Careers and Employability Service

Striving for Excellence


We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life. Life is brief, and then you die, you know? So this is what we’ve chosen to do with our life.

Steve Jobs

Striving for excellence is an important part of professionalism in any job. It involves trying to put quality into everything you do, and this attitude tends to separate the achievers, who make rapid strides in their career from others. Here are some of the attributes that these individuals tend to have.

"Develop persistence: don't take no for an answer".

This is the advice of a creative director at a top advertising agency.

When he graduated from university a few years before he found he had missed all the deadlines for the graduate training schemes and after lots of rejections he got his first job in advertising by "camping" in the reception of an agency.

He arrived early in the morning and asked the receptionist if he could talk to one of the managers about the possibility of getting some work experience with the agency. The receptionist said that this wasn't possible, so he sat down in the reception area and refused to leave until someone saw him.

Finally at 4.30 p.m. one of the managers took pity on him and came down. The manager was so impressed with his determination that he offered him a week's work experience and later gave him a job.

"Excellence is about stepping outside the comfort zone, training with a spirit of endeavour, and accepting the inevitability of trials and tribulations. Progress is built, in effect, upon the foundations of necessary failure.

This is the essential paradox of expert performance. When these conditions are in place, learning takes off, knowledge escalates, and performance soars. You are on the path to excellence."

Taken from "Bounce", by Michael Syed


  • Use initiative to act on opportunities. Become a leader before other people view you as one. Healthy organisations reward those who take the lead, not just those with formal management roles.
  • Take responsibility for own objectives: set priorities.
  • Display a "can do" attitude even in demanding situations.. Try to solve problems, rather than to pass them on to other people. First answer is ‘yes, I’ll make it happen’ .
  • "Go the extra mile" when asked to do tasks. Go beyond your job description. Do work that gets you noticed.
  • Show enthusiasm: this will be noticed and you will eventually be rewarded.
  • Take ownership of problems: anticipate potential problems, take pre-emptive action and act quickly to resolve problems.
  • Introduce improvements to the way things are done.
  • Develop innovative practices. Value innovative thinking.
  • Learn new skills that will enhance capability.
  • Common sense is not common!


‘A positive, can-do attitude is a real selling point for graduates. This doesn't have to be loud and gregarious, more a quiet confidence, willing to work hard to achieve goals which accord with the company’s objectives. Pride in your own work and a desire to give of your best will also go a long way.’

"A chief is a man who assumes responsibility. He says, 'I was beaten'; he does not say 'My men were beaten.'"

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

"If you wish to be promoted, you must be prepared to step outside your comfort zone"

"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great."

Mark Twain

Give someone a fish and they will eat for a day. Teach someone to fish and they will sit in a boat all day daydreaming.

Practice isn't the thing you do when you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good.

Malcolm Gladwell

Employer Concepts of Graduate Employability

Inspiring, positive, determined!

  • Give assistance to others. Respond positively to requests for help.
  • Clarify the way forward for others.
  • Empower others: great people help others to become great whereas weak individuals try to hold others back.
  • Recognise that each person has a uniqueperspective.
  • Have self confidence and inspire confidence in team members. Believe the team will be successful.
  • Remain self-motivated even when things are going wrong.
  • Recognise and draw attention to contributions from team members and give positive feedbac
  • Maintain networks of colleagues. Get to know as many people in your organisation and industry as you can.
  • Learn from your mistakes: they are just as useful as your successes
  • Watch others who do their job really welland try to emulate what makes them successful.

Quality and professionalism

  • Check the quality of your own work.
  • Set out a clear vision of what is required for success.
  • Compare the risks and benefits. Take calculated risks
  • See the bigger picture.
  • Give priority to customers.

Negative performers

Reed Recruitment asked the employers they dealt with a question: "If you had to choose between a candidate with 'the desired mindset' who lacked the complete skill set for the job and a candidate with the complete skill set, but without the desired mind set, which would you choose?"

