Personal Excellence Comes First


In his book, Stephen Covey split the seven habits of highly effective people into two categories: personal and interpersonal habits.  He felt that the personal skills came first.  Communicating goals with another person isn’t useful unless you have the discipline to act on those goals.  Personal excellence comes first.

I think this a point that is too often understated.  Many people try to tackle the branches of problems (relationships with friends, financial success, etc.) without looking at the personal skills that make the root.  If you don’t have mastery over yourself, how can you expect to succeed in mastering anything else?

What is Personal Excellence?

Personal excellence isn’t just one skill.  It’s all the mental resources that go together to help you handle problems.  Here are a few questions you can use to measure yourself:

  • Do you procrastinate?
  • When you make a commitment, do you stick with it?
  • How hard is it to motivate yourself?
  • Could you give up something you enjoy for one month?
  • Could you give up something permanently if it conflicted with your goals?
  • Could you halve your spending if forced to?
  • Are you able to do what is most important first?
  • Does your emotional state frequently prevent you from getting work done?
  • Can you handle stress?

Personal excellence is extremely important to me because I feel it reflects on everything I try to do.  If I’m weak with a personal skill, any other goal will be difficult to tackle.  External problems can usually be avoided by someone with personal excellence.  But almost nothing can be done if you aren’t in control of yourself.

I once heard that most lottery winners have spent the entirety of their winnings in five years.  I think this proves that wealth isn’t about money: it’s about personal excellence.  Unless you’ve built wealth on the inside, any money you find will probably slip through your fingers.

Dimensions of Personal Excellence

I try to always be pushing myself in at least one dimension of personal excellence.  It’s like a muscle, so if I’m not improving, I’m probably growing weak.


Discipline is at the core of personal excellence.  About half of the questions I asked at the beginning of this article are rooted in discipline.  If you don’t know how to push yourself through temporary discomfort, you’ll be derailed every time there is a bump in the road.

The best way to improve discipline is to face difficult, but manageable, situations.  Exercising is a good way to push your discipline levels up.  Thirty day trials are also a good test of your self discipline.  I know I’m letting this dimension weaken if I have trouble getting through thirty consecutive days of a new habit.

Discipline is important for personal excellence, but it should be the last skill to use, not the first.  If you’re constantly having to drag yourself to do everything, you won’t last long.  That’s why it’s important to build the other aspects of personal skill.

Emotional Control

Emotional control does not mean you should strive to be stoic and unfeeling.  Strong emotions are important for personal excellence too.  Being able to motivate yourself and build enthusiasm are components of emotional control.

Emotional control comes in two aspects: self-awareness of what emotional state is appropriate and the ability to change that state.  Building emotional control starts with building self-awareness.  Realize when you’re lazy, angry, energetic or depressed and ask yourself whether it’s the best perspective for dealing with a problem.

Once you have self-awareness, you can find the triggers you need to change your state.  People change moods all the time, you just need to realize what causes you to change states and activate it when you need it.  When I’m trying to motivate myself, a big help is being organized.  Decluttering is a tool I use to motivate myself to do other things.


A positive attitude does not mean you think things are going great all the time.  That’s being stupid.  When things are going poorly, you need to be able to recognize and fix what’s happening immediately.

A positive attitude, in the realm of personal excellence, means that you don’t let negative information shut you down.  Someone with a positive attitude can take verbal abuse from someone, and turn it into fuel for improvement.  Alchemy is the heart of a great attitude, being able to transmute the negative feedback from your environment into new solutions.


Fear is your friend.  Fear tells you to work when others are lazy.  Fear tells you secure yourself when others are gambling.  The first way to overcome your fears is to realize they serve a very good purpose in focusing you.

Courage, of course, isn’t the lack of fear.  It’s being able to realize your terrified but stand up anyways.  People with personal excellence know how to make their fears work for them.  Fear can be a powerful motivating force if you know how to channel it, and are able to override it when necessary.


The best sign of personal excellence is that a person has grace when handling problems.  If regular stresses cause a nervous breakdown, you don’t have personal excellence.  The scaffolding that supports your inner mental life, should be strong enough that when a hurricane comes through it, you don’t collapse.

I’ve found that knowing what to focus on in situations makes a big difference to your mental calmness.  Stress usually results, not from the actual workload or pressures (although exhaustion can happen), but from the way you focus on that information.  A huge to-do list can be handled one item at a time, not as an impossible mountain of tasks.

Building Personal Excellence First

Trying to fix external problems without building personal excellence is like putting a band-aid over a leaky pipe.  You might stop the water for a few minutes, but you’ve only masked the real problem.

Personal excellence is similar to athletic training.  Although you might get some conditioning just by playing the game, the best athletes practice.  Here are some ways to start building personal excellence:

  1. Get in shape.  If you aren’t already eating healthy and exercising, start.  The problem isn’t having enough time, it’s having enough discipline.
  2. Give up television.  Switch to entertainment that requires more effort, and read a book instead of watching reruns.  There is value in books, and there is also value in doing something more difficult, but more rewarding.
  3. Wake up earlier.  Yes, I like to sleep in too.  But every day you can push yourself to wake up earlier, you earn more control to do other things that are important to you.
  4. Speak in public.  Get booed a few times too.  A good test of personal excellence is to be able to swallow the unfiltered, face-to-face reactions of a few dozen people and still keep going.
  5. Follow a budget.  Try cutting your spending for a month, and following a strict budget.  The exercise isn’t just to save money, it’s to test yourself to see the limits of what you’re able to do.

You’re square one.  If you start there, the rest is easy.