What Does It Mean to Be Good at Something? A Framework for Excellence, Ft. Jeff Bezos and Ira Glass

October 2, 2020

One of the questions that resurfaced many times in my mind this year was that of defining excellence. Having gone to a highly selective private high school, I was surrounded by excellence.1 “I didn’t have enough space on my application to fit all my achievements,” a friend told me of her application to the school: she had won math, writing, and piano competitions and was a star violinist and figure skater. Others had their own heaps of accomplishments and excellencies, earning them instant approval from peers and adults around them.

I was raised ambitious. My father would reply to my updates about middle school activities with, “how do you compare to the rest of your class?” I was pushed, and push myself, to strive for and achieve excellence. Like any ambitious kid, I’ve racked up some accomplishments and statuses of success, falling in and out of them over the years: I’ve been a top student, a skilled filmmaker, a great pianist, a strong runner.

In high school, comparing my excellences to others’ was mostly a matter of self-perception, ego, and maybe college apps.2 After high school, though, thinking about and acting upon the idea of excellence has a much different weight. In high school, you’re given a purpose: learn and be a good student. Non-academic excellences were valued, but ultimately optional. Breaking out of this bubble, though — confronting major or school choices and potential career paths — slingshots you in the other direction. Learning is ultimately optional; what matters is that you can get good at something, provide value to someone, and get paid for it. Even if you continue on to academia, it’s a choice rather than the default path: you choose to pursue excellence in academic study or research over, say, building software for companies.3

These choices crashed down on me heavily in the past year: graduating high school, confronting unexpected college decisions, and embarking on a gap year as a working member of the tech industry, trying to figure out what I was good at and what I wanted to stake my livelihood on getting good at. I wrote about this process in a blog post in July, laying out some higher-level musings on finding purposeful pursuits in life.

In this post, I’d like to revisit the idea of excellence itself (which I’ve also written about before). Specifically, as I mentioned earlier, I’d like to try and define it. What does it mean to be good at something? There’s an individual answer for every “something” that this question is asked of, of course, but are there general trends that we can identify, or an overarching framework we can come up with? A general framework would help us understand what we ourselves and others are good at, how we came to be this way, and offer key insights about how to hold ourselves to high standards and pursue excellence.4

I’ve been after such a framework for a long time — and I think I’ve had most of it floating in my head for a long time, too. Bits and pieces of them make their way out in conversations and blog posts. Some recent exploration and reflection, though, has led to a cohesive hypothesis taking shape. In fact, here it is in equation form:

In this blog post, I’ll explain what this equation means, how I came up with it, and some further reflections on how it can be used for past and present analysis.

Insights and inspiration

“High standards” were one focus of the third session of TKS a week ago. In the session, Innovate students were introduced to two short texts to learn from.

The first was Jeff Bezos’ 2018 letter to Amazon shareholders. Bezos opens the letter by stating Amazon’s recent success not in terms of sales or growth, but in customer and employee satisfaction: #1 on the American Customer Satisfaction Index, the UK Customer Satisfaction Index, LinkedIn’s Top Companies list. He thanks and congratulates Amazon employees for their “unrelenting customer obsession, ingenuity, and commitment to operational excellence.” The letter then turns to the topic we’re interested in. “How do you stay ahead of ever-rising customer expectations?” Bezos asks. “High standards (widely deployed and at all levels of detail) are certainly a big part of it.”

Bezos doesn’t explicitly define high standards, but offers in his letter four key insights (and many corollary ones) about them: 1) high standards are teachable, 2) high standards are domain specific, 3) high standards must be recognized to be made use of, and 4) high standards require the definition of realistic scopes to reach and maintain.

The second text introduced targets a much different version of high standards and excellence than Bezos’ customer satisfaction and operational excellence. Incidentally, it’s also one of my favorite quotes, and one that I’ve used previously as the foundation for my understanding of excellence.

