Patterns of Excellence: Lessons from 7 Giants

An in-depth look at philosophies from 7 mentors extracted through observations.

Mawulom Nenonene
May 17, 2017 · 17 min read

Identifying patterns has played a pivotal role in the survival of the human race. At first, it enabled us to learn the behaviors of animals and nature, lending us the information we needed to successfully cultivate the environment and hunt for sustenance — resulting in our survival.

Fast forward to now, we’re harnessing this same power and building technologies to process large sets of data in real time. As this strong pattern recognition skill has significant influence in our lives now, it undoubtedly will continue to revolutionize the way we live as a society, moving forward.

In childhood, I watched as my mother, aunts, and uncles built themselves up from very little. Like most immigrants new to this land, they faced many challenges. It was in watching them overcome these obstacles that I unknowingly began to identify key behaviors and philosophies that would guide me to this day.

As I grew older, I continued to be drawn to people that exhibited these characteristics of integrity and endurance, and worked to better understand their motivations, for they were giants to me. Not for their size but for the impact they made on the people around them, and on their community.

Coach Najjar

The first person outside my family to create a lasting impact was Coach Najjar. In high school, I played football and while we had many coaches, Coach Najjar stood out from the rest for his dedication to consistency, fairness and integrity.


As a freshman I heard rumors that. Coach Najjar ran every weekday morning before class. When I began to have friends that drove and started to drive myself to school for early workouts, I witnessed this first hand when every morning in rain, sleet, or snow, Coach Najjar could be seen running up Washington Road.

He employed that same dedication of persistent consistency into our trainings. Shortly after each season, Coach Najjar would start our off-season workouts. He taught me to plan a year in advance — not to simply train physically and mentally, but to set “I’m-possible” goals and build a schedule to achieve them.

Define the goal you want to achieve and map a plan to do it.”

It was then that I truly learned to plan, to take the time required to evaluate the goal, break the goal into small, doable pieces, and execute.

I began to evaluate things differently, and missed many social events, family vacations, and other activities, but I never saw this as a sacrifice, because I had given myself a greater purpose, and viewed the other temptations as momentary pleasures. I learned to say “no” to people, to deal with pressure well and keep to the schedule, regardless of how I felt.


I watched time and time again as Coach Najjar sat the best players out of the game for missing a day of practice the week before — a decision that, at times, cost our team victories. Coach Najjar’s rule was, If you don’t show up to practice you don’t play,” and this rule of fairness was by far one of the most important lessons I learned from the game. It was only during my freshman year of college that I realized his job wasn’t to teach us to win, but to teach us the principles we needed to grow as men.


Finally, Coach Najjar taught me that integrity meant first keeping my word to myself “Always do your best, he said. In always doing my best, I could hold my head high, knowing I had honored myself and those around me simply by my giving them my all. So, in the end, regardless of the outcome, any criticism then became information I could use to become even better or discard without the emotional baggage.

“Get as much as you can out of the people around you. Trust me, they matter.”

Following Coach Najjar’s advice, I watched the people around me in search for traits and positive behaviors that resonated well with me. I found that everyone around had something to teach me. If I judged them first for having more, or less, I exalted or negated them, thus losing the lesson.

In time, I began to approach people with openness, regardless of their social standing in the community. I started to take time daily to revisit my interactions, and ask myself, “Why did I meet this person?” and, “What can I do for them?” and finally, “What lesson can I learn from this?”

Mr. Howell

During the summer before college, as most students were enjoying family vacations or spending their last summer with high school friends, a series of fortunate events led me to the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) at NJIT, where I met Mr. Howell. He was the executive director of the program that led a group of students through a summer intensive immersive course to prepare them for the college journey. A trip he would take with us, supporting, and advising at every step.

Mr. Howell not only prepared us for college, with his valuable lessons of loyalty to our community, and personal development, he prepared us for life.

Loyalty to Self

  • Work on yourself — When you set a goal, you set things into motion, life becomes more active. In our society of liberal litigation, it can be easy to shift the blame of our weaknesses or failures on outside forces. Mr. Howell encouraged us to face the ghosts between our ears, and to realize that regardless of what was happening in our environment, it was up to us to process it and act, rather than react or shift blame.
  • Discover what drives you — My motivation to complete college was simply survival — to get a degree to support myself, and those dear to me. Why? There was no plan B. My mother was deathly ill and was not expected to survive past my 1st semester, let alone until graduation. With this pressure, I still faltered and lost sight of my purpose often, however, Mr. Howell’s urge to know my motivation consistently challenged me to keep my “why” front of mind— even during traumatic, and stressful times.

