Great versus Average

May 24, 2015

At a recent fireside chat, we discussed average versus great work, average companies versus great companies, and average careers versus great careers. Most everyone can quickly describe great work, especially in the form of design, development, or a particular product launch. But we had a tougher time describing the qualities of a company that had achieved greatness. The question seemed impersonal and cold. What if we flipped the question to a different angle and asked a more personal question: What are the hallmarks of a great individual career? What are the hallmarks of simply an average career?

We came up with a giant list, including just a few here:

  • In a great career, my work became an inspiration for others.
    In an average career, my work had little lasting significance.
  • In a great career, I grew myself and grew others around me.
    In an average career, I only grew myself.
  • In a great career, I celebrated victories.
    In an average career I rarely celebrated.
  • In a great career, I continually pursued new things and pioneered new ideas.
    In an average career, I sometimes flirted with new things and executed on others’ ideas.
  • In a great career I created an inheritance for my family.
    In an average career, I provided for my family.
  • In a great career, I overcame obstacles and persevered through adversity.
    In an average career, I was rarely challenged.
  • In a great career, I spent time with my kids while they were growing up.
    In an average career, I worked all of the time.
  • In a great career, I enjoyed the journey and the destination.
    In an average career, I enjoyed only the destination.
  • In a great career, I reached something that others said couldn’t be done.
    In an average career, I never reached for something big.

And, one of my favorites:

  • In a great career, I looked forward to Mondays.
    In an average career, I looked forward to Fridays.

The list goes on. Once we got the ball rolling it was tough to stop thinking of the differences between great careers and average careers.

Throughout the discussion, it was important to clarify that an average career does not mean a “bad” career. There’s nothing wrong with “average.” Many people have average careers. They provide for their families, they have a steady paycheck, they do their work well, they eventually advance in their positions. There’s nothing dishonorable about an average career. But we’re not reaching for average, we’re reaching for something great.

When I look back upon my life’s work I want to see a great career. I want to see great impact. I want to see a tradition of new ideas, creative thinking, and a pattern of challenging status quo.

The secret formula to building a great company is filling it with people that want to achieve greatness themselves and in their life’s work. A great company is not simply a corporate entity doing all of the thinking and the planning for us. We are the company and our life’s works shape its future.

The exercise of discussing great versus average is a healthy act in discerning what is important to us as individuals so that we can archieve greatness together. Once we had identified what defined greatness for the individual, we easily swapped the words ‘career’ with ‘company’ to chart our path as a group.