Excellence: One Secret Of All Professionals

What it takes to go the extra mile to reach excellence

A resident doctor in a medical school sent me this note along with a request to share my thoughts on that one thing that all professionals need to do to go to the top of their professions.

Here was my response:

What if someone were to tell you that the secret recipe behind Michael Schumacher’s extraordinary racing skills or Mary Kom’s extraordinary boxing capability was just that word before ‘ordinary’: extra! That extra bit in the extraordinary comes not from the quantity of talent but from the quality of the mind that stretches talent.

I was recently invited to a very old medical college of India as the chief guest in their annual convocation. While preparing for my talk, I was wondering what would make an expert medical practitioner an excellent doctor.  The answer I found was– the quality of the mind.

I told a few hundred graduating medical students that the most precious diagnostic instrument that a doctor possessed was not a brain scanner or a laser knife but an excellent mind. Yet, how many doctors really did something to study their own mind? There was a hush of recognition in my audience of bright young women and men.

 As experts, we are paid to solve problems. The more complex the problem, the greater is the expertise demanded. But the most persistent problems we face defy the greatest of expertise

Where expertise fails, the quest for excellence begins. Excellence often begins with an examination of our own minds. You can start your journey in excellence by a simple practice that I have found very useful. At the end of a day, I bring my awareness to re-visit the whole day in reverse chronological order: starting with the last half an hour and ending with the time I got up from the bed. It is like pressing the rewind button of a mental movie. I often discover many moments in the day that I have been completely unaware of. Often times I discover words that should not have been spoken or assumptions that should not have been made. Sometimes, I discover moments of genuine happiness in the course of the day that escaped my awareness then. Initially, you may find this exercise challenging. But once you master it, you are bound to have a clearer mind as the end of the exercise. The story that illustrates this point has now become part of the medical school folklore:

The veteran urologist is demonstrating how to sample urine to a class of medical students. He reaches out towards each sample, dips a finger in the bottle, raises his hand to the mouth and licks it. The students find this repulsive but have no choice but to repeat the instructor’s example when they are invited to do so.

At the end of  class, the instructor tells the students: “While I can’t fault you for your general expertise in sampling urine, I must say that you have been very poor observers. If you were a little more aware, you would have noticed that while I dipped my middle finger in the bottle of the urine sample, I only sucked on my index finger while pretending to taste the urine — class over.

 Expertise is about qualification and experience. Excellence is about the quality of mind and awareness. Professional excellence is a result of developing a quality mind through constant awareness.  Experts tend to think of themselves as those who have finally reached their goal. Those in pursuit of excellence are always beginners. Excellence is a journey without a finish line. The journey of excellence begins every day with a new awakening and a newer insight that enriches the mind. Come, let’s begin.


Debashis Chatterjee

Debashis Chatterjee, author, professor, columnist, is the former Director of IIM, Kozhikode. He has taught leadership at Harvard University and at the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM), Lucknow and Calcutta, for more than a decade. He has been awarded the prestigious Fulbright Fellowship twice for pre- and post-doctoral work at MIT and Harvard. His published books include Leading Consciously and Break Free (Penguin), which have been translated into several languages. He has trained more than 10,000 managers globally in Fortune 100 corporations, and has served as leadership coach to CEOs. A pioneer in the field of Asian models in leadership, Dr Chatterjee can be reached at successsutras@gmail.com.