Monday, June 25, 2012

Valuable Lessons From "Be Excellent at Anything"

Although personally I think a lot of self-help books are full of bullshit and bad advice, I always keep my eyes out for the few a year that I discover that can really teach me or remind me of something of value.  The latest such one that I stumbled across is called “Be Excellent at Anything” by Tony Schwartz. I thought this book made several really good points that are worth sharing.


1)   Great performers tend to work more intensely than most of us do but also recover more deeply. Absorbed focus and learning to practice a task with a very high level of attention are very important. There is likely a maximum amount of time that we are capable of working or practicing with such great intensity which means we should not underestimate the need for proper breaks and rejuvenation. Many forms of rejuvenation that I used to see as ways of being lazy or a waste of time I now realize are essential to high performance.

2)   Ask yourself the question, “Is the life you’re leading worth the price you’re paying to live it?” It is important to take the time to look at ourselves honestly to prevent lack of awareness, self-deception, and a failure to see the full consequences of our decisions from leading us down the wrong road. The book also emphasizes that “By embracing our own opposites and getting comfortable with our contradictions, we build richer, deeper lives.” It is suggested that following list of qualities be considered in terms of which quality you value in each pair. 

Extroverted                        Introspective
Decisive                             Open-minded
Confident                           Humble
Logical                               Intuitive
Tactical                              Reflective
Pragmatic                           Visionary
Discerning                          Accepting
Honest                               Compassionate
Courageous                        Prudent
Tenacious                           Flexible
Tough-minded                    Empathic

Many organizations tend to value the qualities on the left side far more, but if we undervalue the qualities on the right we lose access to “essential dimensions of ourselves and others.” Reflecting back on the cultures of some of my former workplaces, I definitely agree that most leadership models encourage cultivation of some of these qualities at the expense of others. The book reads, “Honesty in the absence of compassion becomes cruelty. Tenacity unmediated by flexibility congeals into rigidity. Confidence untempered by humility is arrogance. Courage without prudence is recklessness. Because all virtues are connected to others, any strength overused ultimately becomes a liability.” So true, and yet so often forgotten!

3)   Will and discipline are overrated. According to Roy Baumeister, who has spent much of his career studying self-control, “Acts of choice draw on the same limited resource used for self-control.” Limited is the key word here. For example, people that are on diets tend to perform worse than nondieters on tasks that require focus and vigilance. Instead of constantly struggling to exercise self-control we are better off focusing on replacing bad habits with positive rituals, because the more behaviors become a routine the less conscious effort and energy they require. “The less conscious willpower we have to expend to make things happen the more effective we become.”

4)    Resist the temptation to be constantly multitasking. Ironically this often leaves us feeling emptier and disconnected. Except in rare circumstances it is better and more effective to focus on one thing at a time. We are likely much better off if we build our capacity for absorbed attention and high level concentration.

5)    A quote was mentioned from a speech by Drew Gilpin Faust from her first baccalaureate ceremony address as Harvard University’s new president. “You are worried because you want to have both a meaningful life and a successful life. If you don’t try to do what you love—whether it is painting or biology or finance; if you don’t pursue what you think will be the most meaningful you will regret it.” This is so true and a good reminder, because the opportunity to become successful can be very tempting, and many people gradually sacrifice doing what they love to achieve it, and that is no small price to pay. It is important to continue to be aware of the tradeoffs we are making.

This is not so much a summary of what the book teaches as just a few things that stood out to me that I wanted to share. Feel free to check out the book yourself if you are interested in more of what the author has to say (I included the Amazon link below). Also, feel free to share your thoughts about the points above, as I would love to hear your opinions! Thanks!



  1. Thank you, Kara. The quote I took from it (to be honest, you tend to forget all about any post except one thing that strikes you) is "You are worried because you want to have both a meaningful life and a successful life."
    The effort should be, IMHO, to be successful (safe in terms of present and future means) enough, and then stop, and pursue meaningfulness.

    1. That is a great perspective! Thanks for sharing!


  3. First time to read your blog, I like it so much & itis very helpful :)
    Good luck my friend

  4. I always enjoy your insights .... I've been reading your quote blog and this one for the past six months at least, and always find a glimmer of gold in every post. I truly appreciate your taking on the tedious (and seemingly thankless) task to wade through the works of so many literary greats to pull out the gems. (I'm sure the deceased and living authors / families do as well).

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words! It's also nice to hear when others appreciate words of wisdom from the finest literary greats as much as I do!