Challenge Ourselves for the Sake of Challenging Ourselves

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By Dan Coughlin                                                 

What is the point of challenging ourselves to be better than we are right now?

We’ve worked our whole lives to be as good as we are today. What’s the benefit of pushing ourselves to be better than we are today.


Over the past 20 years 95% of my work has been with people who work in for-profit organizations. 5% of my work, and usually this is done on a pro bono basis, has been done for not-for-profit organizations. And then every once in a great while something totally different comes my way.

On January 18, 2018 I was invited by Coach Ben Rosario to do my full-day seminar on “Achieving Individual and Team Excellence” for his team, HOKA ONE ONE NAZ Elite. His team consists of ten professional long-distance runners who work full-time at training for 5K, 10K, and marathon races. The ultimate goal is to prepare for the 2020 Olympic Trials to represent the U.S. in the Tokyo Olympics.

On the day of the seminar the group had a “light” workout before the seminar started. The main part of the workout included 3 one-mile reps and 3 800-meter reps at a fast pace. All told they ran 10 miles on the day. In 20 years of doing seminars for organizations I’ve never had a group who went for a 10-mile run before sitting down for a full-day seminar with me.

As we went through the many different exercises on reflecting, writing, and discussing the various aspects of individual and team excellence, certain patterns began to emerge. I realized that these professional runners were not driven by money or fame. They shared the common cause of pushing themselves individually and collectively just to see what they could achieve. They personified the idea of working for excellence.

I define excellence as doing the best you can at whatever you do while simultaneously learning how to do it better the next time. Excellence is not a moment in time. It’s an on-going process.

As they worked for excellence each day in their training they continually expanded their understanding of themselves and what they were capable of achieving. They challenged themselves for the sake of challenging themselves in order to see what they could achieve in the future.

Along the way they have become representatives of excellence. And that is why they are great representatives of the HOKA ONE ONE running shoe brand.

What if each of us took that idea and applied it in our work? What if we challenged ourselves to be better than we are today in order to represent the concept of excellence? Wouldn’t we then be stronger brand representatives for our organization and our work teams and our families? Wouldn’t our capacity to perform at a higher level be greater in the future? Wouldn’t we enrich our sense of self-esteem and personal dignity? Isn’t this what makes work worth doing beyond just receiving a paycheck?

Leonardo da Vinci

As I was flying to and from Flagstaff, Arizona to speak to the HOKA ONE ONE NAZ Elite team, I was reading the book, Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson.

Da Vinci was obsessed with learning. He wrote in his private journals all that he was learning about painting, military weapons, engineering, brains, hearts, spinal cords, mirrors, birds, flight, hydraulics, and on and on. Every day was about excellence. He wanted to know more, and he wanted to learn how to be better at learning more. At first he did it all through experiments. Then he added reading to learn what others knew. Then he combined the theories of other people with observation and more experiments. And all throughout his more than 50 years of actively studying and learning and expanding his knowledge he kept pushing himself to learn and to understand more.


It was excellence that was driving him. He wasn’t focused on turning his learnings into major commercial success. He was driven to learn. He accepted commissions for his paintings to pay his bills, but his primary driver was excellence in learning.

Recently one of his paintings sold for over $450 Million. I can’t even wrap my mind around that, except to think that the customer wanted to somehow buy the concept of excellence. It doesn’t work that way. If we want excellence in our lives, we have to be the one doing the best we can while simultaneously learning how to be better the next time.

Leonardo da Vinci was not wealthy financially, but if you consider excellence to be a part of a person’s treasure, then he was extraordinarily wealthy when he died.

Tom Brady

Tom Brady has been remarkably wealthy and incredibly well-known for many years. He does not need fame or fortune any more. He has them. But here he is at 40 years old pushing himself to succeed in a brutally violent sport.

Why? Why? Why?

It is the daily challenge of excellence that underlies his amazing performances.

Why should we challenge ourselves to be better than we are right now? Why shouldn’t we allow ourselves to just coast along? Why can’t we just be satisfied with where we are right now? We’ve all achieved a certain level of success in our lives. Why not just kick back and relax and stop reaching for excellence on a daily basis?

Walt Whitman wrote, “That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

The powerful play goes on, and we all have an opportunity to contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

Status quo or excellence.


If You Take Money Out of the Equation, How Do You Measure Success?

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I’ve often heard this statement: that person has a really good job. Or this one: that person has a great job.

Those statements are code for meaning that person either makes a really good salary or a really great salary. Whenever I hear that I always think to myself that there has to be more to a really good job or a really great job than just making money. There has to be more to being a great organization than just how big the organization is financially.

Money is important. It’s important for individuals and it’s important for businesses. However, it can become so important that it can overshadow everything else in terms of defining success. We have to be able to peel back the layers of important outcomes in order to understand factors other than money.