Loyalty to Community

  • See the big picture — Mr. Howell urged us to be there for each other, seek outside ourselves to see the bigger picture and the impact we have on our world. I learned that the value of a community is what you put into it, and to be an active participant, working to support those in my circles, and expanding said circle to let others in.

“You are your brother & sister’s keeper.”

  • Recognize your connectedness — He showed our group that we were connected to the many that came before us, that when we join clubs and organizations, we should not only seek membership to get something out of it, but to be a contributor, to give something back.


Mr. Howell worked with students and patiently waited for results, sowing seeds that would not be reaped for years, sometimes decades. Like Coach Najjar, he was out to build you up. He aimed to arm you with the tools required to think critically, so you could make better decisions. The long game is hard to watch and often times it’s easy to jump in and save the day. He did that too, while giving you insights that would serve you to handle issues throughout life.

  • Learn to make your needs known without complaining — We were the lucky few that learned early on how best to handle setbacks. We learned that you didn’t get what you wanted by spewing out negativity. But calmly thinking through the problem for possible solutions and choosing your actions; often times it meant delaying a response until you could assertively voice your concerns positively and appropriately.
  • Make decisions based on your values “Be deliberate” — I watched a lot of people in college waffle around, working on the “major of the minute.” We all need to discover who we are, but in order to do that we need to first understand our values.

Sometimes as we are asked what we want to “be” or “do,” we think of what we want to look like or what we want to earn. Soon our values catch up with us, only to force us to switch gears. Mr. Howell urged us to examine our values first and set our path to honor those values accordingly. Each action or decision made with intent becomes deliberate. Our choices become stronger. Our lives richer and our path to success more direct.


During my first internship in college, I worked for a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. A few days in, a senior employee saw that I was creating a list of people to talk to, as I was seeking insights into the various roles there, to ensure I was choosing a major that would yield the fruits I sought. The employee suggested I add “Belinda” to the list, thus she became number 5.

The first four people I chatted with suggested I talk to Belinda as well. They spoke of her as though she was a superhero, couldn’t believe how she did it all, and were impressed with her every achievement.

So I met with Belinda. Here is what I learned:

Work Smart & Hard

Belinda was a hard worker. She just got it done, and in doing so, encouraged those around her to get it done too. What Belinda accomplished in a 40-hour work week, her counterparts took several weeks to complete… Why? Because she worked smart and hard. As a scientist she didn’t just accept the status quo on a process, but took time to think outside the box to continually improve upon the way things could be done. To save time and effort. She reinvested ingenuity into her projects, and continuously streamlined as a result.


Be fully aware of your environment and conditions — work, work, and when you get tired, REST. Then back to it. Above all else be consistent, and in every job you do, balance is key. Belinda was known for leading multiple projects — some directly related to her role, and some outside of it, but all in balance.

In observing how she handled her day, I saw that she had two schedules, one we all saw on her outlook calendar and a second that only she knew. She devoted enough time to her projects to complete them with excellence, but managed to socialize, mentor, take on other projects, and still stay mentally afloat. How? Prioritizing and scheduling, and continuously improving by applying what you learned yesterday, to make today better.

Personal Branding

She had a great reputation, known for her consistent problem-solving. One thing I heard her say often was, “Be comfortable with change.” Unlike the man with the proverbial hammer that approaches each problem as if it’s a nail, she leveraged her scientific background to always ask “why?” In doing so, she was able to deduce the problem and bring new solutions to the table.

These experiences armed her with a wider range of tools, which she continually sharpened with every problem solved. By the time I met her she utilized them with such mastery that every suggestion seemed to provide the ideal solution.


Gihan was my last lead in my former life as a biomedical engineer working as a mechanical engineer. She too had a great personal brand that preceded her. One of brilliance, excellence and fairness.

When Gihan became our branch chief, I was completely checked out. I knew I could gain more technical skills from the people around me, but it just didn’t interest me. So I did what was required of me and invested most of my energies into my passion projects within the organization and outside of it.

I was determined to find a new career. In our first conversation I was caught off guard by her candor, and openness to supporting my endeavors. She, like Coach Najjar, asked for one thing: my best. She asked for my best not simply in the things I loved, but in everything. She challenged me to apply the same rigor that I utilized on my passions to the mundane.


Don’t go searching for a promotion. Do a good job and the promotion will find you. Pick the hardest problems and solve them, and do it again and again. The skills you build, no one can take. The reputation and relationships you create will offer opportunities that will surpass your expectations. To her hard work was a reward in itself, however being result-oriented she aimed to continuously produce tangible outcomes.