The quote comes from a 2009 interview with highly accomplished radio journalist and creator of radio program This American Life, Ira Glass. In the well-known quote, Glass talks about producing work as a creative. “All of us who do creative work…we get into it because we have good taste,” Glass begins. “The first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good…and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.”

The gap between an artist’s taste and their work, Glass explains, is often the biggest obstacle to their improvement and success. “A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit.” All artists who do interesting creative work, Glass says, go through this phase, often years of it. The secret to artistic success is simply to fight through this phase through practice and persistence. “It’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap,” Glass says, “and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.”

Glass’ quote and Bezos’ letter are both compelling texts. The language of Glass’ quote, in audio and text transcript, is elegant and inspiring, and its contents are deeply felt by anyone who has called themselves an artist. Anybody who seeks to be an innovator or make real, meaningful contributions to the world is no less an artist than those who Glass are addressing, and Glass’ ideas about excellence translate over well. Jeff Bezos and Amazon, on the other hand, need no introduction; the ideas in Bezos’ letter, as he introduces them, are informed by and have driven two decades of continuous innovation and growth of one of the biggest, most ubiquitous in the world.

My framework very much builds off of and owes clarity and inspiration to the two aforementioned texts.

The framework

Here’s my hypothesis: a person’s degree of excellence in a certain thing can be expressed as a function of three inputs: external judgement of what constitutes excellence in this thing; internal recognition of this external judgement; and practice put in to move closer to the recognized state of excellence.

I’ve found that equations can be useful, concise representations of mental models, so here’s one for this framework:

Let’s dive into each of three key components of this framework.

Excellence is external

We like to think of excellence as things inherent and true. Being good at running, math, or piano seem like absolute things, where you can disagree about the absolute best way to do something, but general excellence in the area will be universally understood.

But if you’re isolated from civilization, living completely on your own on a hypothetical idyllic self-sustaining farm for some reason, it doesn’t matter if you run a sub-4-minute-pace world record marathon every day for your morning jog. Running fast is just something that you do, not anything outstanding, because there’s nothing to stand out against.

If you’re a hunter-gatherer with archery skills that put today’s Olympic gold medalist archers to shame, your excellence while you live is not greater than that of modern archers. Your excellence makes you the best in your tribe, but ultimately just another skill to put food on the campfire.

Excellence is defined by what you excel at, necessarily relative to all the people and perceptions surrounding you. Excellence is in no way absolute, it’s a social construct that shifts with time, depending entirely on the contextual culture and social conditions.5

All this provides an immediate answer to the question, “what is excellence?” Excellence is whatever people consider it to be.

Bezos’ letter is a good illustration of this idea as well. Why does Bezos value maintaining high standards and chasing excellence so much? Because it results in high employee and customer satisfaction ratings, along with whatever other metrics Amazon and its shareholders care about. And as Bezos says in his letter, “[customer] expectations are never static…we didn’t ascend from our hunter-gatherer days by being satisfied. People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary’.” This is true of customer and shareholder expectations, but also of areas that seem less subject to change, like math or science: new discoveries and research are constantly pushing fields’ expectations for excellence to new places.

On the one hand, this thought can be very inspiring: truly pursuing excellence and holding yourself to high standards means continuous growth and improvement. On the other hand, it provides some larger context for thinking about excellence. Excellence can be immensely valuable to acquire, but it’s ultimately only a tool to interact with and navigate through society. Excellence is worth as much as you let it (or are able to).

External judgement is the first ingredient for assessing or achieving excellence. It determines how excellence can manifest or be defined in a given context.

Internal recognition

The next part of excellence is internal recognition of external evaluations of excellence.

Across a group of people, there is never a single judgement for excellence in a given area. As discussed previously, the usefulness of a definition of excellence is determined by how many people subscribe to it. In many cases, though, it can be far from clear what the dominant conception of excellence is. Misconceptions and misinterpretations can also arise easily.

