Would You Rather Succeed or Excel? Elson’s Story

Saksham Gangwar via unsplash

As a mentor, my heart aches for all the gifted people I meet and speak with so often. Their immense potential gleams in their eyes yet they are unaware of their own talents. They seem to have willingly set the bar low for themselves only because years ago they were made to accept a certain definition of success by people who had no right to define what success meant for them.

They do not know what lies beyond their next promotion, their next salary raise, their next best employee award. Success; not excellence; is an unending pursuit for them. They have a nice car but they want a better one; they have a comfortable house, but they want a bigger one. They are heedless that their daily dose of caffeinated success suppresses their appetite for excellence. And just when the effect of caffeine wears out, they want another dose, leading them astray from the path of excellence again.

Then there are those who think they’re after excellence, when in fact they misconceive excellence as doing the same thing over and over again like an endless loop, and being satisfied with that. To them, this is contentment.

I met Jorge Padilla after a talk I delivered to a group of young accounting professionals in Hamilton, Ontario. He seemed like an average white-collar guy satisfied with his life and work. At first I did not even notice him in the small audience of around 20 people. After the talk, he walked over to me and we started to have a chat. I learned that Jorge worked at a company in Toronto and commuted over 60 kilometers to be at work every morning at 9:00. In his late 30’s and visibly fatigued, Jorge had been at the same job for the last 17 years. My jaw almost dropped when I heard that he had been promoted just once during that time, from Junior Tax Analyst to Tax Analyst. I never got a chance to meet Jorge again, but a year later I met another gentleman who reminded me of Jorge.

This time, the person was a highly qualified professional from Alberta. I met Elson at a networking event I was invited to by a friend. The handout mentioned that the program would include a couple of presentations by prominent visual artists, an optional photography workshop and an art exhibition. Being more interested in the exhibition than in the workshop, I decided to skip the latter and stood by a large metallic sculpture trying to make sense of what looked like a pointless concoction of scrapped bottle caps and twister pieces of steel.

Along came Elson, a well-dressed middle-aged man wearing a serious look on his bearded face. I was too engrossed in the sculpture to notice a person standing right by my side, until I heard a polite ‘hi.’ He had apparently stepped out of the photography workshop that had started only five minutes back. We started talking. We had spoken for only a couple of minutes when I realized that I was perhaps in the company of a master artist. His telltale passion for art further affirmed my presumption. Well, I was totally wrong.

Elson introduced himself as a mechanical engineer working for a manufacturing company. He must have noticed my bewilderment because he immediately chuckled, “I’m also a photographer… on the side.” I asked him why he had decided to ditch the workshop and he said that it was too basic for his use. We spoke for the next half hour during which I realized he was the complete opposite of the snobs I knew at that time in the artist community. Elson was not just well-versed in arts, he had an assertive personality and was very down to earth — a combination you don’t see every day. Finding that he was in downtown Toronto for the week, I invited him over for coffee the next day. What I discovered about Elson got me completely dumbfounded.

He showed me some of the photographs he had taken over the years and I was spellbound for a moment. He did not have a website, or a Facebook page or anything else to showcase his phenomenal photographic talent to the world. Having been responsible for marketing of products for many years, I had seen numerous pitches involving photographs and artworks from some very talented artists. Sometimes, I was fascinated by their brilliant works of art; at other times, I had mumbled to myself, “It would be better if this person had chosen a different vocation.” Yet, here was this average looking guy who had been working as an engineer at the same company for 11 years, showing me a portfolio I could assuredly rate higher than some of the best I had ever seen.

The fact that he had achieved so much success in his career was a testament to his positive attitude and hard work, but in a profession not aligned with his inner calling, those elements could only get him that far; they could not lead him beyond success.

My obvious next question to Elson was, “Why are you an engineer Elson?” He disclosed that he came from a long line of engineers and how becoming an engineer was a no-brainer, not only because that was the in thing in his family but also because he thought that was what he aspired to do in life. As I raised an eyebrow, he quickly added “I realized later, I wasn’t born to be an engineer. I was meant to be an artist because that was…” “A recessive gene perhaps,” I completed his sentence and we both laughed.

