What exactly is excellence? Webster’s Dictionary gives these synonyms: “distinctiongreatnessperfectionpreeminence, superiority”. But these definitions seem unfair, since one can achieve excellence without being “the best”, or greater than, or preeminent. Excellence really is being the best you can be.

We do, however, need the inspiration of good example so we can strive to reach certain levels of ability according to what we know is possible. How we choose to relate to examples of excellence makes a difference; comparing is beneficial if you use it as inspiration and accept that excellence takes time and dedication to achieve, while comparing doesn’t work if you use it to bemoan your perceived inadequacies. In other words, saying “I don’t yet play as well as (whoever)” can give you the impetus to move forward, while saying “I never will play as well as (whoever),” is not at all productive and can prevent you from moving toward your personal best.

I am often surprised at how many aspiring, or even semi-professional, musicians have no idea how skilled they could be. Sometimes it’s just difficult to imagine what you have not yet experienced, but perhaps too many of us don’t give ourselves permission to imagine. It’s a neurologic fact that we can’t create what we can’t (or won’t) imagine. Therefore, using the imagination is important because what we vividly and consistently imagine becomes an integrated goal that automatically directs our actions.

If you have no idea what your potential is, please… don’t aim low. We all have pretty much the same capabilities unless we’re physically or mentally handicapped, and even then we can usually do a lot more than we assume we can. Those who accomplish much are those who don’t buy into smallness.

It’s essential to be genuine and passionate about developing skill. Some people just take up music or art because it will give them an intriguing persona. Years ago, someone I knew bought a beautiful instrument and assumed that simply owning it made her a musician. She learned only a few skills, thinking she would soon be “discovered” and made famous. She’s still waiting. That was the wrong kind of imagining. Had she dedicated herself to learning, there might have been a different outcome by now.

There are some societal paradigms that tell us we must not be “too big for our britches”, we must not excel, and that the nail that stands up gets hammered down. What does this belief accomplish? Lots of unhappy, mediocre people who assume that no one of any consequence can possibly come from their town or their family. Yet when some highly  successful person comes to town from elsewhere, they are put on a pedestal. How strange is the belief that excellence is inborn and therefore the successful person is somehow superhuman. Such beliefs only hold us back from being the best we can be.

Excellence is not superhuman or magic. It doesn’t happen by osmosis or even just by “talent”. It happens by working on it. When we deeply believe ourselves capable of excellence, our actions automatically fall in line to make it a reality. We don’t get side-tracked or distracted from the goal, and we make no excuses.

“If I became very successful, I might have to change my lifestyle,” or “I don’t want to be different from other people,” or “Someone might think I’m a fraud”, or “My mother didn’t encourage me,” or “I don’t have time,” are passion-killing thoughts. Making excuses is how we give ourselves permission to be mediocre. It’s much easier to wallow in mediocrity, and perhaps even to blame something or someone for it, than to do what it takes to achieve our dreams. But do you really want to wake up some morning when you’re very old and realize you wasted your life making excuses instead of doing what you were capable of?

A friend of mine who was born with one arm became a very fine professional harper. She had a prosthesis made with one finger curved just so, with which she plucked bass notes while she played melody and chords with the other hand, which had to be very agile to make up the difference. She never advertised herself as a one-handed harper; she demanded of herself the same excellence a two-handed harper. And she succeeded. (Now how do your excuses look?)

In the famous words of Marianne Williamson, quoted by Nelson Mandela in his inauguration speech, “… We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? …Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same…”

Being the best you can be at music or anything else raises the level of excellence, enjoyment, and self esteem in everyone around you.