Posted by: HAT | October 22, 2014

50 Million Centers for Excellence Can’t Be Wrong

Image of a Greek amphora decorated with Hercules and an Amazon, among others

A really excellent Greek amphora

Hi, Gang!

Here is something I have been wondering about, off and on, since we visited California and held Dad’s memorial: Is excellence necessarily a comparative concept? Do people have to be thinking of how they are doing compared to others to be thinking of achieving excellence in some area? Is there a way to have excellence without comparison and the evils that go along with it?

The question came up for me in connection with Dad’s memorial, in fact. The party was not “perfect,” and was not the product of perfectionism. There were various details that a truer perfectionist than I am would have taken care of differently. (For instance: we served sour cream in the disposable container that came from the restaurant. I admit, I noticed it, but I decided it was OK for me not to be my mom.) But I thought it turned out well. It was admirably suited to the requirements of the audience and the occasion; it had elements of beauty; it amply included what was expected, it exceeded expectations in some ways that were unexpected and delightful, and the people it was for felt good about it. Since then, I have been trying to think of what word I would use to capture this concept, of aiming for and achieving a good outcome, without having aimed for the “nothing wrong” of “perfection.” Because avoiding perfectionism while obtaining a high-quality result seems like a highly desirable thing. “Excellence” is the idea I keep coming back to.

Excellence is not the same as perfection. It is not necessarily “flawless.” Achieving excellence does not necessarily involve never making a mistake. In fact, it seems to involve seeking out the opportunities for practice and performance that entail making lots of mistakes, engaging in lots of trial and error, for the sake of refining one’s standards and skills. It also, it seems to me, does not depend on controlling others – another one of the plagues that go along with perfectionism. Since “the perfect event” depends on everyone playing their part just right, the perfectionist is then driven to stage manage life and other people in the pursuit of the perfection she or he desires.

But the idea of excellence does seem to require comparison, intrinsically. To “excel” is, according to my wonderful dictionary, to “surpass … be better than … outstrip … surpass others … be outstanding.” Excellence is “the state or quality of excelling; superiority.” If there is a superior, there must be an inferior.

And if there is superior and inferior, there is the invitation to envy and contempt, the evil twins of winning and losing.

I know I don’t have to accept every invitation I get. But sometimes I don’t want to get them in the first place. This is why “unsubscribe” was invented. The invitations to envy and contempt are especially hard to turn down, and hard to back out of once accepted.

It’s hard not to be envious, or at least jealous, when one perceives others surpassing, being better than, and outstripping one. If superiority is a good, and if we want the good, then inferiority is going to feel like the opposite of what we want, and bad. That will be all the more true if other goods attach to the achievement of excellence, on top of the satisfaction that comes just from doing something really well. As Qohelet said, the race may not always be to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread, riches and favor to the wise, intelligent and skillful, but as Damon Runyan said, that’s the way to bet. [1] And when those of us who are slow and weak and unwise grasp the reality of the situation, part of what we can’t help grasping is our own poverty, our own deficiency. We can’t help feeling less valuable, less appreciated, less celebrated, and less rewarded – because if we didn’t feel that way we would be living in denial. And can we help wanting the good that attaches to winning, or superiority, or giftedness? It seems undesirable not to recognize good for what it is, and it’s clearly irrational not to want the good once it’s recognized. Hence the struggle with covetousness, namely, the problem of feeling injured when others get gifts. It’s not a pretty picture, and I wish I could say I’ve never been the one in it, but that would be a lie, which would also be wrong.

Rational and goal-oriented types, even justice-minded ones, will try to get on the winning side of this problem; as Qohelet also said “… I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another.” [2] But the picture is not a whole lot prettier from the winners circle. Contempt for the vanquished is an easy vice for victors to adopt. Because, after all, the winners have been shown to be better than the losers: swifter, stronger, smarter, whatever. When those of us who win the races or the battles grasp the reality of the situation, we can’t help feeling more valuable, more appreciated, more celebrated, more rewarded, and recognizing the losers as less of all of that, for the obvious reason that if they had been as good at whatever it was as we are, they wouldn’t be the losers. We are inclined to forget that our winning moments might have come to us thanks to the time and chance that happeneth to all, rather than thanks to our own actual excellence in the relevant context. So the temptation that is handed to the winners along with their trophies and ribbons is the temptation to think of the losers as nobodies, the meaningless extras who are only good for being the backdrop to the stories of the people who count. Losers can become, in the eyes of winners, something less than really real, certainly less than people with stories that are equally worth telling, lives that are equally worth living. As a professional A student, I would like to say I have never been there. I would like to say I have always suffered fools gladly and have never once, for instance, thought that people who don’t even know the difference between “affect” and “effect” really have nothing to live for. But again, lying is wrong.

This brings me back to the idea of an “excellence” or something akin to it that doesn’t depend on comparison. It ought to be possible to pursue excellence or quality or good outcomes in and for oneself without reducing or minimizing the achievement of another. In some contexts, developing and pursuing “best practices” might even enhance others’ achievements. I am clearly not alone in this. That idea – that we could all strive for, and even achieve, a high degree of excellence, is what a lot of people seem to think about excellence, despite what the dictionary says. The proliferating “Centers for Excellence” (which turn up something like 101,000,000 Google hits) don’t seem to be proliferating because more and more people want to limit high achievement to a select few. Most of them seem to be intended to promote higher achievement and better practices on the part of entire industries or populations.

I think this sense of excellence is what Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, called “quality.” He, in turn, was reaching back to the Greek concept of arête, which is, in fact, normally translated as “excellence.” Arête does have more of the sense of being an absolute rather than a comparative value, because it has the sense of something’s being perfectly suited to requirements, whether of a task to be performed or of its own nature. If you had two urns side by side, and both were equally wonderful for the purpose of carrying wine or olive oil – both solid and without any cracks or chips or leaks, both easy to carry and holding a good quantity of liquid, both smooth and graceful and decorative, although one might have scenes from the life of Apollo and the other might show Bacchus and his troupe – they could both be equally excellent in the sense of arête. Arête isn’t necessarily a zero-sum thing. Everyone can pursue it, and everyone could imagine attaining it together. My arête wouldn’t diminish yours, yours wouldn’t diminish mine, and it doesn’t make much sense to set up a curve to limit it to the top three or 5% or quintile. Moreover, since the presence or absence of the arête kind of excellence has to do with attunement to requirements, or to the demands of a task or situation, there could even be different ways to be excellent at the same thing, whether that thing is painting a picture or designing a mousetrap or being someone’s mother.

The ancient Greeks were still perfectly capable of setting up games with winners and losers, to single out the best of the best, like the Olympics or the seige of Troy. Just because the idea of arête has a non-comparative sense doesn’t mean the ancient Greeks had escaped the comparative woods altogether. But maybe I should curb my tendency to call them the villains of western civilization.

I used to tell my daughter, in the context of swimming, “just do your best, and work on making your best better.” That is not only comparative, it’s superlative. But I think it gets at the idea of an excellence, or quality, or arête, or whatever term we want to use, that is about finding out what it means and what it takes to do something really well. When that’s the goal, there is no longer winning and losing, envy or contempt. When that’s the goal, the focus is all on the quality of the performance or the product and its relationship to its context, its audience, its world. What matters is learning, which hopefully leads to improvement, or at least, to discovery. With any luck at all, there will be some love and joy in the mix, too.

[1] Ecclesiastes 9:11
[2] Ecclesiastes 4:4


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