Asked to critique the interface of an app, most people might raise vague points about aesthetics and usability. An experienced UI designer, on the other hand, would tell you about information architectures, Gestalt principles, and ways to communicate hierarchy or interactivity through typography, spacing, and color. You could certainly build a highly useful and valuable app without learning any more about UI and UX design than the common person, but if you want to have high standards in or pursue excellence in design, the first step is to learn the principles that make excellent, high standards designs. The same applies to anything else you want to become excellent at — leadership, public speaking, swimming.

Bezos identifies this step of internal recognition by stating that high standards are teachable rather than intrinsic. With the above example in mind, the best way to acquire internal recognition of high standards should seem intuitive: exposure. “High standards are contagious,” Bezos says in his letter. “Bring a new person onto a high standards team, and they’ll quickly adapt.” He follows with an equally important warning: “The opposite is also true. If low standards prevail, those too will quickly spread.”

Glass is even more explicit in naming this step — it’s the artist’s “taste” that his quote centers around. As Glass says it, excellence is achieved by closing the gap between the artist’s taste in artwork, and their own work that falls short of their own standards.

Glass represents taste more as an intrinsic attribute than a teachable one. While I think it’s evident that, for countless domains of excellence, recognition is highly teachable and learnable, perhaps people are born with a higher sensitivity to some kinds of excellences than others, or this is ingrained into them by their early childhood environments. Artistic and literary expression does often seem to arise naturally, for example.

Even if or when sensitivity to excellence arises naturally, this sensitivity is only recognition of excellence if the object of sensitivity aligns with external judgements of excellence.

Ultimately, whether recognition of external judgements of excellence comes from natural sensitivity or exposure and deliberate education, it is the second ingredient in my framework for excellence, and the first concrete step to take to pursue high standards and excellence.

Perfect practice makes perfect

The last idea in my framework should be a familiar one: work hard and practice. Glass puts it well in the section at the end of the quote:

The most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while…and you just have to fight your way through that.

Once you’ve developed your taste and know what excellence looks like, you need to push yourself to catch up with it. Producing work goes a step beyond exposing yourself to high standards. Being able to critique others’ work only gets you so far; building up your own excellence, or your team’s excellence, is a whole different process that requires real experience and practice to progress.

The fact that this step comes after external judgement and internal recognition reveals why it’s possible to invest tons of time and effort in practicing and producing work, but not actually improve, or improve very slowly and sporadically. If you’re practicing without a target of excellence to aspire towards, you’ll improve only when or if your practice lines up with excellence by random chance. Writing a million lines of bad code, or piles of UI mockups without improvement, doesn’t help you learn. Running with bad form or riding an old bike that can’t get up to speed will greatly bottleneck your training. Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.

Bezos adds to this step the closely linked idea of scope. He tells the story of a friend who wanted to learn how to do a perfect handstand (“Instagram good,” Bezos says — an external judgement of excellence). Finding it hard to make progress through her own practice, she hired a handstand coach to help her (building internal recognition of excellence from exposure). In their first lesson, the coach told her: “Most people think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.” After gaining a recognition of excellence, understanding the scope of practice required and putting in the necessary time and effort is the last step to achieving excellence.

Glass uses similar language as Bezos’ friend’s handstand coach, reflecting that it taking years to close the taste gap and achieve excellence. Many aspiring artists quit while confronting their gaps, Glass says. Like Bezos’ stressing of the importance of setting a realistic scope when working towards excellence, Glass tells listeners that this years-long gap is unavoidable, urging them to put in the time and effort to push through and close it to achieve excellence.

Conclusion

We’ve now covered the three key components to my framework for working towards and achieving excellence:

1. Excellence is external. Excellence is whatever people consider it to be, shaped by cultural and social conditions and varying over time.
2. The first step to pursuing excellence is recognizing it. Perhaps some of this recognition is natural or instilled early on, but it’s also often teachable through exposure and guidance.
3. Perfect practice makes perfect. Once you’ve formed an understanding of what excellence looks like, you have to put in the time and work to close the gap between your standards and your performance.

