The Difference Between Success and Excellence

Most people believe success and excellence are interchangeable terms. After all, if I’m successful I’m excellent, right? Not so fast…

Results Versus Potential

Success is an absolute term. If you are the highest producing salesperson, win the game, or beat the earnings forecast, you are successful. Success in the performance world is about achieving outcomes better than others by comparison.

Excellence, on the other hand, is a relative term. It is about maximizing your personal and organizational potential. If you are the highest producing salesperson but could have sold more, you have not fulfilled your sales potential. If you win the game but didn’t give 100% effort on every play, you have not fulfilled your athletic potential. If you beat the earnings forecast but left some organizational profit on the table, you have not fulfilled your company potential. Excellence is about fulfilling potential rather than meeting a number or winning a contest.

The Star Salesperson Example

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a real estate agent is $59,630 (most recently posted online in 2017). Let’s say a particular agent earned $100,000 last year. Would she be excellent? After all, she outperformed the average agent by almost 68%. Sounds pretty excellent, right?

Well, maybe. If the agent honestly reflects on her year and determines she established a process to become excellent, followed that process, and adjusted as necessary along the way, I would consider her performance excellent. I’ve outlined these steps in a three-part blog, beginning with Process, Discipline, and Focus. And, by the way, she would also be considered successful because she outperformed the vast majority of her peers.

On the other hand, let’s say the agent had a few big sales early in the year that produced large commissions. She then decided to enjoy the fruits of her labor a bit too long, rather than celebrating briefly but then quickly returning to her process. She allowed her success to lead to complacency.  She would still be considered successful based on her absolute performance. She would likely be viewed as a star in the office and maybe even win awards from her sales manager. But she would not be excellent because she did not achieve her full potential that year.

You Are in Control

If you can truly grasp the concept of absolute versus relative performance, it results in an empowering sense of freedom. You are no longer captive to numbers, results, and comparison to other people. You are motivated by achieving your potential rather than meeting an arbitrary standard set by others.

Of course, your absolute performance still matters. In any performance-driven occupation you will be shown the door if you do not deliver results. But how you achieve results will determine your consistency, longevity, value to your organization, and personal well-being. By committing to an internally-driven process of fulfilling your potential, you remove the anxiety of worrying about things you cannot control. I have never worked with any individual who was truly committed to excellence who was not also successful.

Values Matter

The pursuit of success versus excellence often leads to an approach with the ends justifying the means. When success is a consuming motivation, people often do whatever it takes to achieve it. There are a host of reasons this occurs, but it usually boils down to an individual lacking true self-worth. Their value and self-esteem become determined by what they achieve rather than how they achieve it. The sad reality of this approach is that whatever one achieves is never enough to fill the internal vacuum. Success becomes a bit like a Ponzi scheme. You have to keep bringing more of it in to remain afloat.

A commitment to excellence involves incorporating personal values into how you achieve success. You understand that your self-worth will remain intact regardless of the ebbs and flows that occur in all performance domains. You are confident in the process of excellence you establish and also willing to adjust if the results indicate something is missing in your approach. When you experience the valleys we all encounter, you take it in stride rather than madly scrambling for a short-term fix that inevitably creates long-term disaster.

If you are excellent, you will be successful. But you can be successful without being excellent. Commit to excellence–it’s more meaningful. And, by the way, it’s also more fun!


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