The candidate with the desired mindset was chosen by 96% of the employers. "If we get the mindset right, it is more likely to lead to skills being developed as a consequence" said Reed

  • Are content to leave performance at existing levels: how little interest in developing their skills further.
  • Disown responsibility for their own tasks.
  • Distance themselves from responsibility for the team's performance.
  • Give up in the face of obstacles and don’t demonstrate a sense of personal responsibility for delivery.
  • Take a narrow focus, taking decisions in the interest of their own team or self
  • Are risk adverse: undermine confidence by focusing on difficulties, problems and obstacles.
  • Act as if ‘knowledge is power’: reluctant to pass on their skills to others
  • Don't involve team members where appropriate.
  • React to symptoms rather than trying to understand the underlying causes.
  • Are resistant to change
  • Avoid difficult conversations and confrontation.

    When I first started my job I always used to ask my manager about every little thing: "How do I do this?"; "What do I say to this customer?".

    After a while I learned to be a solver of problems rather than a conveyor of problems to my manager: "We had this problem, but I managed to solve it rather than troubling you with it", consequently making her life easier.

    It's no coincidence that shortly afterwards, she recommended me for promotion: everyone wants to recruit a problem solver, not a problem- bringer!

    By blaming other people or events for what happens in your life, you give your power to others. Try to look for a positive interpretation of any situation or the actions of individuals if you can.

    By taking responsibility, you take control over your circumstances; action generates the impetus for further action. If you argue for your limitations ("I can't do this") you will get to keep them!

    If you show enthusiasm for something, good things tend to follow.


  • When optimists encounter a setback they are less likely than pessimists to just give up. 
    Suzanne Segerstrom, Professor of Psychology. University of Kentucky.
  • Optimists tend to respond to disappointments such as being turned down for a job by formulating a plan of action and asking others for help and advice; whereas pessimists tend just to give up.
    Michael F. Scheier, Carnegie-Mellon University. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
  • People who have an optimistic mind set achieve more positive outcomes than those with a negative mind set.
  • People who believed that they could achieve a certain goal did so in 80% of cases whereas people who did not believe they could achieve their goal only achieved it 20% of the time. Optimists were found to put in more effort, were more persistentand acted more creatively to find ways to overcome problems
  • A study of salesmen found that salesmen who had a more optimistic outlook sold 37% more insurance in their first two years on the job than did those with the pessimistic view.
  • Pessimistic children do less well on achievement tests. It is not that they are less bright: they give up when things get frustrating. 
    Martin Seligman, University of Pennsylvania. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
  • Optimists handle stress better than do pessimists. Have a sense of well-being and improved health and have better coping skills during hardships

How to turn a negative outlook into a positive one.

  • Cultivate a "can do" approach. Take greater responsibility for your decisions and actions. Don't pull yourself down: focus on what you can do rather than what you can't. Don't say anything to yourself that you wouldn't say to anyone else. Use positive language: praise and show appreciation of others.
  • Take regular exercise: this will release endorphins - brain chemicals which make you feel good.
  • 80% of the things that we worry about never happen and most of those that do we learn how to cope with. Worry is about the future, not the present. When a problem arrives we learn to cope with it.

    Excellence is not a skill. It is an attitude.

    We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.

    "When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us." 

    Helen Keller

    "If you think you can or you think you can't, you're absolutely right."

    Henry Ford

    "The man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything."

    Theodore Roosevelt

    "Think of failures as results

    Thomas Edison.

    "Be persistent. Nothing in this world takes the place of persistence." 

