Book Reviews

The Excellence Habit by Vlad Zachary – Book Notes, Summary, and Review

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Rating: 6/10

Date of reading: 31st of December 2016 – 2nd of January, 2017

Description:  How small changes can affect your life in big ways. This is like a butterfly effect which actually works. The book focuses on creating the habit of excellence and it states that you need to have it in the areas which you deem the most important in your life.  Success is closely tied with results while excellence, on the other hand, is tied with a process (a habit). You can control the second, not the first.

My notes:




She really struggled with that. When her core identity was taken from her, it was the worst possible feeling.

acquire this skill in order to be successful as an entrepreneur. To his surprise, instead of rejecting him, many of the odd requests he made of total strangers were accepted. For instance, he got to drive a police car, fly a small airplane, make a PA announcement at Costco, and play soccer in a random homeowner’s backyard.

“A life worth living is spent outside your comfort zone!” became Marco’s favorite sentence and a maxim he strives to apply relentlessly to this day.

our honeymoon at a new job, this blind belief is rewarded. We bust our chops, we get recognized, and we get a pat on the back. It is this pat on the back that changes our attitude from blind belief to justified belief. Our idea that hard work pays off is proven correct, so we place more trust in the system. When what we think is true turns out to be true, we trust ourselves all the more. And we never revisit our comfortable adult choice.

Our decision-making is guided, and more often than not misguided by habits, which are based on biases. We build habits centered on irrational beliefs. 

neighborhood, stable career, et cetera. Professional success is mostly about achieving ever higher business goals. In most cases, we measure success against the amount of social influence, recognition, and money we obtain. Success is about results. Excellence, on the other hand, is about the process.

What did we learn? What did we teach? In a way, excellence is a lot more than success and it is a lot more personal.

Greeks had the concept of arête, which translates to outstanding “fitness for purpose.” It appears in the works of Aristotle and Homer, and it basically means excellence of any kind.

The Greek goddess that personified arête was called Harmonia.

Then, after a few quick months the practice is no longer new. It gets boring. Eventually, she no longer wants to do it. In her brain the routine of doing the same thing over and over has become exhausting, frustrating, and undesirable. Her attention drifts during practice and the results are less and less satisfying.

The need for continuous change is at the center of the idea of the Excellence Habit, and it also might be the hardest one to accept. In pursuit of this fundamental idea I will take you on a journey over the skies of New York to learn how supreme excellence saved a damaged airplane full of passengers. I am going to introduce you to three fascinating principles I call The Iceberg Principle, The Law of Not Selling Out, and The Journey Mindset. We will revisit the famous Princeton Theological Seminary experiment to examine how the Good Samaritan relates to the power of
context. I will tell you more about Amy Cuddy, and how she was able to wipe her inner graffiti and change her inner context to succeed. I will take you on a trip with the founder of Phunware, a successful tech start-up in Austin, to understand how to build an Excellence Habit in an organization and make it stick.The need for continuous change is at the center of the idea of the Excellence Habit, and it also might be the hardest one to accept. In pursuit of this fundamental idea I will take you on a journey over the skies of New York to learn how supreme excellence saved a damaged airplane full of passengers. I am going to introduce you to three fascinating principles I call The Iceberg Principle, The Law of Not Selling Out, and The Journey Mindset. We will revisit the famous Princeton Theological Seminary experiment to examine how the Good Samaritan relates to the power of context. I will tell you more about Amy Cuddy, and how she was able to wipe her inner graffiti and change her inner context to succeed. I will take you on a trip with the founder of Phunware, a successful tech start-up in Austin, to understand how to build an Excellence Habit in an organization and make it stick.




poor person a hundred years ago, we would likely call them unfortunate. Back then, we would describe them as someone who did not have enough fortune, who was not lucky enough. Nowadays, we would not be surprised to hear someone at the bottom of society called a loser. I think we can all agree that there is a big difference between unfortunate and a loser. As society we have evolved to believe less in God and more in ourselves. We are in the driver’s seat of our lives, and, therefore, we own both success and failure. On a personal level, this has made it more difficult to feel good about our current level of success. By accepting the idea that we could achieve anything, we have increased the pressure on ourselves to do it. Paradoxically, this makes it more difficult to reach our goals.

Excellence, therefore, is a function of the people who choose it, the preparation itself, and the principles, which apply to this preparation. And when excellence happens, it is because all these agents of change have converged. These agents of change I call the Iceberg Principle, the Law of Not Selling Out and the Journey Mindset.

expressed: “No one knows the right answer, no one knows precisely what will happen, no one can produce the desired future, on demand.”

Sometimes adversity will disguise itself in the form of success, or worse— the desire for success.




always be compassionate. So when one of these students steps over a body, on his way to give a talk on the Good Samaritan story, this is shocking. We tend to ignore the power of context, which is so significant in our behavior.

