A friend recently shared these thoughts about the pursuit of excellence and its relation to our overall health:
I am ambivalent about the idea of excellence and the nature of discipline necessary to achieve it. Many notions of excellence seem contingent – tied to norms, manufactured through the marketplace, rarely the product of independent, conscious deliberation.
And yet there are many payoffs with excellence. Acclaim, acceptance, status, an escalating series of unlocked opportunities. But deep inside for many, for me, there is something than less 100% commitment because inside, from a voice that cannot be ignored, there is a realization that the cause is not true.
What does seem true? In nature, evolution is such that optimal outcomes – survival, longevity, efficiency – arise from an optimal fit between the demands of an environment and the capabilities of an organism. Organisms have functions and performance for those functions have a clear hierarchy. There is a better, if not a best. Another way of saying this, there is a potential to be realized along an axis of improvement.
It seems peculiar to humanity that there is a value of excellence associated with optimal performance. And this excellence is lauded and associated with esteem, a sense of worth. It is commoditized in myths and in marketing campaigns.
But it feels like a dead end. What constitutes excellence seems so contingent and circumstantial, in arenas that would seem silly to others. Michael Jordan was the best in the world in an endeavor that didn’t exist two centuries ago. Our captains of industry rule a system that has existed for a sliver of mankind’s history. Olympic athletes push and contort their bodies for a differential of a decimal point and a wafer of metal.
Stripping all this away, what is a notion of excellence that is true, that matters? What defines the proper discipline to achieve it?
I think there is an obligation and an unequivocal good in realizing the potential of one’s capabilities towards the good – towards virtue and towards the service of society. But there remains a question of which capabilities. A writer could work non-stop in perfecting her craft to the detriment of relationships and health. Perhaps society is better off with a maniacal focus on one narrow set of capabilities. There are others who are reasonably good in multiple arenas – a nice professional career, parenthood, and being a spouse. But would they write a great timeless novel, compose a musical masterpiece or go in the record books with multiple Olympic medals? How does one know whether an hour of sleep lost each night is worth the additional hours spent on honing one’s craft?
This is not clear.
I think the whole questioning is driven by the wrong premise, that one’s life is to be judged by performance and output. First, what is the benchmark of performance? Performance of what? In a planet of seven billion and against tens of billions more in mankind’s history, assessing the output of one feels futile and vain.
Perhaps the answer goes back to the animal world. An animal just is. They have no notion of a legacy. Of deferring gratification for some ideal of greatness. They are present and they are responsive.
It does seem clear that the self-denial of discipline for the sake of carving out an esteemed position relative to another man somehow seems ontologically wrong. This co-location of elements, fluids and energy called a human being whose energies are directed towards distinction and acclaim, it feels wrong, pointless.
Maybe the answer is ultimately a self-surrender, a self-forgetting, being responsive, virtuous, being aligned with a sense of nature (religious might say ‘God’). Discipline, when divorced from an idea of achievement, seems to be simply an outcome of prudence and vision. Like the animal who stores food.
It just is.[Photo, “Lance-0” by Sebastian David Tingkaer]