Excellence Kills Brilliance


Excellence: the quality of being outstanding or extremely good. (Perfection)
Brilliance: exceptional talent or intelligence

Can excellent and brilliance coexist?

Is it better if they didn’t?

Let’s get a grasp first with the help of a few examples to be able to differentiate between

Excellence and Brilliance.

Virender Sehwag was brilliant. Rahul Dravid was excellent.

Steve jobs. Walt Disney - Brilliant. Barrack Obama - Excellent.

Dhirubhai Ambani - Pure brilliance. Executors of his decisions - Excellent.

So they do co-exist. Even within a person. Of course there have been times when Dravid has been brilliant and Sehwag has been excellent.

Is there a disconnect?

Largely organisations believe excellence is important. I agree. They say excellence should drive success. I disagree.

In reality a mix of excellence and brilliance together drives it anyway. Those of you who have studied in – depth around leadership and performance psychology may have an understanding of what I mean. Excellence and Brilliance are different and it is difficult for them to co-exist, if not counterproductive.

Let’s say a teacher in the school comes across a child who is brilliant, naturally talented and on top of most conversations. Witty. Talkative. Has a reply to almost anything. Has a natural talent to lets say making bold conversations. But has no perfection in her or her academic work. What will happen? It’s quite obvious isn’t it. There will be pressure on the child to be excellent and he will be encouraged to be so or be punished when he’s trying to be brilliant.

This happens all the time.

There are excellent performers in every organisation, yours too. These are people who excel at what they do. Then there are those who are brilliant. They are above average performers who also come up with brainwaves and ideas; people who you call innovators, stewards, and other similar adjectives.

These people do not excel at data entry in banks. Instead, they wonder why data entry should not be automated instead.

These are people who ideate how soft-skills and communications training could help a lot of data entry operators groom into service specialists.

Excellence is the enemy of brilliance.

Yes they can co-exist and brilliant people may eventually acquire the skill but always at a cost of sacrificing their brilliance.

I am not suggesting that you drop excellence or embrace purely the other. Both are needed. I am simply suggesting that if you come across brilliance, then do not impose excellence on those people.


If Einstein embraced excellence in school when he was being pushed to,

If Edison, who never attended school and was encouraged to be a free spirit by his mother, was taken over and put into a disciplined schooling regime.

If Ford was discouraged from making an imperfect automobile.

If Wright brothers purely focused on making their cycle business excellent.

Yes all these people followed their brilliance and yet had excellence along with them in the way of their colleagues, guides and mentors to execute their plans. Though if they were themselves forced to be men of perfection, the world would be devoid of many present day comforts.

The mindsets in us and our organisations compile us to convert the artist into an artisan.

We do that to our children all the time - “do it well”, “get up on time”, “behave this way”, “don’t do that in front of other people”…. and there goes the freedom of the child to express and discover for themselves what they may have become. Very early on they have been given a very unnecessary world order.

The artist solves the problem from within, from his discoveries and insights into life. He imagines what he wants this canvas to be like.

And THEN, he brings in the excellent people to do their job! The excellent people fine tune, draw lines, shapes, figures and create the prototype of his vision. The excellent people rub any stray marks away, they test the painting’s appeal. They hang it in some drawing rooms, some CEO cabins, some art galleries and measure the success of the prototype.

However if you forced that artist to be a perfectionist, he’d cease to be an artist.

Brilliance moves the world forward. It innovates. It ideates. It solves problems. Excellence executes the brilliance.

If you see brilliance, please don’t educate it to be excellent. Rather set it free.

I’ll give you few very stark examples on how we messed up by trying to covert brilliance into excellence.

Gandhi was brilliant throughout the independence movement. This till the time came for partition. Even then in 1946, he had found a solution (as in The Documentary, The Day India Burned) to make Jinnah the first PM. This was rejected by the Congress because it had some excellent plans for Independent India.

Dr. Manmohan Singh was a brilliant FM working with a leader at the time that allowed him to be brilliant. There were flashes of this brilliance during UPA-1 too. That he actually was brilliant is evident from the fact that the current government is blindly following majority of his ideas and policies. But what happened to MMS? His brilliance was kept out of the Congress politics and the party and within that dynamics, the brilliance was forced to follow and toe the line of what was an excellent norm.

And finally there was a brilliant four year old marathon runner Budhia. Even as of today he stands banned from running. Excellent healthcare practices were imposed and continue to be so.

All children love stories, have fantastic imaginations and enjoy getting messy. Then they go to a public school and these abilities and interests are quashed to breed excellence.

There were no public systems till the 19th century. It came into existence to serve the needs of industrial revolution. This meant that at school you were steered away from things you were naturally brilliant at because you needed to be trained to work at the disciplined shop floor. This carries on till today.

“All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.” - Picasso

Think about it, if you visited Earth as an alien, you’d have to conclude that the whole purpose of our systemic education and drive on excellence is purely to produce conformists who compete to come first at conforming. That is to become excellent workers and not brilliant thinkers.

Restless children are diagnosed these days as ADHD. Take the example of Gillian Lynne (success of Cats and Phantom of the Opera) whose mother became increasingly worried because the child found it impossible to sit and concentrate in class. The modern day treatment would be for hyperactive ADHD. However in 1970, a specialist told the mother, “Gillian isn’t sick. She’s a dancer. Let her just dance.” The rest is history.

Isn’t it worrying that a majority of specialists would today put this child on medication for calming down? And why so? To confine to the norms of the shop floor.

It’s already too late for you to be brilliant but I think the least we can do is to let others soar and not condition them to be like you because being like you doesn’t guarantee a happy life.

Chetan Walia