It was the fruits of her labor that spoke volumes and not only her effort. If she could solve the problem she did, if not she provided processes to be followed and identified paths to be avoided. To accomplish so much one needed focus, the ability to pay particular attention to the things that really matter and work consistently towards those fruits. Focusing on a project meant addressing the issues that came up daily without losing sight of the bigger picture.


Gihan was humble and grateful. She put in countless hours to earn multiple engineering degrees, master new skills and iterate to continue to add value to the organization and the people around her, yet she maintained a thankful disposition. She taught me to give back to the organization. To her, giving back keeps you youthful, new, fresh, and, keeps that smile on your face.


Although she was humble, she possessed a quiet confidence, a palpable knowing that could be felt in her presence. Almost as if no issue brought to her was outside of her purview. For her confidence was built brick by brick from experience, with each situation handled she became more. In this I learned that “Your past successes give you the confidence to do more, and to take on bigger challenges.”


I arrived in silicon valley excited about living out a dream. After taking a cross country road trip in my A3 with Peace & Luv — life began to expand. At this stage in my life, I was practiced at applying rigor to my passions and the mundane. I thought I was ready for any challenge.

Caroline was my lead at the first company I joined in the bay area. We had a connection during my interviews and I was confident there was much to learn from her, but nothing compared to being in her presence. She, like Gihan, had that palpable confidence combined with a nurturing and no-nonsense attitude. She leveraged data to reverse engineer what was required for her team to succeed, and she built metrics around this for daily production.

You might be thinking, “Ok, great. You have a system designed to help you win.” This game, however, was much harder than you could imagine. Some aspects of it were simple, but to hit those targets, a new paradigm needed to be opened.

Work Ethic

Caroline’s work ethic was extraordinary. She balanced her mental and physical health while consistently producing results with what seemed like effortless ease.

She had a bias toward actions. To her, there was always something that could be done. She would come up with multiple action plans and execute them, so if plan A didn’t work, she’d then move to plan B and C etc…

A sample day looked like this:

Morning workout, breakfast on the go, work, mixed with lunch & dinner, social life, break, then back online around 9:30 pm.

She did this religiously.

As I watched her, I began to develop my own schedule and routine. At first, little changed, but by applying the focus I gained from Gihan, I began to see the fruits of my labor. This is when most people rest, sit back and celebrate their wins. Caroline didn’t sit back. She celebrated her wins by strategizing how she would take on the next challenge. So, I began to do the same.


Caroline loved the people she led, her job, and the impact she was having in the world. That passion showed in all of her interactions. Until then, I thought passions were driven by the oceans of emotions. Caroline, however, acted with logic and intent, which drove up the likelihood of positive outcomes in all she set to accomplish. When you attempted to reason with her, to focus on the looming obstacles ahead, she simply saw the goal. She took your suggestions when they made sense, but she rarely wavered. I saw that her passion for life filled her with energy, which she passed to you in your time of need.


She knew what needed to be done, and did it with efficiency. Being decisive meant making decisions, and taking ownership of outcomes, followed by making more decisions. Often times, we get stuck in the gaps between actions, pondering over every possible scenario and outcome. She taught me to focus only on the factors that I could control, thereby reducing the time spent floundering.

Jeffrey Banks

Jeff and I only worked together for a short time but the impact he made was significant. When we first met I was intrigued by his approach, most of the people I considered mentors up to this point provided the information I needed to succeed — a roadmap, if you will, to navigate a new environment, and checked in regularly.

Jeff did it differently. He focused on “tribal knowledge.” Imagine an all-black horse being put into a pen with a herd of zebras. Rather than teach that horse how to be zebra, Jeff would paint white stripes on it and let nature take its course. He understood the psychology of the herd. Thus he focused his efforts on sharing the intricacies of the herd and the language they spoke.


He provided information without attempting to manipulate the data, and when he did, he was open about it. He trusted people, and treated everyone as though their intellect was equal to or surpassed his. He acted out of trust, and tangible facts, not ego. He played the long game, with an understanding that each interaction provided an opportunity to build, whether it was a disagreement or a celebration. His aim was simple, share what he knew, listen, and provide value where he could. Because of this, people trusted him, knowing that he would share his insights about situations right there and then.


Jeff was unapologetically himself. He was open about his family life, his professional life, past mistakes, and successes. Nothing was off-limits, thus his authenticity shielded him, making him and his personal brand stronger. In listening, and watching him, I noticed that he held no emotional baggage towards the past events he discussed, and could talk about them as if they were a part of a story he was removed from. He was able to draw strength from his experiences rather than wallow in his missteps.


