When fabled Green Bay Packers football coach, Vince Lombardi, took
over the fledgling team, he said this to his players: “Gentleman, we
will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the
while we can never attain it. But along the way, we will catch
But what is excellence, and how do we know when we have achieved
it? Numerous synonyms describe the ethereal word excellence:
outstanding, brilliant, high quality, indispensable, or extremely good.
We look at profitable companies with unique cultures, or successful
artists who relentlessly slave at their craft, or difference-makers who
attempt to positively change the world, as being excellent in their field.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined excellence as “a mean
between two extremes of excess and defect in regard to a feeling or
action as the practically wise person would determine it.” According to
Aristotle, a “mean” cannot be calculated and is relative to the
individual and circumstances. To Aristotle, excellence was defined by
the person and the conditions under which it was viewed. So,
excellence, like beauty, tends to be in the eye of the beholder.
People love lists. When David Letterman was the host of the popular
television show Late Night he always had a “Top Ten List” segment in
the show. I’ve heard many reasons why lists are so popular. Things
like: “Because we are constantly bombarded with information, we
become overstimulated, and lists provide us with continuity.” Or: “A
list of topics provides our brains with decisiveness and definitiveness.”
Or my favorite: “Lists provide us with a form of communication that
allows us to know exactly what we are getting.”
Every Monday morning, on my website, Motivational Check, I publish
the Monday Morning Motivational Message. This message is one of
the most popular segments on the site. While many of these messages
are short stories that teach a lesson, I get the highest positive feedback
when I post a list of something. The topic of the lists doesn’t usually
matter; what matters to the readers is that they have an inventory that
purports to improve their lives.
In early 2020, I had a recent college graduate connect with me on
LinkedIn. The thing that drew my attention to this young man was a
question he asked me. He wanted to know what I thought were the
“most important lessons” he needed to succeed.
As I considered how I wanted to respond to him, I thought back to my
college days at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, and some of
the most important lessons I learned about leadership, excellence, and
I was fortunate to accept a basketball scholarship to attend The Citadel,
The Military College of South Carolina, in 1978. I had received no
formal training in leadership up until this point in my life. My parents
had modeled what good behavior should look like and set an example
of how I should treat others. Still, I didn’t fully understand what
leadership or excellence meant until I attended The Citadel.
As I quickly grabbed a piece of paper and began jotting down lessons I
have learned over my sixty years in my roles as husband, father, police
officer, hostage negotiator, basketball coach, business owner, and most
recently, cancer warrior, the words, “the most important lessons” this
young man wanted to know, stuck in my mind. I didn’t want the list to
be the generic, “work hard,” “be polite,” “help others,” etc. I didn’t
want to give him a catalog of rules, or canons, or directives. I wanted
my responses to be deeper, more profound, and worthy of putting in
the time to make them part of who he was and who he wanted to
become. I wanted to develop principles that would help this young man
become unstoppable at his craft, but I wanted the list to ensure that he
could sustain excellence, once it was achieved.
I sought to provide him with a list of principles rooted in bedrock to
form the foundation of unshakable beliefs and dedicated behaviors
despite the prodigious and tumultuous circumstances that he might
encounter during his life.
I remember one of the stories that I often tell when I am interviewed on
a podcast, or speak to groups. The story is about the scene in the movie
Rocky, where Rocky guzzles the five raw eggs.
Whenever I tell this story, I ask the audience to put themselves in the
place of Rocky and apply the scene to defining their brand of
As a prelude to the scene, Rocky is a two-bit pugilist who has no hopes
of ever making it big in the boxing world. His job is to collect the
outstanding debts for the neighborhood loan shark.
However, out of the blue, Rocky is chosen to fight the heavyweight
champion of the world, Apollo Creed. Rocky doesn’t have a manager
or a trainer. To prepare for the fight, he develops his unique style of
training. This scene is the beginning of Rocky’s battle to get himself in
shape for the biggest fight of his life, against the most prominent
opponent he will ever face, himself.
The setting begins with the alarm clock going off at four o’clock in the
morning. How many people are willing to get up at 4:00 a.m. to
become excellent? Once Rocky turns off the alarm, he turns on the
transistor radio, and a Philadelphia radio station is playing in the
background. If you listen carefully, the weather report on the radio
states that the high temperature will be below freezing. How many
people are going to pursue excellence in the cold, frigid winter?
