Excellence is something that requires effort and dedication, not something that is achieved overnight. It is an ongoing process of consistency and hard work. Will Durant famously said,
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is a not an act, but a habit.Will Durant
Excellence is a habit that must be cultivated, rather than a destination that is reached and then forgotten. To become excellent, one must learn to be consistent, persistent, and diligent in their efforts. Excellence is not an achievement that is acquired quickly, but instead is something that must be built upon over time.
The Problem with Goals
We have all been taught many times over that goals are important, but goals are not the ultimate key to success. A goal is meant to provide a sense of direction or something to strive for. However, if you count on goals to reach and maintain a peak level of success or excellence, you are liable to end up like the proverbial dog chasing a car with no idea what he would do with it if he actually caught it.
In his famous book Atomic Habits, James Clear argues Durant’s case. Clear says in his book that systems are more important than goals and that you can achieve success by having good systems while ignoring goals. As you can probably put together from the title of the book, Clear’s “systems” are made up of good habits designed to make you a little bit better every day. The purpose of his book is to demonstrate how habits can create consistent growth and steady improvement over time to achieve your goals or even completely surpass them without leaving you feeling disappointed after reaching some arbitrary milestone. Let’s think through this premise a bit with an example.
Consider the goal of becoming a millionaire. Imagine working really hard for a long time and finally achieving that goal. What do you do when you have acquired all that money? What’s the point of continuing on your journey of financial gain if you have accomplished what you set out to do? Are you really content with being a millionaire, or are you just going to create a new goal to entertain yourself, such as becoming a billionaire? And what do you do when you reach that goal? Are you finally going to be content, or will the cycle continue? When is enough enough?
Whatever you decide to do about your finances, you will still need to come up with some new goal to keep yourself occupied at some point because retiring to a tropical island and spending your days in a hammock on the beach is going to get pretty boring after a week or two. We all know at least a few people who have retired comfortably only to go stir crazy and end up returning to work or starting a new project to keep themselves busy. They caught their car, and they didn’t know what to do with it. Goals can’t be our ultimate motivation. Once a goal is reached and the temporary high of success is over, we are left with no clear direction.
The Benefit of Habits
Now instead of aiming to become a millionaire, imagine that you have no end goal for your finances. Instead, your only goal is to maintain good financial habits. Now there is no final destination and no arbitrary number in your head that you have to reach. Your goal is not some final destination but is instead the maintenance of an ongoing process. And your finances will still be in great shape despite the lack of a lofty goal to shoot for. You will still be well on your way to becoming a millionaire thanks to your consistent financial habits, but now it does not matter if you ever reach a certain number or completely surpass it because there is no destination.
When you focus on maintaining good habits, your goal shifts from reaching a single event that will inevitably be underwhelming to being the ongoing maintenance of excellence, whatever that may mean for you. You can still have and achieve your goal, but your long-term satisfaction is no longer completely dependent on achieving that goal. Whether you reach that goal or not, your primary focus is still on maintaining excellent habits, which never have to go away.
So remember, goals are great, but habits are more important. Whether or not your habits take you to some lofty conclusion, they will still keep you on a consistent path of constant growth and improvement. A goal in and of itself does not accomplish that consistency and in most cases will not provide the satisfaction you were hoping for in the long term. Set goals to provide some direction and something to strive for but remember that there is really no final destination. No one ever “arrives” in life. There is always more to be achieved beyond any goal, but consistent habits can keep you moving forward indefinitely while also helping you reach goals and milestones along the way.
Indeed, setting and achieving goals only creates a rollercoaster of highs (when one has reached the goal) and lows (when one is neurotically striving to reach it). Cultivating good and consistent habits that are disconnected from achieving a particular high definitely leads to a better quality of life
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Good habits certainly make life more manageable. I wish I had had this mindset as a student. 😆
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I wish I had done the same 😉