In the summer after my junior year of college, I spent a month studying abroad in Oxford, England. It was an immersive acting program — we'd spend weekdays in classes and have evenings and weekends for rehearsing, seeing shows, exploring the Hogwarts-esque school we were staying in, and of course, partying with our peers.
On the first day, we were each asked to prepare a monologue to present to the program's director and a couple teachers. It felt like an audition, even though the stakes were low: They simply wanted to get a sense of us as performers in order to sort us into class groups.
Though it felt like we had stepped into the world of Harry Potter, there were no magical sorting hats here.
One student raised her hand and asked if the director had any suggestions on how to prepare. His advice was concise:
The response reminded me of the time another teacher of mine, when asked how long our capstone paper needed to be, simply said, "As long as it needs to be."
We live most of our lives without a rubric, but it's tempting to reach for the certainty of one. Often, simply pursuing excellence is good enough. There's no need to complicate it further.
But what does brilliance look like? The answer to that question is analagous to, of all things, a rainforest.
Erik Torenberg summarizes this analogy from the podcast Exponent in his post "The Death of the Middle":
In a rainforest, with its abundantly available water, sunlight, and nutrients, two types of plants thrive: the tiny, highly differentiated plants on the forest floor, and the giant trees that form the canopy. It’s hard to be in the middle.
In an ever more connected world, it becomes harder and harder to be in the middle. This is because finding the best products and services in the world to solve your problem is easier than ever.
People don't seek out things in the middle — they seek out the best in the world.
"Best" and "world" are relative, however. The grocery store down the street from me may not literally be the best in the world when compared to every other grocery provider in the world. But in this case, if the problem I'm trying to solve is "fresh eggs within walking distance," then the local mart is the best in the world for me.
If you're an illustrator, "best in the world" may mean "best painter on the Santa Monica pier creating portraits in less than five minutes for tourists."
Or if you're an accountant, it may mean "best online bookkeeping service for small non-profits looking to automate their payroll."
As a creator, employee, artist, entrepreneur — however you define your work self — your goal should be to keep redefining "best" and "world" until both things are true.
In other words, be brilliant.
H/t to Naval