    Calvin Coolidge

  • Compare yourself with other less well off than yourself rather than those better off. For example with people in developing countries who have nothing but are still often cheerful whereas many rich people in Western countries are unhappy.
  • Count your blessings. Each day write down at least three things to be grateful for. People who have done this have found an increase in happiness. Remember what you like about yourself. Looking at the glass as half empty rather than half full can make you focus on trivial problems. 
    To every disadvantage there is a positive advantage: remember that challenge = opportunity. Make a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats).  
  • Action generates the impetus for further action. The more you take control of your circumstances, the better you will feel.
  • Resilience involves reacting positively to negative outcomes. Learning to cope with adversity makes you stronger: helps in teaching us how to bounce back. The most successful people are often those who have had the most failures: they are more adventurous and learn from their mistakes. If you have never had a failure, you have never taken a risk. Failures should be thought of as opportunities for learning: you learn far more from your failures than from your successes.
  • Find a role model: read the biographies of people you admire.
  • Neuro Linguistic Programming is another useful set of techniques. It provides step-by-step procedures to help people achieve excellence.
  • Strength for life Career Paths

The Placebo effect

Patients who get dummy pills (called placebos) often show clinical improvement. But in all trials to date, the patients believed they were getting a real drug.

A recent study shows that placebos work, even when patients know they’re taking them. Doctors actually told patients they were getting placebos. 80 patients with irritable bowel syndrome were told to take two sugar pills daily. The bottle even had the word “placebo” printed on it. After three weeks, 60% of the patients taking placebos reported relief from symptoms, compared to 35 percent who had no treatment at all.

A couple of years ago I saw a Theology graduate who had just got a Third. He was rather upset about this as he had expected better.

He was a really positive individual with a warm personality who would go out of his way to help anyone, and always put his best into whatever he did (hence why he was upset about his degree).

A few months later I met him in Debenham's where he was working as a sales assistant and I asked him how things were going. He looked really happy, and explained that he had just been accepted for their graduate training scheme. His manager had been so impressed by his attitude and determination to "go the extra mile" to do things well, that she had strongly recommended him for the scheme

Placebos work because the mind is very powerful: just thinking you’re being treated can make you feel better. The very act of ministering to patients may have a positive effect.

Here are answers to the questions you might get on application forms or at interview to test this. See our competencies page for more information on this


When have you risen to a challenge? Describe your role and any outcomes.

When I was elected as social secretary of the volleyball club, the club had just suffered a drastic cut in funding due to savings being implemented by the Students' Union and needed to raise funds for travel to fixtures and new team kit. The committee held a brainstorming session and I suggested holding a 24-hour marathon volleyball game. Players would be sponsored for every half-hour played and, when a player needed a break, any student or staff member could join a team for a charge of £1 per ten minutes.

As the chief organiser of this event I negotiated with the University, who allowed us to set up a court on the lawn outside the Administration Building; persuaded people to sponsor us and to join in on the day, and publicised it through the campus media and posters.
Two days before the event, a joking remark that our team captain should play in a gorilla suit led to a last-minute search for fancy dress costumes and further negotiations with the Drama department and local costume hire businesses.

McDonald's Performance Guidelines

  • Positive "can-do" attitude. Encourages everyone to have the same attitude when delegating & being delegated to
  • High level of enthusiasm: evident to the customer that you enjoy the job.
  • Treats all customers with respect
  • Accepts feedback on a positive & non-defensive manner
  • Smiling & open body language & coaches others to do the same.
  • Communicates job knowledge to others
  • Leads by example
  • Has great working relationships with other employees & assists those who need help willingly
  • Completes assigned tasks promptly & efficiently. Proactively completes additional tasks without being asked to do so.
  • Accepts responsibilities willingly & inspires team spirit with a positive approach

The match attracted considerable attention on campus - thanks largely to the gorilla suit plus the Viking, the vampire and other outfits, both loaned and created by the wearers - and raised £500.

When have you risen to a challenge? Describe your role and any outcomes.

The greatest challenge I have undertaken was my year out teaching & traveling in Africa. I knew that I wanted a year out but that I did not just want to travel but to share in the life of a country & its people. Teaching gave me such an opportunity to put down roots in a community but, as this was a voluntary programme, I needed to raise £500 in order to take part in this project.