Rocky then stumbles to the refrigerator and cracks those five raw eggs
into a cup and chugs them down. How many people would refuse to
hunt excellence if they didn’t have the right food to eat? After
breakfast, he puts on his tattered, worn cotton sweatsuit and his black
high-top basketball shoes. He puts a towel around his neck and a cap
on his head. How many people would refuse to follow the behavior
necessary for excellence because they didn’t have the right equipment?
Who would wait to pursue their dreams until they had the latest
moisture-wicking clothing or the top of the line running shoes or crosstrainers?
Rocky then heads down the steps from his apartment and out into the
cold, crisp morning air and does some basic stretching outside of his
building. How many people would find the excuse of not pursuing
excellence because they didn’t have their personal trainer or their
running buddy available to encourage them along the way?
And then Rocky begins to jog down the dark empty streets of
Philadelphia until he finds himself at the base of the seventy-two steps
that lead to the fountain in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
But he’s hurting; he has a pain in his side. How many people would
have said, “I have this twinge in my side? I’m done for today. I don’t
like being in pain. I’ll chase excellence when I’m not hurting as
Finally, Rocky struggles to the top of the museum steps, and he is
doubled over in agony. He is alone, in the dark and the cold. And
Rocky realizes that if he is going to be able to go toe to toe with the
heavyweight champion of the world, he will have to do the same
training regimen tomorrow, only better.
How many people would have given up on their pursuit of excellence
when they were at their lowest? How many souls would have thrown
any potential opportunity to achieve excellence out the window
because they were tired, lonely, hungry, or hurting?
The boxer, Mike Tyson, once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get
hit in the mouth.” During my cancer journey, I came to a point where I
was tagged in the mouth, and things seemed extremely bleak. I was at
my lowest. I felt as though I was in the grips of total helplessness and
hopelessness. This despair bounded into my life in 2017.
After just completing an almost five-year cycle of the drug Interferon,
my melanoma had returned. My oncologist suggested that I start a
biological therapy that would do nothing to the cancer but would
hopefully cause my immune system to kick in and kill the marauding
I had just finished my fourth and final round of this biologic therapy,
which left me exhausted. A week later, I was diagnosed with
pseudogout when my right knee swelled to the size of a cantaloupe.
The fluid in my knee contained calcium crystals, acting like miniature
knives stabbing the inside of the joint every time I moved. That was
followed a few weeks later by a reaction to the biologic medication
that gave me a blood clot in my lung and fluid around the sac of my
heart. I woke up in the middle of the night with chest pains and
difficulty breathing. I thought I was having a heart attack, and my wife
rushed me to the emergency room.
Lying in the emergency room, I remember feeling so depleted mentally
and physically that I looked at my wife, with tears running down my
cheeks, and begged her to let me die. I just wanted out of my body that
seemed to be attacking me continually.
At that time, I remembered reading an article about the owner of a
professional sports team who paid a Navy SEAL to come and live with
his family for a month and teach them to use their minds to do more
than their bodies ever thought they could.
Part of this training was the 40% Rule. This rule says that if your mind
or body is telling you that you are through and can’t go on, you are
only at 40% of your maximum ability, and you still have 60% left in
I recall lying in the ER and having doctors, nurses, and technicians
performing all types of tests. As horrible as I felt, I remember blocking
out everything that was going on around me and telling myself that I
had so much more left to give. Even though my body was declaring I
was at the end of my rope and just wanted to let go, I forced my mind
to inform my body to tie a knot at the end of that rope and simply
Realizing I had another 60% left in reserve literally saved my life by
forcing my mind and body to draw on those reserves that I still
We all have those stockpiles waiting to be used if we ever get to the
point we think we are finished. I would encourage you to draw on
those reserves if you ever feel like you can’t or don’t want to continue
toward your purpose. I can speak from personal experience that even
when you don’t think you can move forward, you have so much more
left to give yourself.
I have learned that excellence comes to us when we continue to
advance in the face of overwhelming adversity; when we don’t think
we have anything left in our tanks. Excellence appears when we can
strive for our dreams at the lowest points in our lives. We can finally
define our excellence when we can force our minds and bodies to serve
us long after they are gone and be able to hold on when there is nothing
left within us except the desire that says to them: “Hold on!”