He leveraged the power of humor to deliver hard and uncomfortable feedback. He did this time and again, with little effort. To my surprise it was well-received and often provided the desired results. Being lighthearted offers you a strength few have. It gives you the power of perspective, thus regardless of the situation you can deliver the results without compromising your happy disposition.

Jeff Winter

When I joined my first tech startup I met Jeff Winter, Director of Technical Recruiting. I quickly realized that he spoke his mind, and like Jeff Banks was unapologetically himself. He had a tremendous work ethic, and often times was the first one into the office and last one out. Why? Jeff was old school with new school tendencies, he knew the value of hard work, but also embraced efficiency. He like my mentors before reinvested the time saved into projects that no one wanted but needed to be completed — thus he was able to produce tangible results at a rate faster than his peers.

Jeff was heads down, and focused on the task at hand, but somehow still found a way to create a fun and inclusive work environment. This I attributed to his intuition and self-awareness. Jeff didn’t just come to work, he was fully present, aware of all of the moving pieces in his environment and leveraged his intuition to address issues before they became problems.


Pivot often, pivot slow, pivot fast, learn how to pivot and do it well, with every iteration you become better. Leveraging his 18+ years of recruiting experience and countless years of life experience he had developed a sense of what motivated people. He honed his skills to the point where his off the cuff guesses were often the correct direction for us to move in. Imagine a seasoned ship captain standing on the bow of a large ancient ship. He peered into the horizon on a clear sunny day, with little to no clouds, and directed his sailors to prepare for a storm; which came. He steered you into rocky shores where everyone else saw death and you not only survived but found treasure. He was tuned into the bay area, tech startups, and recruiting as a whole, constantly devouring information, building relationships and leveraging said information to make decisions. He saw further than most in his field and could identify trends before the data was validated. He dedicated himself to his chosen profession and continually worked to strengthen his weakness while leveraging his strengths to get results.

If you know something is right, stick with your gut, and use data to back it up when you can.


Be ok with shit happening around you and respond on your terms rather than being reactive. Regardless of the alarms that sounded, Jeff stayed the course. He was no calm Buddha — far from it actually — but he invited his emotions only when needed. He leveraged his emotions when necessary but as I watched I began to notice that he was always in control. I realized that because he was invested in his team and the success of the company, Jeff played a bigger game, he played the long game. One of relationships, where everyone mattered, had a role to play and a seat at the table. He taught me that good teachers do not terrorize their students, rather, guide and nurture by modeling the desired behavior until it becomes a habit to the student.


Implement a plan, and work it ’til the end. Lean on your relationships and be quick to admit when you’re wrong. Before you set a course, know why, take the time to understand the problem you are solving, the stakeholders involved and the impact it will make.

When you set a course, build a feedback loop and set aside time to reevaluate; the ground we live on is not solid. Deep below in the earth’s core is a molten liquid center that is always changing. We live on a planet that is continually rotating on it’s own axis and flying through space.

Why is this all so important? When you create a plan for today’s conditions without a method of adding tomorrow’s input, you’re preparing for defeat. In this game, if you quit, you automatically lose. Therefore, success means that your plan should include those you plan to help, have a way to ingest new information, and time set aside to analyze information received. Armed with these factors it’s easy to take prolonged actions, and stick with a problem until you arrive at a comfortable place. It also opens the way for new solutions — perhaps ones that could not be fathomed in your journey’s beginnings.

The people above did not just motivate me to perform but inspired me to dig deeper into my core and in doing so opened up countless paradigms that now seemed to always be there, but just out of reach.

We all seek to understand the world we live in, to develop our talents, and build our personal legend. Often times, we look to those out of our reach — famous scientists, athletes, and artists past and present.

While there’s nothing wrong with learning from the legendary masters through their lectures, books, and media, I encourage you to look closer to home.

Search through your family, close friends, colleagues, teachers, and acquaintances and you’ll find patterns of excellence within reach. When you find them, notice their actions, and ask yourself why. Every meeting and encounter has something to teach you. The greats do it by how they live, and all you have to do is pay close attention.

Watch them through their triumphs, failures, and in their everyday lives. Look deeper, and in doing so, you’ll come to know their “why” and begin identifying the patterns of excellence needed to create and recreate yourself.

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Hire Smart or Manage Tough

Mawulom Nenonene

Written by

Building inclusive teams & sharing what I learn.


Hire Smart or Manage Tough

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