What Makes an Excellent Person

Yesterday, one of my friends shared with me excitedly that she’s going to have a brunch with an excellent person who she had admired for a while.

I was inspired to think about how we define ‘excellent’ and what makes a person excellent.

Apparently, there are different criteria for ‘excellent’ in different countries and cultures. In China, the country where I came from, people generally see a person ‘excellent’ if he/she owns a lot of properties in the tier-1 cities, if he/she has a well-paid job, or if he/she has a strong ‘power’ in the government.

However, I never feel those are the people that I consider excellent and will respect – neither will many of my friends. Then, how would I define ‘excellent’?

I feel there are three levels of ‘excellent’ – which have covered different types of ‘excellent’ people that we met.

Level 1: Smart

By ‘smart’, I am talking about a person’s capability of understanding the world and him/herself. A smart person will understand how the world works – from the physical world to the social world. He/she also understands him/herself well in terms of what he/she wants – no matter if it is a short-term goal or a long-term value. He/she also has a strong execution capability with a high efficiency so that he/she can easily win the competition among his/her peers.

Many people I know have met this basic standard – for example, the people who work for McKinsey, BCG, JPM, Sequoia, etc. They are very smart, and they understand how to maximize the value of resources by optimizing. They can easily earn a good living with their ‘Smartness’.

Level 2: Humble / Confident

Humble and confident are eventually the same thing to me. Only when a person is confident enough, he/she will be happy to take constructive feedback and critics, because he/she does not feel afraid of his/her mistakes or disadvantages. Instead, he/she is confident about him/herself that he/she can overcome those challenges and become better.

On the other end, if a person is not humble, it indicates that he/she is lack of confidence to make changes, to admit that he/she is imperfect as a human being, and to improve in the future.

For all the people that I met before, probably 1/5 met this criteria. That’s why they have been ‘excellent’ so far – because they are constantly improving themselves.

However, when people have achieved more, it would become difficult for them to maintain humble.

Level 3: Empathetic

This is a very interesting criteria that filters out most of the people that I have met. By ’empathetic’, I am referring to the capability of putting oneself into someone else’s situation, understanding that situation, and seeing it as his/her life-time mission to help others.

Very few people could really put him/herself in another person’s shoes to understand things from a very different perspective – because it is time-consuming, there’s no direct/immediate financial return by doing this, and it is emotionally self-challenging.

However, why do I believe this is the most important criteria for a really ‘excellent’ person? The reason is fairly simple: only by making impacts through more people’s lives, one can further extend the value of his/her life instead of limiting it to just his/her own short life.

Interestingly, I have met people who only met the first criteria. For example, one of my friends is a super smart doctor. However, since she’s always very successful in her academic and professional life, it’s very hard to convince her to accept some new ideas – many of which are about the domains that she’s unfamiliar with.

I also know people who achieved the first and the second levels of ‘excellent’ but not the third one. For example, one of my classmates, he is super smart and humble. All the people who know him think he’s sometimes even too humble. He runs a good small business in China. He is a good person and has good relationships with most of the friends. However, he is also focusing on himself only and never thinks about helping other people. To him, understanding other people’s situations and helping them is a big ‘COST’.

Finally, I also know a person who is not doing that well on the first level but ‘excellent’ on the second and the third levels. She used to be my colleague at the architecture firm. She did not graduate from a top university as most of my friends did. Partially because of that, she’s very humble and always open to new (even controversial) ideas. After many years, I think she understands the world much better than many of my college classmates. She also tried a lot of different things in her life to explore herself as a person. With this ‘humble’ personality, I think she’s growing much much faster than many of the colleagues – knowledge and mentality wise.

She also possesses a strong ’empathy’. She said it’s because she and her family had so many bad experiences where she or her family was treated ‘unfairly’ – so she could understand the poor people, the people who protest for social equality, and the underprivileged people much better than the other people. Therefore, she’s always showing her empathy to the people who need help and is always ready to offer her help.

To summarize, I think ‘Smart’ determines the baseline or the ‘floor’ of what kind of ‘success’ / ‘excellence’ / ‘value’ / ‘impact’ one can achieve throughout his/her life.

While ‘Humble / Confident’ determines the ‘ceiling’ of where one can touch – the maximum ‘success’ / ‘excellence’ / ‘value’ / ‘impact’ they can achieve through continuously self-improving.

In the end, ‘Empathetic’ determines how long one’s ‘success’ / ‘excellence’ / ‘value’ / ‘impact’ can last. We only live once – which is an ignorable point in history. The only way we can make a notable difference in the short history is to make larger impacts through more people’s lives.

P.S. It is always the most difficult to learn how to be ’empathetic’ – because it ‘wastes’ time and money and requires a lot of self-reflection. No one could really teach us how to be an ’empathetic’ person. While many people can teach us how to be ‘smart’ or ‘smarter’.


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