Excellence is Emotional

My five-year-old knocked his Lego police van off the kitchen counter this morning. He was attempting to simultaneously admire it and eat breakfast. The reason he’s been admiring it so much is that it took him about three hours to build it using the instructions in the box… and he did it all by himself, without any adult help. Each Lego had been carefully and precisely placed, a consequence of following complicated instructions in the most dedicated of manners. It was a challenging activity for him, and yet he was able to work through it deliberately on his own… with the clear goal of a completed police van. (I was really impressed with his work… every single piece was in its correct place. And there’s no way I could have sat there for three hours, painstakingly following those detailed 40-step instructions… my patience would have worn thin after about Step 5.)

The impact when his creation hit the wooden floor was remarkable, like the sound of shattering glass. Fortunately, the individual Legos were all intact, but the police van had vaporized.

He surveyed the damage. “But I spent so much time on it,” he cried. “I was so careful putting all those pieces together in exactly the right ways… and now it’s gone.” I could wipe away the tears, but not the knife that had sliced into his pride of workmanship, and his developing sense of excellence as a Lego builder.

In Quality vs. Excellence I note that the pursuit of excellence is fundamentally a drive from within – people who strive for excellence are intrinsically motivated to identify and internalize quality standards, and then work towards them (often exceeding them).

Thus, if you don’t feel an emotional push from within to identify those standards for quality or to push yourself to achieve and exceed them – you are probably not pursuing excellence. Quality is objective, and achieving it often depends on extrinsic motivation (e.g. wanting to achieve ISO certification or recognition through the Baldrige National Quality Program). Achieving excellence, however, is primarily subjective and driven by intrinsic motivation… you know it when you see it, but more importantly, you know it when you feel it.

(And sometimes, feeling it comes when the Lego masterpiece falls off the kitchen counter.)