Why Aren’t More People Excellent?

Bell Curve

The Bell Curve Theory of Life

Most of us are familiar with the bell curve. Statistically, on many characteristics (such as height) people fall along a continuum. Most are near the average and very few are exceptional at both ends. There are lots of 5’9″ males and not very many 5’1″ or 7’1″ men in the world.

In my younger days, I found myself often becoming frustrated and disappointed when people did not perform well. When I engaged a doctor, lawyer, auto mechanic, or painter I expected them to apply a high level of professionalism and performance. So when I took my car back for the third time to fix the same problem, I got frustrated. When the physician attempted to fit me into the 3.5 minutes allotted to my appointment, I got frustrated. When the attorney asked his partner to join my consultation to generate additional fees versus a genuine need for additional expertise, I got frustrated. When the car dealership always found $1,000.00 worth of repairs separate from the reason I brought my vehicle in, I got frustrated.

As I reflected on this over the years, it struck me that people are distributed along the performance bell curve. Once I realized the vast majority fall around the average range or below, I understood why I was having so many frustrating experiences. Now, when I encounter average or poor performance I understand it will likely be the norm—therefore it no longer frustrates me. I simply know that it requires a longer period of time to find individuals I choose to deal with in my personal and professional lives. This led me to adopt my personal bell curve theory of life. I no longer assume high levels of competence, or other qualities I value, merely because someone has an advanced degree, an esteemed profession, or even a good reputation. Regardless of occupation, people do not have to be excellent in order to be successful. Success is about achieving a specific outcome better than other people or other organizations. Sustainable excellence is about maximizing our potential on a consistent basis.

Why Be Mediocre?

There are two reasons most people are not at the upper end of the bell curve in whatever they choose to pursue in life. The first is that it’s easier not to be. Sustainable excellence requires consistent effort, focus, and discipline. Sustainably excellent people are always looking for ways to improve–regardless of their current level of success. Many people who achieve success celebrate, congratulate themselves, and bask in the glow of a recent accomplishment.

I’m Doing Just Fine Thank You

The second reason more people do not fall at the upper end of the performance bell curve is that you can get along quite well in life living in the middle. You do not have to be excellent to have a stable job, make a nice income, and live in the suburbs with your partner and kids (nothing against folks living in the suburbs!). For many people, this would be the good life. Most people do not challenge themselves to be their best and also do not expect it from others in their lives.

Realism or Cynicism?

You might be thinking my bell curve theory of life is a rather pessimistic view. I am reminded of the George Bernard Shaw quote, “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.” In fact, this theory is realistic rather than pessimistic. Once I realized the majority of individuals were not motivated to be excellent, I stopped getting so frustrated when I had mediocre, or worse, experiences with individuals or organizations. I now accept the fact that it will take more time to find the physician, dentist, mechanic, consultant, or friend I want to associate with. However, when I do find them I value the relationships much more because I appreciate that they want to do things the right way. Of course, we all fall short at times, evidenced by the adage that excellence is achievable but perfection is not. However, the pursuit of sustainable excellence in our lives is a joyful and rewarding journey. In the words of Vince Lombardi, “the quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.”

Life is too short to run with the pack in the middle of the curve. Make the decision to be excellent in your personal and professional lives. It’s much more fun to be around people who truly care than those who are just getting by!

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