s caused me to wonder, have I come, even partially close, to doing my very best in this life? And, in reality, does anyone ever really do his or her best? And, if not, why not?

One observation that I’ve made in the work that I do is that I’ve noticed a frustration in people’s lives. It starts, usually in their 30’s, and continues on for the rest of their lives. And, this is the frustration,”Why is there such a gap between the life I’ve aspired to and dreamed of, and the life I’m actually living?”

Just the other day, I read this quote from Mark Twain, right at the end of his life. And, he says,

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

This seems to be a reality in most people’s lives. And, the research backs this up. In fact, research by the social sciences indicates that most people in Western culture do not have a clearly defined strategy or mission for their lives, and therefore, they live reactively. Their lives become nothing more than a response to the circumstances which are presented each day, increasingly, of course, in the form of tweets, posts, and emails. You know, you blink, and five years flies by, and then ten. And, before you know it, you’re 40 and 50. And, you begin to realize life is not going according to the script that I had planned. Now, I don’t really care who you are or how old you are. But if this is true in your life, in any area, I want to help you to turn it around.

And, I want to start by telling you another story. This comes from Bart Starr. Now, some of you may not be familiar with Bart Starr. He was probably one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks, and he played back in the 1960s for the Green Bay Packers, who dominated the 60’s. And, he says that he vividly recalls the first time he encountered the new coach of the Green Bay Packers, a man that Starr said, “changed his life.” And, the person I’m referring to is Vince Lombardi.

“Lombardi,” Starr says, “was addressing the Packer team for the first time, and they had only won one game the year before.” And, he said, “He opened the session by thanking the Packers for allowing him to be their coach.” He said, “This tells you something about the man.” He said, “Then, he quickly turned to us and said, ‘Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full-well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it because in the process, we will catch excellence.” Starr says, “Lombardi came right up on us, within a foot of us on the front row, and he said loudly, “I am not remotely interested in just being good.”

And, in nine years with the Packers, they won five NFL Championships, and then won the first two Super Bowls before he retired from the Packer organization.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that we all would agree that the thought of achieving a life of excellence has great appeal. It even sounds noble. But what is a life of excellence? What does it really look like?

The word excellence comes from two Latin root words, which together means to rise out from. It means the quality of rising to one’s expected potential, to be the best you can be in every area of your life. And, the idea of a life of excellence goes all the way back to Socrates. It’s nothing really new.

I recently had the opportunity to spend an hour with Dr. Kevin Elko. I’m not sure if you are familiar with him. He’s a sports psychologist. He’s worked with a number of professional teams. And, most recently, he’s worked closely with Nick Saban and the University of Alabama football team. And, I asked him about this process that Coach Saban always refers to. And, this process involves not focusing on wins and losses, not focusing on national championships, but a process that he has instilled. Elko explained this process involves getting the team to develop a single-minded focus on striving for excellence in every area of their lives, not just football. He says,

“This includes excellence in the weight room, and excellence in learning the fundamentals of the game, as well as learning the complicated schemes which the team employs. It involves excellence in the off-season program. It demands individual moral excellence, academic excellence, and finally,” with Dr. Elko’s assistance, “a sharp focus on the emotional and psychological well-being of each player.” He says, “Coach Saban is convinced that if his players will concentrate on the process, the wins and the losses will take care of themselves.”

And, based on the team’s actual performance, this strategy has obviously worked quite well. But the real question is how does this really work in a person’s life? How does this become a reality in my life and in your life?

Now, I realize that this morning, I may be speaking to a group of superstars who are thriving in every area of their lives. But if not, I’m going to share with you three principals that will be incredibly helpful to you. You see, life is governed by certain principals and laws. And, these principals are not good and they’re not bad. They’re not moral or immoral. They are simply true. And, the thing about principals is that they make life predictable. They create the potential for certain outcomes in our lives. And, most significantly, our lives will flourish when they are in harmony with these principals.

Now, the first principle, which I will spend most of my time on, I got from a minister in Atlanta, Georgia, whose name is Andy Stanley. I would be so bold as to say that this is the most important principle in life when it comes to effective living. In fact, I would say that this principal will ultimately determine the outcome of your life. And, it’s called “The Principle of the Path.” And, the implications of this principle are that each of us is on a pathway that is leading us towards a certain destination, whether you realize it or not. And, the path you are on is not a respecter of persons. It doesn’t care who you are or where you’re from. You see, the path you are on leads where it leads, regardless of your talent, your wealth, your physical appearance, or your social status. The best way to visualize this principle is to consider this question; when you meet someone who has achieved excellence and is leading a truly extraordinary life in all areas, how do you think this person’s life has come to pass? Do you believe it was an accident? Was it just a stroke of good fortune, he was really lucky? What we will always discover is that people are where they are in life as a result of a series of decisions, which together have formed the path leading to their present circumstances.