Here’s the equation that I presented earlier:

Armed with a better idea of how these variables interact, we can propose a simplified version of what the function $f$ might look like:

Excellence is equal to the dot product between external judgement and internal recognition — essentially, how well they align with each other — times some scalar quantity of practice. All three of these variables vary with time, though, so we can add an integral over time, too, though that might just be confusing rather than helpful as a framework representation.

As I said earlier, this framework has assembled itself in bits and pieces in my mind over the past year or so, as I’ve increasingly had to confront the idea of excellence myself.

Recognition and practice were the first parts of the framework that came to me, when I discovered Ira Glass’ quote about taste and practice. “I’m disappointed in myself because I have high standards for myself,” I wrote in a July blog post. “To hit those high standards, there’s nothing I can do but keep pushing myself towards them, to embrace my failures and perceived shortcomings and just keep going.”

The external judgement component of the framework, though, is what offered the most clarity for me on what excellence actually was and how it manifested. In high school, excellence was something I worked hard for without thinking much about. I didn’t think about excellence being domain-specific or defined externally; I only knew that my ambition compelled me to pursue excellence however I could, and I scrambled to do so.

I had began to find a channel of excellence to pursue in the winter of my senior year, consisting of a renewed love for social sciences, literature, and art. The problem is that I lost this channel when college decisions came out and I committed to an engineering school. “I scrambled to apply to internships, programs, whatever I could find. I completely forgot the self that I had previously found,” I wrote in a graduation reflection piece. I dove into tech entrepreneurship and software engineering, soon finding a wide array of opportunities in app design and development in front of me.

Meeting dozens of product managers, engineers, and founders, aspiring and experienced, I realized — or rather, was told repeatedly — that my knacks for visual design and technical engineering were highly valuable individually, and even rarer grouped together. I had never thought much of either of these skills. I had cultivated them as personal hobbies, making app concepts and building websites. In an environment where academic study and impact through ideas were key, my skills were useful for the occasional project, sometimes sought after by clubs, but I never really thought of them as “excellent.”

Using the framework that I’ve now come up with, this is an example of internal forces randomly lining up with external judgements of excellence among a certain group of people. If I had never gone into the software/tech industry, I could’ve gone my whole life with the same skills and experience, but never recognized them as excellent, because the external judgement was missing. Conversely, recognizing my excellence now has propelled me forwards, accelerating my ability to maintain and further improve my skills and secure opportunities by leveraging this value that I now know I can provide.

Thinking about excellence and value in this way also allowed me to break out of the mindset of excellence as a general, domain-agnostic trait. I remember the moment that I realized this, when I realized that a startup I had built the frontend for and then refused to continue paying me would have a very, very hard time finding someone who could produce work at my level, unless they were willing to pay upwards of a hundred times what they paid me.

In addition to leveraging my strengths, though, this realization also allowed me to accept my weaknesses. I had joined a literary magazine as a staff writer in the spring, contributing a blog post biweekly. While I had plenty in my head to write about, I suck at getting content out, taking multiple days to write anything cohesive. My previous mindset told me to keep pushing — my taste was good and my end products just about close the gap, I just have to keep practicing to get faster. This is the correct mindset if I wanted to get good at writing, but somehow I had it in my mind that some form of overall excellence, to which my excellence in all other domains would be attached, was dependent on achieving excellence in writing. This new mindset freed me from this thought. If I wanted to become a faster writer, I could; but I could also choose not to, prioritizing other strengths of mine and ultimately providing more value to others and growing faster.

I dropped this regular writing commitment soon after. I went through a similar process when figuring out the work that I would be doing at my new job at StartupTree. The CEO wanted me to work on a new product, outlining briefly his vision and telling me to take ownership. In my previous mindset, I would have taken it on, doing my best no matter how hard it was, telling myself that I was growing. My new mindset, however, allows me to think with much more nuance about what would be best for me and how I could have the greatest impact.

