As you may have noticed from the title, this post is going to be a little different. I’m starting a new recurring feature where I profile (or interview) somebody who embodies the spirit of excellence in their career or their life in general, to see how the principles and habits that contribute to excellence play out in their lives. Some of these people may be famous, some may fly under the radar, and some may still be on the road to excellence, but they’ll all have something to teach us about how we can each make the pursuit of excellence a part of our daily lives.
So why did I pick Bruce Springsteen out of a constellation of worthy candidates to lead off this series? Well, he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he’s won 20 Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, and the Kennedy Center Honors. Perhaps more importantly from a decision-making perspective, I just finished his autobiography “Born to Run”, so I felt like I knew a little about his life, and as I read it, I was struck by how well he illustrated many of the principles that I use to define excellence. Finally, I was born in New Jersey, so I thought it was only fitting to start off with one of the state’s favorite native sons.
So what are the qualities and habits that made Bruce Springsteen an icon?
1. He Discovered His Passion and Pursued It Relentlessly
In his autobiography, Springsteen describes the times when he first saw legends like Elvis and The Beatles on TV, and how this rocked his world. He said it was like being struck by lightning. The music brought him to life. He couldn’t get enough. He knew he had found his “thing”.
“I’m glad I’ve been handsomely paid for my efforts but I truly would’ve done it for free. Because I had to. It was the only way I found momentary release and the purpose I was looking for.” – Bruce Springsteen
And he went to work. He saved up to buy a guitar, with help from his mother. He practiced (!!!). He took every opportunity he could to learn more about his craft. He would go to school dances, and while all the other kids were being kids, he was glued to the front of the stage studying the guitarists, and then he would stay up all night practicing their techniques. When he was still too young to get into bars, he would stand out on the sidewalk listening to the bands playing inside, and picking the brains of the musicians when they came out for smoke breaks.
“If they had told me I was the janitor and would have to mop up and clean the toilets after the show in order to play, I probably would have done it.” – Bruce Springsteen
That’s dedication. Most of the time when we see someone who’s reached the top in their field, we assume they were born with extraordinary talent, and discount the hours and hours of grueling practice they put in over years and years, sometimes even a decade or more, to develop what started out as a seed. Springsteen illustrates how the real talents super-achievers have are hard work and unwavering focus.
2. He Identified His Unique Gift
All that practice made Springsteen a really good guitarist, and his band had a devoted following in New Jersey. They were really, really good. But when they traveled across the country to try their hand in San Francisco, he had a wake-up call. They ran into other up-and-coming bands that were also really, really good – and maybe even better. And he realized that he didn’t have that special something that would make him a phenomenal guitarist, nor did he have a phenomenal singing voice. If he focused just on developing those skills, he would never be one of the best.
But he still had his dream of being great. And that led him to realize that his unique gift was his storytelling ability – his unique way of seeing the world, the times, the people, and capturing it in the words of his songs. So that’s where he focused his energy. He wrote… and wrote… and wrote.
“Voice…guitar…song…three tools. My voice was never going to win any prizes. My guitar accompaniment on acoustic was rudimentary, so that left the songs. The songs would have to be fireworks. I decided the world was filled with plenty of good guitar players, many of them my match or better, but how many good songwriters were there? Songwriters with their own voice, their own story to tell, who could draw you into a world they created and sustain your interest in things that obsessed them. Not many, a handful at best.” – Bruce Springsteen
The whole time he continued to work on putting together a top-notch band and developing his others skills. But he really hammered on the songwriting. He sensed that was what would make him stand-out in a competitive and crowded field. And it did.
“My vocal imperfections made me work harder on my writing, my band leading, my performing, and my singing. I learned to excel at those elements of my craft in a way I might otherwise never had if I had a more perfect instrument… Your blessings and your curses often come in the same package.” – Bruce Springsteen
The lesson for the rest of us is to recognize that we were each born with unique gifts and talents, and that we’ll achieve our greatest success when we focus on developing those, rather than trying to imitate someone else. Inspirational author/speaker Robin Sharma has said that everyone on earth has the potential to be the best in the world at something. Excellence is about combining your individual passions with your unique gifts and talents to the best of your ability, to create something that no one else can contribute to the world.
3. He Always Gives 100%
Springsteen sets high standards for himself, and requires it of his band. Every time they take the stage, he and his band give everything they have, and leave it all out there. When he’s putting out an album, he doesn’t throw a collection of “good enough” songs together and call it a day. He works over the lyrics and the arrangements and the connection between all the pieces until he’s satisfied it’s the very best he can create at that point in time, that it’s a work he can look back on with pride, regardless of sales numbers or awards.
He puts his complete heart and soul into everything he commits to do.
“Lesson number one: in the E Street Band we don’t “sort of” do… ANYTHING.” – Bruce Springsteen
Consistently putting in your best effort is one of the most fundamental elements of excellence. It’s what sets top performers off from everyone else in their field – because most people are willing to settle for “good enough”, or their efforts are inconsistent. But these are both habits, and therefore, within our ability to change.
If we want to incorporate excellence in our own lives, we need to develop the habit of examining our own work or relationships or routines, and truthfully ask and answer whether we’re giving our best effort, or whether we’re distracted, holding back, or phoning it in. We need to be objective, and let go of excuses. And we need to carry this habit of introspection into each and every assignment, project, practice, or encounter.
We won’t ever be perfect, and our best will vary from day to day (although combined with a focus on continual improvement, it should get better over time) – but it is always within our power to show up and give 100%.
4. He Recognizes He’s a Work-In-Progress
Finally, one of the things that jumps out in Springsteen’s autobiography is that he’s far from perfect, and he’s the first to admit it. In business, he hasn’t always made the best decisions. In his relationships, he hasn’t always said or done the right thing. He’s struggled with depression and anxiety. He’s made a lot of mistakes along the way. He talks about his shortcomings with honesty and authenticity.
But through it all, he’s stayed committed to growing and learning and improving. He’s continually trying to become a better musician/husband/parent/friend, to learn from his failures, to battle his demons. His life is on an upward trajectory.
And that’s the point – excellence becomes possible when we give up the illusion of perfection. Excellence is a process, a way of living based on continually improving ourselves. It’s a balance of recognizing and taking pride in how far we’ve come while remaining humble enough to see where we still need to grow. It’s seeing and accepting ourselves as a work-in-progress, while at the same time putting in the work to continue to make progress.
The take-home message is that while Bruce Springsteen has achieved extraordinary success, his achievements have been built on habits of excellence that are within the reach of everyone. He wasn’t born extraordinary – he worked for it, developing the habits that allowed him to fully tap into his latent talents and bring his dreams to life. And there’s a lesson in that for all of us.
So, what do you think? And who are some of the models of excellence you admire? Let me know in the comments section below!