A few months ago I was asked in an email "What was the most important lesson you learned in the NFL?" I didn't need long to draft a response. As 'retired' athletes are apt to do, I've done my fair share of reflecting on my time as a player.
My reply: "Excellence is about consistency. If you can make an NFL roster, you likely have the potential to make extraordinary plays. What separates Hall of Famers from the rest, isn’t extraordinary plays, it’s extraordinary consistency."
Moments of brilliance are rarely if ever, the reason excellence is achieved. It's the slog. The day-to-day doggedness. The drive to push yourself when no one is watching, when no one expects it, that is the bedrock of achievement.
What enables this type of focus? The best performers I've met have shared a similar underlying motivation, to constantly improve. What is powerful about this motivation? And why is it so pervasive among high-achievers? It is powerful because continuous improvement is an infinite game; there is no winning it, no end to it, no milestones to pass. It allows for continuous growth. Tiger Woods said it best, "No matter how good you get, you can always get better, and that's the exciting part." An inexhaustible source of motivation like this is key to long-term focus. This drive to constantly improve is pervasive among high performers because it's an internal metric. Relying on external comparisons can be constraining, while internal metrics can unlock potential. This is particularly true when it comes to innovation. Imagine where Amazon would be if they were motivated solely by comparisons with competitors? Amazon's competitor set has changed over time —first, they competed with bookstores, then other e-commerce sites, and now with internet platforms/cloud providers (Google, Facebook, and Microsoft)— and benchmarking to shifting external factors would have stunted their growth. Finding motivation that is both infinite in nature and internal in focus can help kickstart a flywheel of improvement that once moving is both powerful and sustaining. The better you perform, the more work/learning is required to raise the bar, the increased effort leads to further improvement, which further raises the bar. Wash, rinse, repeat.
It may seem counterintuitive that infinite goals and an internal focus on performance are the keys to consistency and, thus, excellence. But shifting our thinking around motivation and success is the first step to unlocking our potential, and that is where the magic lies.
We've taken these learnings and applied them to our work at El Cap. External measurement of success when making private investments can be a long time coming, and neither we (nor our portfolio companies) want to waste time waiting for that validation. We've chosen to focus on constant improvement. This means collecting data about our thinking and processes, regularly assessing the outputs, and actively making changes when needed. If it doesn't get measured, it doesn't get managed. Whether it be working on a project with a portfolio company, extending our range, writing a blog post, or making new investments, we have started the flywheel. We're excited to see where it goes.