I reflected on my past experiences as a leader, an entrepreneur, and an employee of the same CEO in different projects. Though I could definitely get through it, I knew it would be draining for me to take on such an open-ended project in a market I didn’t know super well yet. I thrived when tackling tough problems that aligned with pre-existing missions, like internal innovation and optimizations. This was a hard thing to admit to myself: I always thought that I would be best as a CEO or product manager, and feel stifled as an engineer or more narrow role. Turns out, it might be closer to the opposite. For this job specifically, I was able to share my thoughts with the CEO, arriving at a UX lead/developer position that I think suits my strengths much better.

Of course, there’s value to working on your weaknesses — but to make sure that you’re actually growing rather than holding yourself back, it’s important to make these prioritizations with deliberate intent and awareness. The framework I’ve introduced in this article is a tool for doing just that. It’s useful for assessing things that people tell you you’re good or bad at, and things that you think you’re good or bad at, to arrive at a concrete picture of what your excellence in a particular domain looks like, and how it’s developed over time. Used in reverse, it’s useful for backwards-engineering from feelings of excellence what your strengths actually are, how they’re evaluated externally, and how they can translate to points of leverage for relationships and opportunities.

As with any framework, this one is necessarily imperfect and incomplete. A map is useful precisely because it’s a reduced representation of its subject, after all. This framework is built off of my personal experiences, and two texts considered in isolation, ignoring the huge amount of thinking and work that has gone into the very question of defining excellence. This framework doesn’t tell you why things are considered excellent or not, or why excellence in a particular domain or as a concept matters to you or at all — questions that can be pursued in the realms of business, sociology, philosophy, or just further personal reflection.

What this framework is, though, is a tool. It’s a particularly important tool for me at the present moment of my life, a compass of sorts for the new, non-school world that I’ve found myself hurled into. In many ways, me writing this blog post is an attempt to document my own life and development, rather than sharing any particular insight.6 But if you’re at a similar point in life as me, or are a student preparing for what’s ahead, maybe you’ll find this framework useful, too.

1. “It’s a school of rich, smart people,” some people have said when I tell them I went to Andover. In my experience, it’s closer to a school of rich and smart people. I think the best way of explaining what Andover is like is comparing it to an elite college. Some of the smartest and most ambitious 18-22 year olds in the world are there, sure; but so are many who have simply had lives optimized for superficial success: the legacies, club athletes, non-profit founders who get tens of thousands of dollars from parents and family friends for no-strings-attached starting capital.

2. …though college apps are more about a narrow sliver of presentation rather than any real profile of you.

3. By teaching high schoolers about high standards and emerging technologies, a program called The Knowledge Society provides an education that most schools and childhood learning environments entirely fail to give, empowering students to pursue their ambitions beyond the academic bubble and strive to make a real impact on the world.

4. What excellences to pursue and why is a whole different, much much bigger question. There are a few related guiding frameworks and ideas that I hope to explore in further blog posts.

5. Art and literature may seem to present a challenge to this claim. On the surface, artistic excellence doesn’t seem to be defined by performing to some external standard, but the opposite: turning inwards and creating something newly authentic and human. You feel like a truly excellent artist not when you can replicate a certain style perfectly, but when you create something that says something about you, or about the society around you, that flows from within and transcends or critiques what’s around you. However, even the deepest art is given meaning only by context and interpretation. This is the whole point of Duchamp’s Fountain. Art that seeks to obfuscate itself does so deliberately, interacting with its social context even if nobody even sees or understands the piece other than the artist. A person can certainly create a piece without deliberate consideration for external judgement, but it’s impossible to consider this piece excellent in any way unless external judgement imposes itself. (Not to say that un-excellent things are not valuable — I’m trying to push back on this idea, if anything, but that’s a discussion for a later time.)

6. As an English teacher of mine once said, love poems are always about the lover, not the beloved. If this blog post is a love poem, I am the lover and my framework is the beloved.