The year was 1969. Because I was an A to B student, I thought I already understood the importance of doing my best. But that day, Reverend Jesse Jackson lit a fire in me that changed the way I see life. His speech was about the personal sacrifices that had been made for all of us, regardless of how our ancestors came to be here. He talked about those who'd gone before us, who'd paved the way for us to be sitting in an integrated high school in Nashville. He told us that what we owed ourselves was excellence. "Excellence is the best deterrent to racism," he said. "Therefore, be excellent."

I took him at his word. That evening I went home, found some construction paper, and made a poster bearing his challenge. I taped that poster to my mirror, where it stayed through my college years. Over time I added my own maxims: "If you want to be successful, be excellent." "If you want the best the world has to offer, offer the world your best."

Reverend Jackson's words have helped me over many a hurdle, even when less than my best was evident. To this day, excellence is my intention. To be excellent in giving. In graciousness. In effort. In struggle and in strife. For me being excellent means always doing my personal best. In Don Miguel Ruiz's book The Four Agreements, the final agreement is just that: Always do your best. I know for sure that this is the most fulfilling path to personal freedom. Your best varies from day to day, Ruiz says, depending on how you're feeling. No matter. Give your best in every circumstance so that you have no reason to judge yourself and create guilt and shame. Live so that at the end of each day, you can say, "I did my very best." That's what it means to excel at the great game of life.

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