I've never been a stickler for details. A quick glance at my handwriting, the incomplete nature of my homework growing up, or my ill-fated attempts at artistic expression would make this obvious. "That seems good enough" has been my mantra for a huge percentage of my life, and most of the time I was right. I typically do things until they are good enough to just squeak by whoever is reviewing them and no better. Some might call that lazy. Some might call that efficient. I'm not sure what I'd call it, but I probably wouldn't call it excellence. Over the past three years I've been involved with two different things that have started to change my attitude about excellence.
The first thing was my graduate research. Working in engineering research at the University of Illinois (UIUC) puts you shoulder to shoulder with some of the smartest people in mechanical engineering in the world. The professors and graduate students that I interacted with while I was at UIUC were always striving for excellence. My research group in particular was driven toward perfection by our advisor. He was always pushing us to produce better quality work, and it was obvious that he knew what he was doing. Our group consisted of several national fellowship recipients, award winners, and widely published post-docs. Meetings with my advisor were typically hard for me, but I grew more because of those interactions than I have from any other person I have ever worked for before or since. There is almost no comparison between the quality of the work I did at the start of my graduate career and the end of it. I easily packed several years of professional development into just 24 months thanks to my advisor. I would have grown more if I hadn't been distracted with the second thing that has changed my mind about excellence: my startup.
Working at a startup highlights individual contributions. A single person can have a tremendous impact on the quality of the product that the company creates - both for the good and for the bad. Working in a startup environment helped me see that "good enough" isn't all it is cracked up to be. Potential customers and users expect so much more out of their products than "good enough" when you are offering a new product. The crappy work that I did on certain parts of the business negatively impacted our ability to grow in different ways, but at the same time the areas that I strove for perfection in were some of the things that users loved the most about the product. The cause and effect feedback loop for a startup was much tighter than any other place I had ever worked. It's exhilarating when you are hitting the right notes and seeing success and crushing when you are failing and watching things tailspin out of control.
Both of these experiences have made me value excellence much more in my personal and professional life. I've learned that effort and intention don't matter as much as excellence when it comes to products. It doesn't matter how hard you try or how much you want the product to be great if it isn't actually great. Excellence isn't enough to win in the marketplace, but you probably won't succeed without it for very long.
I have a long way to go before I can reach a consistent level of excellence in everything. This blog is an attempt to create a place where I can hone my writing ability. Soon I'd like to run a few other things on the side that I can use to practice other things that I want to excel at in the future. I'm looking forward to improving other parts of my professional repertoire over the next few years so that I can hit the expectations that I have for myself.