In 1969, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo arranged for two cars with no license plates to be placed unattended in the Bronx, New York, and Palo Alto, California. Within minutes of its abandonment, the car in the Bronx was attacked. The first vandals were a family: a father, mother, and a young son. They took the car’s battery and radiator. Within twenty-four hours that car was stripped of everything of value. Then, the windows were smashed in, upholstery ripped apart, and the neighborhood kids started using it as a playground. At the same time, the car in Palo Alto remained untouched for more than a week. Then, Zimbardo deliberately took a hammer and smashed it. Soon after, people in Palo Alto also joined in the destruction.

This experiment was used to examine what is known in criminology as the broken windows theory. Undesirable events like these can occur in any civilized community when the sense of mutual regard and civility are lowered by actions that suggest indifference. In other words, when a broken window is left broken, soon after someone will smash a second one, and in a short time the property will be vandalized. In an article in 1982, criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling argued that crime is the inevitable result of disorder.

By 1994, the graffiti and fare-beating initiatives produced a drastic reduction in crime in the subway. The key lesson from these events is that the power of context is greater than we usually assume. We are more than just sensitive to changes in our environment. We are delicately fine-tuned to them. And, even minor changes to our context can alter our oath to excellence in ways we could not have foreseen.

just as with our external circumstances, our internal state can have “broken windows.” From childhood trauma and bad experiences, to poor habits and wrong choices, we carry with us the luggage of our inner circumstances. And just as with the broken windows theory in criminology, we are exquisitely sensitive to minor changes in our internal context. Without noticing, we can be affected by a smell, a tune on the radio, or an old poster. An odd thought could pop up during a meeting at the office, and then we find ourselves drifting for fifteen minutes and missing important information.

What do you tell yourself when your core identity is taken away from you?

again, but she didn’t notice it. Or she noticed it, but she didn’t believe it. Her mindset needed an adjustment. She needed to change her story from “I am not supposed to be here!” to “I belong here!”

two minutes we can experience these changes in attitude and body chemistry? We can start feeling assertive, confident, and comfortable or become really stress-reactive and feel shut down. This is major. It turns out small changes in our body language does have a significant effect on body chemistry and how we feel about ourselves. In other words, our bodies can and do change our minds in very specific ways.

hard at it. He built an attitude of excellence, and then made it into a habit. Being comfortable was not a part of Steve Jobs’ daily routine. He also did not expect or allow anyone working for him to be comfortable. This was his life philosophy. This is why he did it. He knew that to keep succeeding, he needed to keep improving. He affirmed the power of this principle with his famous closing advice to the graduating class at Stanford:
“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”




Bugs Bunny on their trip to Disneyland. Since Bugs Bunny is a Warner Bros character and is not featured in Disneyland, the study demonstrated how easy it was to plant false memories. Brain scientists know that our memory does not work like a video camera. Instead of “recording” and then “playing back” an event, when we recall a memory we get a mix between our current experiences, the reason for recalling the specific memory, and the memory itself.

happens. Every person who has ever achieved deliberate change first made up their minds that they wanted change.

Oscar winners pointed out in their acceptance speech that the award was an impossible dream? So, if we want to deliberately build a more fulfilling life, we need to start imagining it first.

Scientists call this area in our brains the mesolimbic reward center.

neat simplification that reflects our basic view of achievement. However, a study conducted by University of Florida researcher William Hart discovered a scenario that turns this picture upside down.

motivational mold, then this mold can work against us. It becomes necessary to have a second look at how we motivate ourselves. When some of us have difficulties getting motivated at work, then it is time to examine more closely what kind of achiever we are. The motivational dynamics we rely on may not be the best fit.

When the number of total competitors we are about to face reduces our motivation to compete, we have the N-Effect.




Within two weeks of this conversation, Taffy had figured out what the problem had been and made the experiment work. The results became the foundation of his dissertation. He ended up with six publications out of this and became one of the most productive graduate students to come out of that university. It all happened because he was pushed to look back, question why something wasn’t working, and figure out how to make it work.

author of the best-selling book Think Agile—How Smart Entrepreneurs Adapt In Order To Succeed.

Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, In Search of Excellence. This number one national best seller shaped the views of a generation. In Search of Excellence—The Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies is still the best collection of insights, ideas, and principles, which business leaders try to follow and apply.

Taffy. “I did turn-arounds for about fourteen years, and it often was about fixing issues that started before you got there.

problem. Even in a successful business, developing multiple shots on a goal can increase odds of greater success.

“If you don’t have a healthy ego, you probably shouldn’t be an entrepreneur. It is not a question of whether the company will stumble, but when and how badly. This requires entrepreneurs to be confident and aggressive as business people.”

“When we started Phunware, the consensus was that we were trying to boil the ocean.

ultimately, not going to build anything. What Knitowski says about communications is significant. Never take money from people and then forget to communicate openly and regularly. Leaders should do this monthly, even though most management teams do not.

