The distance between first and second place is sometimes wider than the Pacific. For competitors in sports and sales it's a straightforward score, but for artists it might be more abstract, like the difference between getting into highly coveted exhibitions or being passed over in your prime. Or much much less obvious if you struggle to find the means to focus on your work for an uninterrupted block of time, without distraction or rent looming over you. Simply put, it takes a lot to become excellent.
Years ago, I was in an art director's office when she was sorting through her mail, in this case a big box of self-promo mailers from illustrators hoping to be assigned some paid work, to be featured in the magazine. As she went through the stack, she just kept tossing one after the other into the trash. I was an aspiring illustrator myself, and I watched this play out. I felt a slight pinch about it because some good, creative material that had clearly been labored over had come to the end of its road with nothing to show for it.
So I asked her, “How do you figure out which ones you're going to keep?”
“The good ones I throw out, the great ones I keep...”, was her quick response.
She would later tell me that even with the pile she kept, people who got repeat work would be those who established a rapport for exchanging ideas, and for collaborating. The second tier was people who had excellent skill, perhaps a signature style, and could take direction. There was no third tier.
What she didn't openly mention was that a number of illustrators had filtered through her office once and only once. These were occasionally people who couldn't, didn't or wouldn't put the story first and made the process—and result—about them (this might have been excused if they had the name recognition to sell magazines.) More often there were artists who were naturally inconvenient to work with because their medium simply took too long to dry or because of where they lived. (this is in the early/mid 1990s.)
I realized that just getting my foot in the door wasn't enough, I'd have to put my best foot forward first. So I had to develop an attitude of understanding very quickly what was needed of my skills—tangible and intangible—that would make working with me convenient. I would have to be accessible, and have consistent, predictable "market-ready" processes. This would position me best for good relationships with best-in-class people, who often have their own rituals about how they work. I was incredibly fortunate to be learning this lesson without any skin in the game.
Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.
We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence,
but we rather have those because we have acted rightly.
We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
What it takes to be excellent is often a matter of little changes in position, in the way you do things, that have big consequences. It's typical as an artist or illustrator to think “I am doing absolutely everything I can in my field to improve my odds. What else can I do?” The advice from people who have been in the trenches is to go outside your field and see what changes you can make there.
I've worked alongside a vocalist whose craft is so impeccable that often, when recording, we were confident we'd get her material right on the first take—and we did. Her understanding of the song-making process is as good as anyone out there. As a live performer, her range and ability to connect with an audience is incredible. So what does she do that a lot of others don't or won't? She has a regimen for when she has to prepare to tour, with a few different rituals. About 8 to 12 weeks before embarking on a tour, for instance, she eats differently and goes out on long 6-mile runs, often around a golf course (with its steep inclines.) She does this to improve her overall stamina for the rigors of being on tour for weeks or months. But more importantly, she does it to drastically improve her lung capacity. By the time she hits the stage on the first show, she's got enough gas in the tank to hold out impossibly long notes, and do things with her voice that younger and less seasoned professionals can't pull off week after week, month after month without becoming ill or losing their voice.
Writers too have their practice, as do other artists, that get them out of their core skill to practice something that will feed into making them better at the thing they do really well. There are things to be learned from sports, and other hobbies that somehow inform the process and fine-tuning of the main skill.
So how do you identify what you need to improve? Comes back to the big picture, take a cold, hard look at what you do, and why it works as well as it does. Does your process require that you make some temporary sacrifice in convenience that will pay off big time in the long run? Does it require being flexible enough to just get out of your comfort zone?
Being recognized for excellence may or may not happen as a matter of coincidence. There are numerous clichés that people use to discuss why they're not in first place:
"Being at the right place at the right time"
"It's not what you know but who you know"
"Luck favors the bold"
"I'm not inspired, I need to get into a state of flow to produce"
...and the other variations. You will not hear these ideas from people who perform at peak levels consistently, because their process does not rely on being favored by Lady Luck. In fact, you have to become excellent consistently until you are sufficiently in a place where you can afford to become lucky.
Life, especially professional life, has its own requirement of mental athleticism. It exposes you to what is so precious, what you hold on to so tightly…or just the little things that you had not expected would make a significant enough difference. And after exhausting all of the other possibilities, here we are for now.
"Losing"—by the very narrow definition of being second, of not being in absolute first place—is arguably the most interesting place to be. It means you are doing everything that you can, minus the one or two things that you have not thought of or have previously been unwilling to do. You're in the right place to learn more than the person who "won". You're also in the best position in relation to "everyone else."
Here's the great opportunity to understand yourself, find your limits, and decide what you're going to have to do in order to move the needle into first place territory. If you're managing this right, you're in the best place to begin.