04 Aug 2016 17:08 IST

Good is the enemy of great

Going from good to great takes commitment — a willingness to pay the price. But the view from the mountain must be worth the climb.

When we set out to climb a mountain, let’s not be happy settling down in the valley

Recently, Bajaj Cute, the company’s first quadricycle, failed the Euro NCAP test. Against a maximum 5-star rating, it received a single star. For the passenger sitting in this vehicle facing a crash, it would mean a trip to the ICU or worse, the morgue.

The company’s response to this information was intriguing, to say the least — it said it was delighted with the rating. And said it “matched the (one) star rating of European quadricycles such as the Axiam Crossover, and also exceeded the 0-star rating of others including the Ligier IXO JS.”

Bajaj sorely missed the point.

Jim Collins put it well when he said, “Good is the enemy of great”. When individuals and organisations are happy with ‘good enough’, they might never be able to scale the peak of greatness they are capable of.

Mediocre success

In the land of the blind, a one-eyed man is king. When we achieve ‘success’ in a mediocre company, we are akin to the one-eyed king. We delude ourselves into believing that we have achieved greatness, that we are stars. We look around to find that we are better than a fellow student or a colleague, and tell ourselves, “we have arrived”.

A great example of such blindness was when Indian companies and industrial groups operated under the protective blanket of a closed market. Many described themselves as market leaders and innovators.

But with liberalisation, the market opened up and ‘leaders’ were exposed as laggards. The once ubiquitous Ambassador car is a rarity on the roads today; HMT watches do not gleam from too many wrists. Dyanora, Onida and Solidaire TVs, once most sought-after brands, have faded from memory. None of them could survive the onslaught of tough competition.

Some companies, though, welcomed the opening of the market and used it to drive innovation and transformation. These firms have thrived.

We too must be alert for the danger signs of complacency, of performance in a comfort zone that lulls us into a false sense of success.

Excellence for itself

But here’s a caveat. When we strive for ‘great’, we often get into a zone of comparison — we become victims of a craze for ranking that lures companies, colleges, and even individuals, despite it being more harmful than helpful. The merit of such rankings is suspect.

Those who are sold on the idea of rankings treat them as a destination in itself and often make compromises or resort to short cuts, to gain the coveted spot.

But when we follow this path, we become like the drunk using a lamp post — for support rather than illumination. Sometimes, by benchmarking against the wrong standards, we can short-change ourselves by joining those who describe such ranking as a feat. Someone described a sports team that fell under this spell aptly when he said: ‘They were hitting the top without reaching their heights’. In effect, we pass such milestones without tapping into our fullest potential.

Comparison with ourselves

We need not burden ourselves with achieving perfection. That path can often lead to frustration and an unhealthy obsession. It is better to define standards of excellence in our field that help us, our team-mates, and customers.

American gymnast Simone Biles gets the right angle: “I’m my biggest critic. If I bobble just once on the beam, I get really down on myself. I know I can do better. We can get as close to perfection as possible but it’s never going to be perfect.” She challenges her potential because she is competing against herself in her quest for Olympic glory.

Such an attitude helps us strive not to achieve public acclaim or recognition but to strive for excellence in itself — to make it a part of ourselves.

As a part of us

We recognise that the reward is what we gain out of the journey itself, what it develops in us — the strengths it uncovers and the skills it hones. That was one of the characteristics that Steve Jobs displayed when he asked his team to ensure that even the inside of his Mac — parts that a customer would never see — had to be outstanding.

That is the same attitude we should imbibe during a case study analysis, a project submission, or a study of a key business subject. Will we aspire to step over low benchmarks, fulfil the minimum expectations of a professor, or are we prepared to set our own higher standards of excellence and pursue them?

Marathon vs. sprinting

The other characteristic that separates the good from the great is the ability to sustain excellence over time.

Time sifts the wheat from the chaff. It is possible for most people to achieve a standard of excellence for a brief while, but it takes greatness to sustain that through different environments, unusual people situations and a variety of challenges. Consistency matters. It separates people who are conviction-driven from those who perform when convenient.

Stamina over speed

There is no point in sparkling brilliantly at one time and sputtering out at another. Sachin Tendulkar in cricket and Roger Federer in tennis have shown they can perform against a variety of opponents, across venues, in different conditions and win under different game situations. Their stamina is valued over speed.

We need to build the same quality as we prepare to enter the work world.

Going from good to great takes commitment — a willingness to pay the price. But it begins with choosing what greatness we aspire towards. The view from the mountain must be worth the climb, and so, we must choose our mountains carefully to give us both mission and meaning.

I remember at a conference, when participants were introducing themselves, one man spoke about his achievement of getting to base camp at Mount Everest. The tragedy of his tale was not that he did not reach the peak but he thought that reaching base camp was his big achievement.

That is a lesson we ought to remember as we begin our personal and professional journeys — when we set out to climb a mountain, let’s not be happy settling down in the valley.

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