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  • Writer's pictureChris

Dr. Christopher P. Johnson’s Pyramid of Excellence

This one has been brewing in my head for a long time. I wanted to classify how I believe the combination of what I’ve learned through my experiences matched up with research I’ve done reading historic leaders, scientific articles, and ancient literature adds up to bring people to excellence. My personal experiences are pulled from time as an entrepreneur, college professor, military officer, human performance coach, and project manager and I took notice of the traits that got me furthest in all of those disciplines.

What I came up with was six themes focusing on an individual’s development towards excellence. The six themes focus on one’s self, experiences, skills, wisdom, mastery, and finally excellence. The themes build upon each other, for example, you must have a firm grasp on your personal self-skills in order to get the most out of your experiences and to fully utilize your skills, you must have taken in all you can from your experiences. In that sense, the pyramid progresses like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. To get the most out of a higher level, you have to excel at the earlier stages. Below I will bring you through the stages from the earliest stage focusing on your personal self-skills and ending with excellence.

Dr. Christopher P Johnson's Pyramid of Excellence


The first skill an individual must acquire is grit. Grit is an individual’s strength in all they represent, it’s their courage and resolve to become the person they want to be. If you lack the grit to push through the adversities necessary to improve, the rest of the pyramid will never materialize. Part of grit is self-sacrifice. If you want to become something greater than what you are now, you must be willing to sacrifice comforts. Comforts are so because they are familiar and by nature people are drawn towards the familiar, but the ability to sacrifice those comforts can only come from being honest with yourself. Honesty is being realistic about your abilities and place in the world. Although the objective of the Pyramid of Excellence is improving from where you are now to where you want to be, it is important to be honest regarding what is possible. Without being honest to yourself, you will never extract the lessons from experience or reach the higher stages of the pyramid. If all of this sounds painfully hard and unenjoyable, that’s because I haven’t gotten to passion yet. Passion will power you through all of the adversity you face during your journey. It’s the tinder that fuels the fire and light at the end of the tunnel, your reason for waking up in the morning and having the desire to improve your life in the first place. Passion stems from purpose. When we are drawn towards something greater than us, we grow passionate towards that goal and the people involved. Your purpose can be to overcome sickness, escape poverty, or become a better parent. The stronger our purpose, the greater our passion.

The final aspect of self-development is positive-self-conception. Reminding yourself you are worth a damn is the final part of achieving your true self. Constantly reminding yourself that others have been there before you or done something just as challenging is a great reminder that your journey is possible and reminding yourself that you are worth a damn will keep you positive when you feel like Atlas holding up the heavens and the sky.

I never said any of this was going to be easy, and I’m sure most of the people who started reading this article already quit. That’s ok, they’re not ready yet and they can read it when the time is right. What’s going to make the difference is you have to remind yourself that challenges like this are the only way you are going to improve. Keep your head up, and remember the smallest action is better than the greatest unfulfilled intension.


Experience can only be fully appreciated when you have a grip on your personal self. To experience what the world and all the people who have lessons to teach you can offer, you must first work on the characteristics mentioned above. Experience starts with observing a master of their craft and learning through the experiences they provide you. Learning through experience requires you to understand the art of followership. Followership is the ability to observe and learn from others. It can be a coach, parent, manager, or friend. As long as you trust the person you are following, and they are in a position similar to where you want to be, there is something you can learn. Throughout all of history, people have been learning in a mentor and apprentice relationship. Just as people go to college now, people used to pay to live with a mentor and learn the art of their craft.

Whatever craft the apprentice chooses to learn must first be observed. This is the painstakingly boring period of any mentorship. It’s the part when the apprentice carpenter is responsible for getting nails and watching her mentor do all the real work. But it’s also the most important part. This is the part when the apprentice earns the mentor’s trust by being willing to pay attention to the small stuff. If a mentor can’t trust an apprentice getting the right type of nails, how are they supposed to trust her building a house?