I did this by working very long hours in a factory over the summer to raise the funds that I needed. I planned my year by reading a great deal about Tanzania, using websites to research the country & speaking to Tanzanian students at the university. I also asked the organisation that arranged the placement to put me in touch with previous volunteers so that I could pick up tips from them as to the life in Tanzania, the schools & what I should take with me.
Despite all this planning I still found that I needed to be very flexible & to adapt to teaching a class of 60 lively ten-year old boys with few text books & even less in the way of scientific equipment. I had to adapt to this lack of resources & to bear in mind that the pupils were learning English at the same time as they were learning science.

This experience was the most satisfying of my life.

Notable alumni of the University of Kent include:



  • It's not what you've got, it's what you use that makes a difference. (Zig Ziglar)
  • When you do more than what you are paid for, you will soon be paid more for what you do. (Zig Ziglar)
  • Success means doing the best we can with what we have. Success is the doing, not the getting; in the trying, not the triumph. Success is a personal standard, reaching for the highest that is in us, becoming all that we can be. (Zig Ziglar)
  • I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it. (Stephen Leacock)
  • All things are possible - except skiing through a revolving door.
  • Some mistakes are too much fun to only make once.
  • Luck is the crossroads where preparation meets opportunity.
  • We grow the garden of our own reality with thought seeds. If we wish to grow flowers instead of weeds, we must attend to our thoughts. Negative thoughts inhibit your power, generate stress and turn people away from you.
  • A pessimist complains about the noise when opportunity knocks.
  • A bird in the hand is better than one just overhead.


The difference between winners and losers

Winners are part of the answer;
Losers are part of the problem.

Winners sees a solution to every problem;
Losers see a problem for every solution.

Winners have a plan;
Losers have an excuse.

Winners say, “Let me do it for you”;
Losers say, “That's not my job.”

Winners say, “It may be difficult but it is possible”;
Losers say, “It may be possible but it is too difficult.”

When winners make a mistake, they say, “I was wrong”;
When losers make a mistake, they say, “It wasn’t my fault.”

Winners say, “I must do something”;
Losers say, “Something must be done.”

Winners are a part of the team;
Losers are apart from the team.

Winners see the gain;
Losers see the pain.

Winners see possibilities;
Losers see problems.

Winners believe in win-win;
Losers believe for them to win someone has to lose.

Winners use hard arguments but soft words;
Losers use soft arguments but hard words.

Winners stand firm on values but compromise on petty things;
Losers stand firm on petty things but compromise on values. 

Winners translate dreams into reality; 
Losers translate reality into dreams. 

Winners empower; 
Losers control. 

Winners are part of the solution; 
Losers are part of the problem. 

Winners are not afraid of losing;
Losers are afraid of winning. 

Winners say, I was wrong;
Losers say, It was not my fault. 

Winners make time;
Losers waste time. 

Winners say, I'm good but not as good as I can be;
Losers say, I'm not as bad as a lot of other people. 

Winners listen to what others say;
Losers wait until it's their turn to talk. 

Winners catch others doing things right;
Losers catch others doing things wrong. 

Winners learn from others;
Losers resent others 

Winners see opportunities;
Losers see problems. 

Winners say, There ought to be a better way;
Losers say, That's the way it's always been done. 

Winners celebrate others;
Losers complain about others. 

Winners expect success;
Losers expect failure

Winners do it;
Losers talk about doing it. 

Winners say, I'll plan to do that;
Losers say, I'll try to do that.

Winners make it happen;
Losers let it happen.

Winners plan and prepare;
Losers hope for things to happen to them.

Also see our pages on Happiness at work and coping with being unemployed/maintaining your morale


Careers and Employability Service - © University of Kent

The University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7ND, T: +44 (0)1227 764000 ext. 3299

Last Updated: 09/08/2017