Elson was a textbook case of a professional who had given up his passion for his profession; he had given up excellence for success. I can’t begin to imagine where he would have landed as an artist had he spent all these years doing what he had a true passion for instead of buying raw materials for manufacturing kitchen appliances. The fact that he had achieved so much success in his career was a testament to his positive attitude and hard work, but in a profession not aligned with his inner calling, those elements could only get him that far; they could not lead him beyond success. And being one of the most senior people in the department where he had accomplished a lot over the past many years, he cherished the respect he got from his peers. His expertise was virtually unquestionable.

I felt that Elson was beholden to his company and everyone who worked there for giving him that respect. He was a smart cookie and maybe even realized that he was a slave to his success. I am not sure if it was a conscious decision on his part to neglect the promising prospect of him becoming an excellent visual artist, but his eyes glowed with an extraordinary avidity at my mere suggestion of him starting a small business on the side to bring his talents into service for people in my network who could be among his first clients and patrons. Maybe he was just waiting for someone to provide him the reassurance that what he had was indeed valuable.

Elson and his family have since moved to Vancouver where he now runs a very successful company that owns many studios offering photography, filmmaking and animation services to international clients. He is not just successful at what he does, he feels he is successful. To me, he discovered his inner calling and excelled at it.

Doing what you love to do may not make you financially successful; in fact there are lesser chances of you making it big money-wise if what you love doing is not the best commercial proposition out there.

So does it mean that when you follow your passion and do what you love to do, you excel at it and also achieve financial success? Incorrect! At least in the short term you don’t.

And unfortunately, that is precisely where people get it all wrong. Doing what you love to do may not make you financially successful; in fact there are lesser chances of you making it big money-wise if what you love doing is not the best commercial proposition out there. To me, excellence entails being the best at what you love to do, and also achieving financial success doing it. Therefore, only the former is not enough in order to achieve excellence; you have to convert your passion into an economic success. In fact, as far as your passion is concerned, the hard truth is nobody really cares about it as much as you do.

Let me explain it this way. Had Elson just picked up his camera and gone backpacking to New Zealand (which sure sounds like a lot of fun), he would not have achieved excellence doing what he loved doing. Still, he would have had great time doing it. But then, maybe a few days or weeks later when he had run out of all the money, he might have realized how crazy that idea was. This would have him believe that following your passion and doing what you love doing is not such a good idea after all.

Doing something you aren’t meant to do but are financially successful doing makes you regret it in the long run. Doing what you love to do but not achieving financial success doing it makes you regret it even sooner.

So just assuming that people will be concerned about your passion just because you love the work is like getting carried away with your optimism without giving much thought to how to make it their business first. I see a lot of people ending up into the same pit where they started. They find themselves stuck in a zero sum game, spending the same — or greater — number of hours doing what they were doing before but not making as much as before. Without evidence of short- to medium-term financial success, the dream of economic freedom and the charm of being your own boss dissipate.

So here’s the deal. Doing something you aren’t meant to do but are financially successful doing makes you regret it in the long run. Doing what you love to do but not achieving financial success doing it makes you regret it even sooner. It is like running after your self-actualization need before having met your physiological need.

Doing what you love doing and making it into a financial success is what keeps you on the path to excellence. Therefore, it is imperative to consider your passion as just another business and apply the same business planning principles you would to any other business. Ask yourself the following questions.

  1. Why are you doing what you are doing and what is your mission?

2. What problem are you solving for your clients and what value are you creating for them?

3. How are you using your unique value to solve their problem and how are you positioning it?

It follows from the above that in order to achieve excellence you have to employ your skills and talents in many areas at the same time. Elson was successful at his business not only because he was exceptional at the core skill but also because he had the business experience of working with vendors and partners. He had great negotiation and business planning skills. Also, apart from having a remarkable aesthetic sense, he was a qualified engineer — mentally ambidextrous so to speak.

In history, we have so many other examples of people who absolutely loved what they did and truly excelled at it because they put their complementary skills and talents to use. Pablo Picasso and Thomas Alva Edison are among the most prominent.