What to do when faced with the excellence of others

(Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash)
I work with several extremely competent people. The kind of people who appear naturally effortless at what they do – coding, running projects or businesses, writing, conversation – you name it, I know somebody who is excellent at it. I’ve been fortunate that this has been the case a number of times in my career.

Even if it’s not somebody you know personally, it’s easy to be exposed to world class performers in all spheres of life – right there on Instagram, Youtube or writing articles on sites like this.

You’d think this would be unambiguously good. But it isn’t always, for a couple of reasons, mostly to do with your feelings. Here’s a guide to the problems you might encounter if you’re like me.

Examine your emotional response

Being exposed to brilliance can be difficult. It used to cause me an immense amount of pain. A part of me is overwhelmed by excellence. It can trigger an emotional cascade in me that makes me feel uncomfortable.

I used to get quite agitated in the presence of people who are really good at what I do myself.

Often it would hold me back.

Emotional responses to brilliance can be paralysing. They can dominate your experience to the extent that you get weighed down, and it gets in the way of your own work – and indeed the development of your own excellence.

Next time you find yourself in the presence of somebody who falls into this category, examine your emotional response. Take a minute to examine how you feel.

Generally there will be “helpful” and “unhelpful” thoughts and feelings about this person present. Here are some you might check for:

Potentially unhelpful emotional responses to excellence:

  • Inadequacy (this is a big one) – “I’m not as good as this person, I’ll never be good enough” – see also impostor syndrome
  • Frustration – “wow it’s really annoying that they are way much better than me. I wish I was that good”
  • Ill-will/resentment – “I dislike this person because they are excellent”
  • Fatigue – “My oh my it must take some amount of energy to be that amazing, it looks awfully tiring, I’ll go back to being mediocre”
  • Devaluation – “huh well they probably didn’t earn their excellence, or they aren’t as good as they appear to be – they are faking it”.

Potentially helpful emotional responses to excellence:

  • Inspiration – “Wow wouldn’t it be amazing to be like that – I’m going to do it!”
  • Energy – “I’m going to double down on my efforts to be excellent”
  • Admiration/respect – “I’m impressed by the efforts this person has made to be amazing in this way”
  • Humility – “Excellence is hard work, but in the best way”
  • Ambition/excitement – “think about what I could achieve if I had that level of skill!”.

Emotional responses to excellent people are incredibly normal.

They actually contain the secret to your own growth! Who knew?

The trick here is to harness the positive responses, and navigate around the challenging responses.

Here’s how.

Shift your mindset

(Photo by Dietmar Becker on Unsplash)

First up, check your attitude and mindset. A lot of the challenges of being around excellent people comes from what I call “comparing mind”. It’s the part of the mind that is constantly measuring you against others. It’s the source of the feeling of inadequacy, the little voice that tells you you’re not good enough.

If you give in to it, it will ruin you. If you know how to work with it, it will spur you on.

Take a step back and remember these three things when next confronted with the comparing mind.

  1. You don’t have to be like this person. Not everyone in the world has to be excellent. The world needs people of all abilities to carry out all kinds of tasks. It’s perfectly OK to just be a normal everyday developer/writer/whatever it is that you’re feeling inadequate about.
  2. The person in front of you was not likely born with the crazy level of skill you observe. They have often been doing this for years. Some perceived excellence is actually experience. It will come to you.
  3. You are already better than you think you are. You’ve been on this path for a while, and know more than you think you do (whether you believe that or not!).

Practice kindness towards yourself when you notice your comparing mind dominating. Part of the reason it exists is to spur you on. Although it can sometimes create an uncomfortable experience, it secretly has your best interests at heart. So thank it and move on to examine the positive aspects of your reaction to excellence.

Admiration is your gateway to excellence

Being exposed to excellence can and should be a beneficial experience. The key is within the positive parts of your emotional response. Buried in that response is a signpost about how you might best spend your time to achieve your own idea of excellence.

Your positive emotional responses to excellence are a gateway. You can use them to ask a series of questions:

  • What exactly is it that I admire about this person?
  • Which part of their skill would I like to emulate?
  • What sort of situations do they excel in that I find less straightforward myself?
  • How can I best direct my energy to become more like this person?

Answering these questions can help you develop clarity about your own journey. You can come up with a distinct list of qualities and skills that you’d like to possess, and start thinking about how you might develop them.

The power of curiosity – observe and converse
The excellent human in front of you is a fountain of the knowledge you need to be excellent yourself. You can view their presence as an opportunity to learn.

You can absorb knowledge in two ways:

  • Observation. Pay detailed attention to the actions of the person in question. Watch how they carry out their work – the questions they ask, how they structure their code/user stories/backlogs, the style that they write in, the way they are with other people. Adapt and apply all of this to your own working life.
  • Conversation. The true greats want to share knowledge and view mentorship as a part of their own development. So open your mouth and just ask! “Why did you do it like that” is a good place to start. Do so without expectation – people do have busy lives so be mindful they might not have the time – in which case, simply observe.

Use the presence of this person as a resource on your own pathway to excellence as best you can!

Remember it works two ways
The person in front of you is not amazing at certain things that you are good at! There are many things about you that they might be equally impressed by. Your unicycling skills or your grasp of foreign languages, your ability to make baloon animals or your baking skills. We’re all brilliant in some way so remember that!

Conclusion

Brilliant people bring up a range of emotional responses. Wisdom means harnessing the positive aspects of those responses to gain clarity on what your personal version of excellence looks like. The presence of an excellent professional in your life is an opportunity to grow yourself through observation and conversation.

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