I had a man share with me that his son attended a football camp at the University of Alabama in the Summer of 2010. And, the previous football season, as you will recall, Mark Ingram had won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore. But during that camp that summer, a few of the boys were out on the field at 7 am, going through some drills. And, on the other side of the field, by himself, with a graduate assistant, was Mark Ingram, working on his receiving skills.

Now, I share this with you because what I want to tell you is that Mark Ingram clearly did not win the Heisman Trophy and become a first-round draft choice in the NFL because he was lucky, or because he was gifted with a lot of talent. You see, he got on a path that enabled him to develop his skills so that he could become an exceptional football player.

Now, on the other hand, when you see people floundering in their personal lives, quite often their stories reveal a pattern or path as well. It is amazing to me how we can deceive ourselves into thinking that life is simply a series of unrelated decisions and that somehow, we will just end up with lives of excellence. You see, “The Principal of the Path” is at work in your life every minute of every day. Right now, every single of us is on a physical health path, and it’s taking you in a specific direction. And, in all likelihood, this path will impact the length of your life, and the quality of your life, in old age.

Your marriage, if you’re married, is on a path right now. Your marriage is either growing or flourishing, or it’s atrophying. If you have children at home, like me, you’re on a child-rearing path. Our careers are on a certain path. We’re all on a financial path, a moral path, an intellectual path, a spiritual path. And, the paths that we are on always determines our destination. Always!

Which leads to a very important question that’s so baffling. Why is it that we choose paths that do not lead us in the direction of our intended hopes and dreams? Why are there such discrepancies between what we actually desire in our hearts, and what we end up doing with our lives? Why do people, so many of them, fritter away their talents and abilities?

Well, there are three primary reasons, and I want to share those with you because they’re so important to understand. It helps us understand ourselves. And, I would encourage you to be honest with yourself, and ask yourself the question, “Could any of this be true in my life?”
So, first, it’s crucial to understand that in the midst of decision making, listen clearly. Most people lean hard on their intentions and dreams but pay little attention to the actual paths they have chosen. Good intentions will not get you where you want to go. At the end of the day, it is the direction of the path, not one’s intentions, that will ultimately determine a person’s destination.

In the July 2010 Harvard Business Review, there was an article written by Clayton Christensen. Christensen was a Rhodes Scholar who attended Harvard Business School, and who currently teaches there. Listen to what he wrote in this article. He said,

“Over the years, I have watched the fates of my Harvard Business School classmates from 1979 unfold. I have seen more and more of them come to reunions, unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. I can guarantee that 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.”

I spoke to a father not long ago, who’s son had attended one of the large state universities here in the South. His son had been in a fraternity. And, he said during the four years that his son was in school, that six of his fraternity brothers had died, from either drug overdoses or alcohol asphyxiation. Six people in four years. You know, I thought of these promising young men as college freshmen. Each, I’m sure, had great hopes and dreams for the future. I imagine none of them had any intention of seeing their lives unexpectedly cut short. However, each of them chose a path that would eventually lead to their tragic and premature deaths.

You see, no one has the deliberate strategy to begin their adult life, only to end up with a wasted life. But this is what so often happens. You see, we all have good intentions for our lives, but at the end of the day, it is the direction of the path, not good intentions, which will ultimately determine our destination in this life.

Now, a second reason we don’t get on a path that leads to excellence is that modern people are not on a truth and wisdom quest, but a pleasure and happiness quest. Therefore, we’re so often guided by our feelings instead of using good judgment. You see, pleasurable feelings have a far greater power over our ability to reason.

I was reading about the life of English author and poet Oscar Wilde. He was considered, truly, to be one of the greatest writers England ever produced. And, yet, he squandered all that he had and died penniless. And, just before he died, he reflected on his life and he penned these 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.”

You see, Oscar Wilde truly desired to live a long, prosperous life, and to produce great literary work. The problem is, he also loved pleasure. And, in the end, as he put it himself,

“I allowed pleasure to dominate me, and I have ended in horrible disgrace.”

Oscar Wilde died a broken man at the age of 46. How tragic! And, yet, this happens so often.

