It began 15 years ago with a sign reading "Be excellent to each other," which I printed from my computer in Gothic type and taped to my workspace. I was about to launch into a series of temporary jobs to supplement my freelance writing income. My plan was to temp for a few months, save enough money so I could stay home and write for a while, back and forth, my intention being eventually to write full-time. As is often the case with best-laid plans, however, I soon discovered an unexpected goal within my temporary career: the pursuit of excellence as a way of life.
The phrase on the sign was borrowed from the silly eighties movie Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. I hoped it would remind me to be helpful, apply myself fully to every task, and be kind to even the most unpleasant individuals. I also secretly wished people would see the slogan and take the words to heart. My fellow temps were skeptical. "People treat temps like dirt," they scoffed. "You'll be lucky if you can maintain excellence through your first assignment." They had a point: I was likely to meet challenges. Nevertheless, I rolled up my sleeves and went to work.
The sign made its debut at a corporation that designed robots (affectionately called "the girls") for the food-packaging industry. Dubbing myself Robo Temp, I typed, filed, and amused my coworkers by invariably responding "I'll tell your fans" when they announced their departures for lunch. No one seemed to notice the sign until several days into the job, when I set up a videotape for a troubleshooting meeting. The tape showed "the girls" malfunctioning—throwing chocolate chip cookies at each other instead of neatly filing them into their respective boxes. "Hey," I heard a software engineer exclaim as I left the room. "They aren't being excellent to each other!" "Yeah!" someone else shouted. "Be excellent to each other!" Later someone left a box of the girls' cookies in the break room, accompanied by a note: "For the team. Thanks for your excellent help."
Not everyone embraced excellence with such enthusiasm. Some people ignored the sign (and the intention). Others were short-tempered, despite my best efforts. But, for the most part, my colleagues responded positively to kindness. They grew radiant when I told them their jade earrings made their eyes look beautiful or when I complimented them on a haircut. They took pride in their work when I admired the brilliant organization of a paper they'd written. They opened up more to others when I inquired about their weekend and actually listened to their responses. When I smiled, they smiled back.
On one occasion, being excellent even helped redirect the career of an unhappy administrative assistant. After overhearing her on the phone with her daughter, I asked if she had majored in child psychology, since she seemed especially gifted at dealing with children. Several weeks later, she came to thank me for my observation and to say goodbye: She was leaving to open her own day-care center.
As a longtime Zen student, I had been taught to appreciate small, mundane moments—moments opportune for practicing excellence in the workplace. For example, seemingly endless sit-at-the-receptionist-desk moments prompted me to be aware of when someone needed a sympathetic ear. Humdrum xeroxing moments were great for noticing harried coworkers who might appreciate assistance in meeting a deadline. Oh-so-yawnish envelope-stuffing projects were ideal times for spotting bottles to be carried to the recycling bin and spiders that needed to be taken outside in paper cups.