I was sitting on a flight recently watching a funny flick called name of “For a Good Time..Call” when at the end when the credits were rolling the director’s name, “Jamie Travis” came across the screen. I had a high school friend with the same name that I had heard was climbing the ranks in the film world starting with a movie of his getting picked up at the famous Sundance Film Festival, and wondered if this could be my high school classmate. Sure enough, when I got off the flight I googled him, and it was indeed Jamie Travis, Class of 1997 Handsworth Secondary, North Vancouver.

I started thinking about the people that were a part of that high school graduating class, a public school with 265 kids in my grade, at the foot of a mountain in a suburb of Vancouver, and how many people have pursued their passion to a truly impressive level of excellence.

Just an example of some of the diverse accomplishments of my high school classmates (I’m proud of them, don’t mind me)

-Hollywood movie producer (see above)

-General manager of the top ranked restaurant in Canada

-Music producer for Carly Rae Jepsen that featured her hit song “Call Me Maybe”

-Owner of one of the most well-known bakeries in Vancouver

-Travel blogger who features on major travel websites and on TV as a travel expert

-Nurse turned painter who features in local art shows

-Musician that is playing for a living in Nashville and has been nominated for Canada Country Awards

This is just a taste of the greatness that were the group of kids I was privileged enough to grow up around. In fact everyone that I hear about through the grapevine, are all doing really interesting things and pursuing excellence in their own ways. As my buddy Mike said today, when we were talking about the exploits of our friends, you could have predicted what everyone would be doing, based on what the activities were obsessed with in high school.

So it got me thinking. What are the key ingredients of excellence? How do we climb to a level that we can go to bed knowing we’ve given life our best, and inspire those around us to do the same.

This is what I’ve come up with. Without these things, no matter how much our internal desire, excellence is tough to find.

1.    Passion

For me, for whatever reason, soccer has been my obsession since I was in elementary school. I identified it early as “my sport” and put my heart and soul into it from that time on. My friend Mike said it best today when we were musing at the accomplishments of our friends; you could have looked at how we were all spending our time in high school, and we all followed what we loved, no matter how off the beaten the track our passions were.

That, I think is really cool in of itself, since I know from experience just sticking to your passion is a really hard thing to do, when the whole world is trying to convince you that 9-5 is where it’s at (and I’m all for 9-5 if that’s what makes your heart beat and makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning.) Sometimes finding our passion is the hard part, but if we all step back for a moment and think about what makes our heart sing, and the hairs on our arms stand up, that my friends, is where your passion lies.

Passion is what makes you want to put the hundreds of thousands of hours into a pursuit that are necessary to achieve excellence.

2.    Drive

A few years ago, I met a good friend for coffee. We had played soccer together on the Provincial Teams through middle and high school, and again had an incredibly accomplished group of friends from our BC team that had gone on to be college All-Americans, won National Championships and had gone on to represent Canada at the youth and senior international levels.

She was going through something really hard at the time, and although I never thought of my friendships with my Provincial team teammates as shallow (many of us are still close friends into our 30’s), I learned about some really hard things going on in her life in high school, and shared some of my own experiences with how I was processing my mom’s illness, which she had no idea about. We started going through our friends that we played with, and realized that we were all driven by something. Not all necessarily were family tragedies, but there were girls who had single moms who gave up everything for them to be able to play, others who had issues within their own families, and some who just came from families that somehow imparted a strong internal drive and standard.

Because of this drive that was similar, despite coming from different sources, we didn’t take our opportunities in soccer for granted and our commonality was a drive within us to maximize the talents that we had been given.

Drive comes in all forms, but it is the lighter that ignites the flame of passion.

3.    Culture of Expectations and High Standards

Looking at the accomplishments of my high school classmates, we were led by a community of parents that believed in hard work, and celebrated each other’s accomplishments. In an age of cut throat competition, I feel grateful that I always remember feeling that people in my school community, and the parents of others were genuinely happy for my accomplishments in the same way that my family were happy and proud of theirs.

We encouraged each other in our own pursuits and came from a culture that strove to make the most of what we had been given, and to try and be our best in whatever discipline we chose. We were surrounded by people encouraging excellence in the raw pursuit of our own desires and gained inspiration from those around us.

You need to be able to shown the top of the mountain to have any inkling to find the path to get there. Having a bunch of people to share the pursuit with, took away the loneliness of having to go at it alone and made me want to climb, knowing that’s where all the company lay.

4.    Mentors/Good Teachers

In order to reach the top we need teachers, people that can show us what we need to do to get there.

I used to joke (being completely serious) that I had to spend from 13 years old on trying to play catch up in soccer. My completely adorable Dad was my coach from when I was 7-13, and was your typical well-meaning parent volunteer. This meant he was awesome and put time in to allow us to have someone at practice, but knew very little about how to teach soccer or anything about playing the game at a high level. Which may explain why I was still toe punting the ball at age 13, but that’s a whole other story.

Growing up in the pre youtube era, going to the local library or getting a hold of a VHS tape (I remember getting a copy of the 1996 NCAA Final and feeling like I had won the lottery), was about as close as you were going to get to try and learn on your own if you weren’t lucky enough to have a teacher in front of you.

In this day and age there is no excuse as the internet makes learning a lot more accessible, but still nothing beats a teacher that can help you know what excellence looks like and what you need to do to reach it.

 5.    Opportunity

One of my good friends is playing in the new US pro league and mentioned to me how it was such a privilege to play with teammates who had qualities that were “special” and “better” than others, in order to get to the top level.

The irony of the comment was I had spent that weekend with a friend who was a very talented Division 1 player, who didn’t have guidance in picking NCAA schools and ended up at a school that was far below her capabilities. Furthermore, the professional opportunities that she was presented after college had been hampered as she had chosen to care for a sick parent, and she was no longer playing.

It also got me thinking about my time at Yale, and the speech the president gave our first week at school as freshman about how “special” we were. Sure, I thought at the time, we all were hard working and talented, but so were a lot of other, just as worthy people out there. Instead of patting ourselves on the back, even back then I had an overpowering emotion that I felt like we should be focusing on our gratitude for being lucky enough to be in the position we were in, instead of thinking we were inherently better than others, because quite frankly, we weren’t nor aren’t.

Simply, without opportunity, people don’t get a chance to showcase their ability. That is as crucial as the ability itself, and it’s not a given.

Therefore, without opportunity, passion and drive can be extinguished before they get a chance to burn. Instead of looking at “making it” from society’s perspective as something that makes us special, I’d argue that we should focus instead on gratitude on being in a position of privilege. How we can show our appreciation for this privilege is through giving back, making sure as many people as possible get the opportunity to let their own light shine.

 ———————

To close, I want to make the point that success is different to excellence, although sometimes the two get intertwined.

Success is an artificial standard given to us by society, while excellence is doing the best with what we’ve been given, to our own internal satisfaction.

Personally, I’ve been going through a bit of a phase where I’m craving excellence even more, and feeling like I’m fighting against an epidemic in our easy western culture, which is mediocrity. I believe mediocrity is a product of getting too comfortable. This desire to truly pursue excellence, in my case comes with slowly realizing one’s mortality, and realizing that what we do every day and how we approach it, is our legacy.

The interesting thing about excellence and what I’ve realized, is that it’s something intrinsic that only we ourselves can measure.

Although society tries to instill in us what a level of excellence is, and tries to make us compare ourselves to each other, at the end of the day, the only person that can judge whether we have chosen excellence or mediocrity is the person staring back at us in the mirror.

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