Our family has a motto. It comes from a book that was written by two teenagers. And, that motto is, “Do hard things.” And, as I tell my children, the path that leads to a life of excellence is generally going to be difficult. But this is the key; if we persist going down difficult paths, over time, they become easier. Not because the nature of the task has changed, but our ability to do it increases.

A great example of this is my wife Holly. She’s in great shape, she exercises often. And, about a year and a half ago, she decided that she was going to start swimming. The problem is, she didn’t grow up swimming much. She never swam competitively, but this was a decision that she had made. And, she said the first couple of times she swam it was an awful experience. It was difficult, she swallowed large amounts of water. But she persisted. And, today, here we are a year and a half later, and she is an outstanding swimmer. But more significantly, her workouts are so much easier and so much more enjoyable.

I think John Piper said it best.

“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.”

So, a good question we should ask is, “Am I on a truth and wisdom quest? Or, is my life dominated by the love of pleasure and the pursuit of happy and good feelings?”

The significance of this hit home with me over 20 years ago when I heard these words from Jack Welch. Now, Jack Welch, I’m sure you’re familiar with it. He took General Electric, which was a dinosaur of a company, and transformed it into one of the great corporations in the world. And, he spoke of this one guiding principle in his approach to running GE. He said,

“The key trait of a vital, dynamic corporation is looking at reality, looking the truth, in the eye, straight in the eye, and then acting upon it with as much speed as possible.”

You see, Welch believed that if you love the truth, you will run straight towards your problems. You’ll run straight towards the important issues of life as fast as you can. But again, most modern people don’t do this because they’re on a pleasure, happiness, and feel-good quest.
So, I think it is critical for each of us to ask this question, “Am I on a truth and wisdom quest or a pleasure and feel-good quest?” Because these two pursuits will almost always lead us in opposite directions.

Now, a third and final reason that people don’t get on a path that leads to excellence is that we would much rather find shortcuts than doing the hard and difficult work. As I said a little earlier, life is governed by certain principals. But often to live in harmony with those principals is difficult, it’s hard! So, what do we do? We look for shortcuts. We think we can do this through easy techniques and formulas. I mean, go into a large bookstore. Go into the self-help section. You’ll see books like Seven Easy Steps to Double Your Sales. Five Simple Steps for a Perfect Marriage, for a stress-free life.

Just recently, I was listening to CNBC, and they had on a commercial. This is what the commercial says, “We will provide you with easy stock-trading techniques that will make you millions.” Notice, they’re always easy steps. You see, in today’s world, if you have a problem, there’s always going to be somebody out there who has a formula to enable you to easily overcome your problems.

I was reading a book by Dr. Rick Jensen, who’s a sports psychologist, who works with professional golfers. In fact, some of his clients are some of the great players in the world. But he says, what he finds is that even professional golfers are always looking for some kind of “quick, swing fix or putting cure.” Jensen says,

“They want a quick fix that will cure that 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 and 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. In reality, there is an art to living. In order to make progress on the important and meaningful objectives of life, steady plodding along the right path is required. Steady, patient, and often unexciting steps are the most effective way to make significant progress in life. This doesn’t have much appeal, obviously, to people in an instant gratification society.”

You see, this is so important to understand, that excellence is not a door that one cannot easily walk through and find instant results. A life of excellence is a long, patient quest that does not come quickly.

A great example of this is English minister William Carey. He described himself as a successful plodder. In spite of little formal education, by his teenage years, Carey could read in six different languages. Because of his linguistic skills, he was chosen for an important missionary position in India, and later became Professor of Oriental Languages at Fort William College in Calcutta. He also founded his own publishing company, which printed Bibles in 40 different languages and dialects and were distributed to more than 300 million people. When Carey was asked how he was able to accomplish so much, he replied that he was “a good plodder.” In his own words, he said,

“Anything beyond this will be too much. I can plod. This is my only genius. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this, I owe everything.”

I will say it again. There is an art to living, and it is not a quick and easy formula. The final outcome of our lives is determined by the paths we go down. And, every path has an ultimate, predictable destination.

Now, I realize that I’ve spent a great deal of time on this one principal, “The Principal of the Path.” But I think you see how crucial it is that we grasp this.

The second principle and I’m not going to spend near as much time on, is also very crucial. And, to introduce it, I want to share with you a thought from author John Maxwell. Maxwell says this, I’m going to read this to you twice. He says,

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

And, that’s what the second principle is all about. It’s called “The Vector Principal.”

I read about this in a book called LifeFocus by Jerry Foster. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that term, vector, but vector is a term in 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 the heading on the compass, creating a new vector angle. Obviously, even the smallest 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 could make a tiny vector change while flying between New York and Seattle and end up in Los Angeles instead.

