If You Want Excellence, You’re on Your Own


(Note: This is part 3 in a series of posts about achieving excellence. If you want some context for the whole thing, you might want to start out with part 1)

So far in the series, we’ve talked about how excellence can never come from reason, and how a certain degree of risk is essential in the pursuit of excellence.

But reaching excellence isn’t all about taking risks and being unreasonable. There’s also one major obstacle that needs to be overcome – an obstacle that tends to be the one thing separating the excellent from the mediocre.

That obstacle is learning to get by without the support of the world around you.

Let me explain.

Throughout our lives, we’ve depended heavily on the support of the rest of the world. We depend on others to teach us how everything works, to show us how to get a job, to help us get good at the things we suck at, to show us how to buy a car, find a partner and do our dishes, and to help us stay healthy and in shape.

We depend on these external support systems to help us do just about everything we do.

Unfortunately, these support systems only exist up to a certain point; mediocrity. Once we’ve reached that point, the majority of this support will seize to exist – and in order for us to keep going, we’ll be more or less on our own.

Your teacher will help you pass the test, but if you want to learn more, you’re on your own. Society will help you find a job – but if you want to start your own business and get filthy rich, you’re on your own. And your friends will support you in losing weight and reaching an average level of fitness, but if you want to get into better shape than them, you’re on your own.

This is where we’ve reached a magic threshold that separates the mediocre from the excellent. It’s the point where we’re forced to stop relying on support from the world around us, and start depending on ourselves to keep going.

Unfortunately, this is not an easy thing to do, seeing how.. 

We’ve Grown Addicted to External Support Systems

Despite all our awesomeness as a species, we humans have one major flaw; we’re completely useless during the first stages of our lives. We can’t communicate, we can’t feed ourselves, and we certainly can’t stay out of trouble. All we can do is scream, flail our arms and shit ourselves.

Naturally, this makes us heavily dependent on the support of those around us to be able to do just about anything.

Even as the years pass, and we actually become capable of doing shit ourselves, we continue to lean heavily on the support of the rest of the world.

Now don’t get me wrong, this is a great thing. We need this social support to shape us into somewhat functional members of society at a time when we have no idea how to do that for ourselves.

Unfortunately, this also comes with the side effect of us growing completely dependent on these external support systems. We get used to there always being a step-by-step guide to overcoming the problems we face, and that we’re never on our own when it comes to figuring things out.

All of this is of course great for the average Joe who is perfectly fine with living his life at a mediocre level. It’s only when we start to turn our gaze beyond mediocrity that we start to run into problems.

You see..

Social Support Systems Only Exist up to a Certain Level

Let’s say you’re a little pudgy, and you decide to lose weight. You tell your friends about your plans, and maybe even ask them to support you in your effort.

Odds are, they’re going to trip over themselves in their eagerness to help you out with anything from dieting advice to being your training partner. We as a species just love helping other people improve themselves. The social support system for this is superb.

Well, up to the average level, that is.

Let’s say that instead of being a little on the heavy side, your body is perfectly average as it is. And instead of losing weight, you decide you want to build some muscle and sculpt that body of yours into perfection.

Only this time, the people around you won’t react with nearly as much enthusiasm. All you’re likely to get is a semi-disinterested “Cool. Good luck!”

Your friends probably won’t go to any great lengths to help you with this goal. Hell, they might even try to make it more difficult for you by making fun of your new diet or workout regime, or by trying to persuade you to return to a more unhealthy lifestyle.

This is a perfect example of the general “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude of our society. We all tend to go out of our way to help someone go from shitty to mediocre, but if someone is already at an average level, he won’t find much support to help him reach much higher than that.

This is a principle that holds true for virtually every area of life. It’s the below-average student that gets the most support in school. It’s the worst-performing department of a company that gets sent on training. It’s the unemployed who gets the coaching to become more appealing on the job market.

As long as these people remain on a sub-par level, there will be support systems to help bring them up to mediocrity.

And again, this is all absolutely awesome if your goal in life is simply to not suck so bad. You’ll have all the help in the world to bring you up to an average level in almost any area of life.

But if your plan happens to involve reaching higher than mediocrity, you’re going to run into some trouble.

The Terror of Losing This External Support

To summarize the above, we can draw two firm conclusions;

  1. We’ve grown completely dependent on external support systems. Thanks to this never-ending supply of external support, we’ve never been forced to rely entirely on ourselves to achieve anything. There has just always been some kind of system in place to get us where we need to go – and we’ve grown to rely on things always being this way.
  2. These external support systems will only bring us to a certain point. As useful as these systems are, they almost exclusively tend to focus on bringing the bad up to decent. There just isn’t a lot of support to be gained if you want to keep going from good to great.

This leads us to one final conclusion; in order to make it past the average level and reach excellence, we’ll have to do so on our own.

And that scares us shitless.

Most of us would much rather stay well within the realm of the mediocre – where we can enjoy all the social support we want – than venture into the unknown entirely on our own.

We’d rather stay somewhat out of shape, and receive a daily dose of “doing great, we believe in you!” than fight to build the body of a Greek God all on our own. And it’s definitely more comfortable to aim for a normal job, where the entire society will push you to succeed, than to go beyond it and try to work for yourself.

It’s just so much easier to stop at mediocrity instead of reaching for excellence. We’re simply too afraid to keep going without those external support systems that we’ve grown so used to.

Which brings us back to that magic threshold, where we find ourselves with two options;

  1. Stop at a comfortably mediocre level and keep enjoying the benefits of external support systems, or
  2. Develop an internal support system that can keep you going without relying on the support of the rest of the world.

Developing a Strong Internal Support System

If we take a look at any of the great entrepreneurs in the world – really anyone who can be considered to have reached excellence in one form or another – we’ll find that they’ve diverged from our social support systems at some point in their lives.

These people just have a tendency to throw the rulebook of life out the window.

They’ve usually turned away from the conventional advice and wisdom of society, a disproportionately large amount of them have dropped out of school, and virtually all of them have said no thanks to the usual process of getting a normal job.

This raises an interesting question; how are these people able to do all the great things they do without the support systems that most of us have relied on for our very survival since before we could stand upright?

I believe the answer is simple.

These people have managed to replace their need for these social support systems by developing a strong internal support system. They’ve learned to depend on themselves for motivation and guidance, as well as for finding their own solutions to the problems they face.

This allows them to climb past the mediocre point where most people stop, and keep going even when there are no external support structures in place whatsoever.

I believe this is the key for anyone who wants a shot at reaching excellence. Because by choosing to go past the point of mediocrity, you’re going to be on your own – and you need to learn how to deal with that.

We’ll dig deeper into developing this kind of internal support system in part 4: Excellence Beyond Social Support.

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