When you communicate openly, candidly, and transparently, then everyone is on the same sheet of paper and everyone can be part of the potential solution when tough times surface.

“When month after month you communicate and you really are not asking for help, when you do actually ask for help, you’ll be amazed at the people willing to fight with you, to get you through those challenges.

evangelists across all they do—all because of the common courtesy and respect of communicating every thirty days.”

and the challenges that go on—there is a lot going on under the water that is separate from the tip of the iceberg that you see above the water. For a lot of companies, start-ups are a lot like making sausage. You don’t always want to see what goes in to making the sausage, but you always want it to taste good at the end.

will go wrong. It’s the equivalent of Murphy’s Law for start-ups and it’s not about being pessimistic. Rather, it is about being an experienced optimist and preparing for whatever the market may throw at you.

Alan goes on to share three of his favorite motivational videos. One of them is the football coach speech (Al Pacino) from the movie Any Given Sunday. We talk more about the line of framework that allows you to find confidence to pull off things you are not supposed to be able to pull off. Two of the links are music videos with the lyrics, which are the type of motivation that works for Alan. 

Do they answer to their boss, or to the customer? Do they feel accountable to each other?

Kaiser, CEO and Founder of Upshot Commerce, he points out that his team is really flat. The focus is on engineering excellence and on genuinely caring about your customers, and this is, ultimately, who the team feels accountable to.

“When you treat people like they make a difference, they will make a difference.”




“When I was here, I wanted to be there. When I was there, all I could think of was getting back to the jungle.”

The truth is—there is no here versus there. With time we realize that here is the only place we can be. And we can choose to be present here and now, or let our minds drift. Now, the yearning to be someplace better is perfectly normal. It is almost universal and it does have its positives, too. The desire to improve our lives is a major motivational force. But which of the many roads do we take? And how do we reconcile this choice with our vision for ourselves?

What I am getting at is the concept of Resistance.

fear of rejection. In the process, he got famous, got a book deal, and got published. We, too, can face our Resistance and then follow the clues. To do this, we need to become aware of the many manifestations of Resistance. We need to be brutally honest with ourselves and to leave our comfort zones. This means doing things we are not very good at. Or, not good at, yet. And, this means doing them now. There is no better time than now. We will never be ready. If we reach “ready,” this means we are comfortable. The point of this is to move outside of our comfort zone and learn to be productive, while there. Then do it again, and again, and again. Until we build it into a habit. That would be an Excellence Habit.

get in trouble? They are still searching for their authentic life. There may be a lot of stress or none. They could own millions or be penniless. Married with kids or alone. And, they get in trouble. They are still looking for their cheese. Or they found the cheese, and it is too big and scary. “How am I going to write a movie script? Sell it and convince the studio to hire me in the leading role? Who am I? Sylvester Stallone?” He was a nobody, too, when he did all these things. So, instead of doing the work we play around.

Ray Bradbury, the author of Fahrenheit 451, had a “Don’t Think!” sticker above his typewriter. It helped him focus on doing his work. My sticker says “Don’t Look!” We can’t find what we are searching for with our eyes. Our eyes are for looking at the world around, at the Universe. What we want is inside of us. Sometimes, it is relatively easy to find and sometimes it is buried deep. Our authentic life emerges when we do what brings true joy, helps others, and is in true harmony with the world.

In his seminal work The Hero With The Thousand Faces, mythologist Joseph Campbell argues that all stories we tell follow the same blueprint. From Cinderella, to Mad Max, to The Bridges of Madison County, or Mission Impossible 8,

But the world doesn’t know what this feels like. Often the world doesn’t even notice. The hero might spend the rest of her days without anyone ever knowing what she’d lived through. This is exile. Deafening silence takes over after the thrill of the adventure. Everyday life is back after walking on the moon. The hero deals with the unsettling sensation of being back, but not really being home.

all: “Hey, look at me for a moment! I’ve got a great piece of work here!” There is a natural awkwardness that comes with an act like this. We resist raising our hand. Our work should speak for itself. Well, even Shakespeare had to raise his hand and promote his first works to get noticed. So, raise your hand. And while imagining a better future, let’s also imagine a better self. Unless we give our power away, we are in charge of creating our future. Let’s find out our inner graffiti and wipe the walls clean. Let’s fix the broken windows inside, and create a mental context that matches the tasks ahead. When we start spending time on improving the small things inside, the big things in our way don’t look that big anymore. We are not perfect and will never be. However, the reason to pursue excellence is not perfection. Excellence is about being the best we can be and living our best life.

nostalgia and sadness. We can find ourselves thinking, “I could have been somebody better!” If you ever get to a moment like that, I want to say to you, “Don’t be that, tiger!” Keep the chin up and stay with a positive attitude.

Build it with excellence and build excellence as a habit.

Check out more book notes at How I Read 90 Books In The Past 2 Years By Reading 20 Pages A Day

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