“The Vector Principal” applies to our lives in the same manner. Even if you never fly an airplane, you are vectoring through life by the choices that 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 same time but listen to this. But small changes make a big difference over time. Did you hear that? Small changes make a big difference over time.

You may be familiar with Nido Qubein, a very prominent business consultant, a college president. He said this,

“One of the greatest reasons people cannot mobilize themselves is that they are always dreaming of some grand accomplishment that they hope one day will come to pass. But most worthwhile achievements are the result of many little things done in a single strategic direction.”

Another way of putting this as it relates to “The Vector Principal,” small changes in a strategic direction make a big difference over time.

In Donald Phillips’ book about Abraham Lincoln, titled Lincoln on Leadership. He described how President Lincoln approached the Civil War, his strategy. He says,

“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. Early in the war, he established such strategic objectives as blockading key Southern ports, gaining control of the Mississippi River, rebuilding, and training the military. Throughout the war, he concentrated on defeating Lee’s army, as opposed to the capture of the Confederate capital. And, he took one battle at a time, rather than trying to win them all at once.”

As I look back over my own life, the most significant change I made 35 years ago was that I decided to start getting up between 5:00 and 5:15 am during the workweek. And, it’s a permanent habit in my life now. And, what this has done, it’s enabled me to create more time for purposeful use. And, so now, every year, usually at the first of the year, I seek to make several small changes in the most important areas of my life, with the hopes that they will become permanent, that they’ll become second-nature. And, what I find is that if I focus on a few small changes, and they come to pass, they create momentum, which impacts other areas of my life. You could say there’ almost a ripple effect, or a compounding effect, as time goes by.

Which leads me to the third and final principle. I call it “The Daffodil Principle.” It’s a wonderful little story about a woman named Carolyn, who desperately wants her elderly mother to go and see this beautiful daffodil meadow, and the mother doesn’t want to go. And, finally, she tricks her into going.

“After about 20 minutes,” Carolyn said, “we turned onto a small gravel road, and I saw a small church. On the far side of the church, I saw a hand-lettered sign that read ‘Daffodil Garden.’ We got out of the car, and each took a child’s hand, and I followed Carolyn down the path. Then, we turned a corner of the path, and I looked up and I gasped! Before me lay the most glorious sight. It looked as though someone had taken a great vat of gold and poured it down over the mountain peak and slopes. The flowers were planted in majestic swirling patterns. Great ribbons in shades of deep orange, white, lemon yellow, salmon pink, saffron, and butter yellow. Each different-colored variety was planted as a group, so it swirled and flowed like its own river, with its own unique hue. There were five acres of flowers. ‘But who has done this,” I asked Carolyn. ‘Oh, it’s just one woman.’ Carolyn answered. ‘She lives on the property. That’s her home.’ Carolyn pointed to a well-kept a-frame home that looked small and modest in the midst of all that glory. We walked up to the house, and on the patio, we saw a poster. ‘Answers to the questions I know you’re asking,’ was the headline. The first answer was a simple one. ‘50,000 bulbs,’ it read. The second answer was, ‘One at a time, by one woman, two hands, two feet, and a very little brain.’ The third answer was, ’Began in 1968.”

“There it was. “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 the world. This unknown woman had forever changed the world in which she lived, and she had created something of indescribable magnificence, beauty, and inspiration. The principle her daffodil garden taught is one of the greatest principals of celebration. That is, learning to move towards 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 we can accomplish magnificent things. We can change the world. ‘It makes me sad, in a way,’ I admitted to Carolyn, ‘what I might have had accomplished if I had thought of some wonderful goal 35 or 40 years ago, and had worked away at it, one bulb at a time, through 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’s. 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, how can you change the course of your life? How do you achieve a life of excellence? Well, learn to use the accumulation of time. Multiply tiny pieces of time with small increments of daily effort, and you can accomplish magnificent things. You can find that life of excellence. But this is what’s so crucial to remember; the most important areas of your life require regular deposits of time as the years go by. And, if these opportunities are missed, they are lost forever.

So, I challenge you with these parting words. Since your final destiny has yet to be determined, why not live, from this day forward, an exceptional life, and leave a lasting legacy behind?

You’ve been a great audience. Thank you so much for your time.

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


Add grace and understanding to your day with words from Richard E. Simmons III in your inbox. Sign-up for weekly email with the latest blog post, podcast, and quote.

Fill out the form to receive wisdom in your inbox from Richard E. Simmons III.