MLK on the Pursuit of Excellence




Martin Luther King and the Compulsion for Excellence

This week’s Sensemaker comes on one of our favorite US holidays: Martin Luther King day. Today offers a chance to honor not only the remarkable courage, clarity and wisdom of the man himself, but to take a moment to connect with those same qualities in ourselves. Below, you’ll find a link to one of MLK’s lesser known speeches on “Life’s Bluprint,” delivered 53 years ago to a Junior High class in Philadephia. In it, he speaks to what each of us can do, in seeking excellence in our own vocation, to create a more just, beautiful world. While the message is tailored to young people, the content is universal, and connects to some key Talentism concepts. In particular, letting go of our insistences on how our excellence should look, and instead aligning to the unique excellence each of us is capable of creating. I’ve seen so many executives get so fixated on the idea of being a great executive or having a great financial outcome that they lose connection to the personal compulsions and talents they need to compound daily in order to BE great executives.

In Talentism terms, excellence requires connecting to our purpose – those parts of us we simply CAN’T turn off that feel meaningful when deployed. When we talk about purpose, we decompose it into two things: compulsion and meaning. Your purpose has to both be something that you feel compelled to do even when you’re not directing your attention to it, but also something that makes you feel good when it’s done – otherwise you won’t be able to sustain the drive for a long time. True excellence requires so much learning, so many challenges, so many dead ends, that the only sufficient fuel source comes from connecting to something we want more than avoiding suffering. Purpose isn’t (usually) handed down to us through a break in the clouds surrounded by trumpets; it’s something we work at uncovering and aligning with day by day.

Most often, the block to aligning with our purpose(s) is our confusion and fear. We get stuck in our stories about ourselves and how the world works, putting most of our energy toward protecting ourselves from perceived threats to our security or status, rather than unleashing our energy toward continued learning and deployment of our talents in the areas we find meaningful.

As you listen to Martin Luther King’s words, check how honestly you feel compelled toward excellence in your current work. If you don’t like what you see, then it’s time to invest in getting clearer about your fears, experimenting toward discovering your true compulsions, and aligning your work with them, even when the path is not yet clear.

Watch: MLK – What is your life’s blueprint?

Key quotes:

“You must have in your life’s blueprint as a basic principle the determination to achieve excellence in your various fields of endeavor… If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.

Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”

“Our slogan must be learn baby learn so we can earn baby earn.”

  • What moments and outcomes are you most proud of in your life?
  • Looking over the course of your life, what actions seem to have always come to you most naturally? What activities do you find yourself doing even when you’re low on energy?

  • How much do your current goals align with what you find compulsive and meaningful?

  • How much does your current role align with what you find compulsive and meaningful?

  • For the parts of your role and goals that don’t align with what you find compulsive and meaningful, what stories do you tell yourself about why they’re necessary?

  • Can you imagine other (more aligned) approaches you could take toward achieving the same outputs? Can you delegate it? Drop it? Replace it?

  • If not, are there other goals you could be working towards? What (if any) fears come up when you imagine shifting what you’re working on to something potentially more aligned?

  • Set aside one hour a week for the next four weeks for an experiment (seriously, book it on your calendar).
  • For week 1, based on your reflections above, pick an activity to use this hour for that you believe is aligned with your compulsions. Don’t worry about what it’s accomplishing — your only metric of success for the experiment is how much the activity feels like efforting.

  • For weeks 2-4, try the same experiment, but with some form of output that adds some form of value to your commercial endeavors. Don’t worry about the commercial case being ironclad, the most important point is seeing what happens when you direct your compulsions toward tangible output.

  • After running the experiment, look at your responsibility set. If the experiment was a success, is there a way to integrate more purposeful (compulsive + meaningful) work into what you do based on what you learned?


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