During this same period, the apprentice is expected to observe everything the mentor is doing. They are meant to watch how their mentor does their job and mimic them as they learn. When mimicking, apprentices are experiencing trial and error. Trial and error are how we learn from our mistakes while mimicking our role-models. It’s known as the chameleon effect and over time this will allow you to form your own identity as a leader of your craft. Mastering the skill through experiences life grants us. The lessons may not always come in the form we expected, but they present themselves regardless.

All of this sounds great in theory, but the apprentice must be in a positive environment if they are to receive the proper guidance they need. Within that positive environment, open communication must be made available between the apprentice and the mentor as well as between the apprentice and other apprentices going through similar lessons. Don’t be confused, a positive environment does not mean a weak environment filled with comforts, it means an environment loaded with open-communication, support, and appropriate challenges. Challenges give life meaning, they are what allow us to grow as individuals, and bring us closer as teams. A challenge is an enabler for improvement. It provides an opportunity for growth if presented to an individual who has invested in their self-development.


The next theme is skills and skills are something we develop through experience. With that said, action towards understanding the value of experience must first be taken to be open and knowledgeable enough to extract the skills from your experiences. The first skill you must understand is tempo. Tempo is the ability to control elements in time. It is understanding a situation in all its depth, so you can alter the way the elements in the situation interact. The best example is how a quarterback can kill time on the clock or slow it down based on how he uses the ball. The quarterback can’t control time, but he can control elements in time.

When we are not controlling the tempo, we are reacting to someone else’s tempo. Being reactionary is no way to find excellence, but adaptability will allow you to switch the situation in your favor. Adaptability is a skill that allows you to adjust to the situation, so you can control the tempo. If you’re not in control of your skills, are they really skills? You can’t consider something a skill if you have no control over it. The key to control is starting small. If we start small, we can always build up our capacity. Capacity is are ability to adjust our level as we wish. Our capacity is limited by our control over a skill. If we get out of control, we have to scale back, so it matches our capacity.


Wisdom arises after spending adequate time using your skills. Many lessons arise from the actions and mistakes we make. Only time employing our skills will grant us the wisdom we need to understand how to properly use the experience and skills we have acquired. Our perceptions are a trait that can only be realized with the wisdom to understand right from wrong. The way we interact with the world will form our perceptions of yourself and others and when we have poor perceptions of the world, it can spell disaster for how we make our decisions. Perception is why it is so important to have a firm understanding of who you are, your experiences, and the capacity of your skills if you are going to make judgements against others.

You can’t make perceptions against others without a firm identity of yourself. Your identity will form naturally as you form perceptions. They go hand-in-hand emerging with wisdom. As you experience life, you will notice the choices you make carry more responsibility and with those responsibilities more rewards. The strength to understand that wisdom and make the correct decision will emerge as we improve our ability to reach our peak through efficacy. This is the wisdom of skills, efficacy is a heightened sense of understanding how all our skills blend together to form our sense of identity. It provides us the ability to achieve excellence as we as individuals require it.


At this stage, you have all the wisdom, and with that wisdom comes great prosperity. With that said, wisdom isn’t the top of the pyramid. Mastery isn’t even the top of the pyramid. Countless people have fallen from the top because they cannot balance growth with sustainment. Success breeds success and that can be very addictive. When people become too successful or are becoming too successful too quickly, they fall when they can no longer sustain their growth. We are only as good as our ability to sustain our success or it won’t be ours for long. Upon mastering the great balance, excellence can finally be achieved.


All there is to excellence is satisfaction. It’s not a shiny car, it’s not a fancy bag, it’s not even a cute dog. It’s satisfaction in who you are. It’s the satisfaction of looking back at all you have learned. Those other things I mentioned earlier, they will come with satisfaction, but that’s not true excellence. It’s the mastery of our wisdom and skills we have acquired through years of experience that unlock our true self and understanding who we are provides the highest degree of satisfaction that gets us where we want to be as individuals. If mastery got us the success so many of us crave, the excellence theme develops us into the adults our parents dreamt about when we were children.

Always improve,


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