Questions for Measuring Success with Money Not in the Equation

Here are three questions I want you to reflect on.

First, if you take your financial compensation out of the equation, how do you define success for yourself at work?

What would you use to determine your success if you don’t know what you’re being paid?

You might consider the quality of your work, the impact you had on other team members and on your customers and suppliers, and what you learned that day to improve the future of your organization. You might consider your professional relationships, and think about what you do to enhance a relationship or start up a new one. What would you use to evaluate your success without including money?

Second, if you take your organization’s revenues and profits out of the equation, how do you define success for your organization?

If you don’t know whether or not revenues and profits are going up or down, what would you use as indicators of success as an organization? Peel back the layers.

You might evaluate whether the products and services that are being sold are getting better or worse. You might measure success based on the results that your customers achieve when they use your products or services. You might measure whether your organization did what it said it would do for employees, customers, and suppliers. What would you look at?

Third, if you take the things you can buy out of the equation, how do you define success in your personal and community life?

Let’s extend these questions beyond your job and your employer, and look at success at home or in your community.

What would have to happen today for you to consider this to be a successful day?

For me, it includes showing my family members and telling my family members that I love them. It includes spending some time in nature and some time in exercising. It includes learning something either through reading or watching a film. For you, how will you determine if a day was successful or not if you take out what you can buy?

You can put money back in later on as an indicator of success, but for now I would like you to answer those three questions. Success has many layers of evaluation. We need to dig deep to get past just using money as our sole indicator of success.

In Defense of Business People

In Defense of Business People

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Recently I heard a speaker talking about the rights of homeless people. I was so impressed by his message and his example.

It was a powerful speech including many good points. He said it was wrong to criticize homeless people in a degrading way, and that it was wrong to make generalizations and assumptions about why people are homeless. He had been homeless himself at 15 years old, and he left home to get away from an abusive father. He said it was important that if we have clothes we no longer wear to give them to people less fortunate than ourselves. He said he had gotten a good job in construction, but decided to leave the construction world to go to work for a not-for-profit organization where he could focus on building a community of homeless people that could help them improve their lives. He fought for homeless people to have the option to sleep in their own sleeping bag and to be able to have a blanket with them even in a public park. Apparently laws had been enacted saying that it was illegal to sleep under a blanket in a public park in that particular area. All in all, it was a very meaningful speech.

However, during his speech about five times he said that he felt business people were in a rat race, they were obsessed with making money, and they always looked to step on people on their road to making money. He said that a business career was crap because it was only focused on making money.

During the Q&A session, I started asking questions and making comments.

I asked if he thought that most people in business who were making a lot of money felt they were in a rat race, were obsessed with money, and didn’t care about other people. He said you can’t have two masters. Either you love money or you love people.

I said, “I’ve been in business for 20 years. I’ve met hundreds and maybe thousands of business people. The vast, vast majority of the people I’ve met are not like what you describe. The vast majority are trying their best to help people. They’re trying to help their communities, their families, their employees, their customers, and their suppliers.”

Then I said, “You said it’s wrong to talk badly about homeless people. That everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. If that’s the case, why isn’t it equally as wrong to talk badly about business people who make a lot of money? Aren’t they human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect as well.”

We Don’t Need to Denigrate One Group While Trying to Compliment Another Group

When I was in high school I received really good grades. I wasn’t a very good athlete. So I would say to myself, “Well, that kid might be a great athlete, but he’s a lousy student.” I didn’t know the other kid’s grades. I just assumed he must be a lousy student in order to try to feel better about myself. In college, the situation was reversed. I received lousy grades. So I would say to myself, “Well, that kid might have great grades, but he has a lousy personality.” I didn’t know the kid’s personality. I just assumed it was lousy.

I was trying to make myself feel better by putting down another person. It was incredibly immature on my part. It didn’t help my self-esteem. It hurt my self-esteem.

Oftentimes in our society today adults are obsessed with complimenting one group while denigrating other people. A person will praise a conservative, and then feel it’s necessary to denigrate a liberal. Or the person will praise a liberal while slamming a conservative. People will praise The Greatest Generation, and then feel they have to humiliate Millennials in the same sentence. Or people will make fun of older people while trying to compliment a younger group. Even journalists today who are supposed to craft an unbiased story have shifted to bashing one group while telling a story about another group.

Why? Why do we keep doing this over and over and over even as we move into adulthood? We need to mature as adults if we are going to be the type of leaders who can make a significant impact in society. Otherwise as adults we sound like we never grew up.

We need you as a leader to be able to say positive things about one group without feeling it’s necessary to tear down another group. Otherwise, we just keep going around and around. We’re not making progress. Doing noble things can become undone by harshly criticizing someone else for being different than you. The right action doesn’t make the wrong action okay.