Excellence is defined as a talent, or quality, that is unusually good and surpasses ordinary standards.1
It has a tendency to be overstated. Advertisers use the word with such abandon that excellence appears commonplace. It would appear easily obtainable and observable by anyone and everyone, yet ultimately, excellence is found in the results. They are either excellent, or they are not. As a standard, it is unforgiving in spite of any attempt to make it more accommodating.
In reality, excellence is not achievable by all. If it was, then that standard would become the average and therefore, not excellent by definition.
The word is often associated with academics. (A Google search of ‘excellence in education’ yielded over 104,000,000 links and that was just in English).
It is used to express scholastic competence.
In the modern day, excellence might be reflected in straight A’s. In many schools and universities there exists the practice of grading on a curve. A teacher might give an exam and the highest grade achieved might be 77% and the lowest 34%. The 77% grade would equal an A and therefore an indication of excellence.
If the bar of acceptable standards is lowered, excellence as a concept can be redefined as simply being higher than that being set. In other words, it can be alloyed into something different from the word’s original intent.
In the same way that excellence can be degraded as a concept, it can be bettered. As a particular group attains higher levels of achievement, what is considered the standard of excellence rises, too.
This points out a key feature of excellence: it is not fixed.
In addition, it is not easy to achieve. Real excellence in anything requires hard work and continuous striving to maintain.
The ancient Greeks had much to say on the subject.
Their word for excellence of any kind was arete. It was linked closely with the fulfillment of function, or purpose. Both men and women could have it. It was synonymous with effectiveness. A knife that is extremely sharp had arete as did the strength of an athlete.
Arete was sometimes personified as a minor deity and was said to have appeared to Hercules at a crossroads as a young woman who offered him the choice of a lifetime of struggle against evil while her sister, Kakia (badness) held out an alternate life of wealth and pleasure. Arete was also a part of the paideia, the ideal education of the youth of a polis (city state). This included control of the body through sports such as boxing and wrestling, the training of the mind by knowing rhetoric, grammar, and philosophy, as well as spiritual schooling through the study of music and the virtues of courage and prudence.2
The Roman counterpart was Virtus, who personified bravery and military strength.3
The word, excellence, is ultimately derived from the Latin ex: ‘out from’ and cellere: ‘to rise high, tower’.4
In both its history and derivation the implication is that Excellence is a synonym for Outstanding.
In 1950, Japan passed legislation for the Protection of Cultural Properties. Individuals who had attained an extraordinary mastery of certain artistic skills were to be designated Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties to ensure their continuation as part of Japanese culture. Although there are designations for both larger and smaller groups, those who receive individual certification are considered National Living Treasures.
In 1980, PBS broadcasted a documentary (The Living Treasures of Japan) on several of these individuals. They included a sword maker, a Kabuki actor, a potter and several others. One in particular was an ancient lady who made an indigo-dyed hemp cloth used for kimonos. She grew and harvested the fiber. She spun and wove the cloth, four bolts a year, which she dyed a deep blue color that became richer with time. She did every phase of manufacture by hand in the same way that it had been done for hundreds of years. The result was a textile masterpiece.
What struck me then, and has stayed with me ever since, was a comment she made. She said she often awoke before dawn and waited for the sun to rise so she could continue weaving, such was her enthusiasm for her work.5 This was a woman who loved what she did and did what she loved.
Enthusiasm for the doing is necessary for excellence.
It is difficult to assess which comes first: the love of the work, itself, or the love for it that grows when one becomes master of the craft. Many can have enthusiasm, but without the competence and thorough knowledge of the fundamentals, excellence will always remain elusive.
In older times the path of apprentice, journeyman, and master-craftsman existed. This not only preserved standards but gave access to training for those who wished to learn. Many early apprentices had to take up the business that their fathers did and were groomed to continue the family tradition. They apprenticed until they had absorbed all their fathers could teach them. Next, they set forth on a journey to gain further knowledge from others. They became journeymen. Over time and many years, they became masters themselves. Education and training was a personal process. Not everyone achieved mastery even then. Some did not like the craft to begin with; but, with no other options, they had to learn anyway. That they achieved outstanding results without the inner joy that comes from loving what one is doing is doubtful.
Excellence requires knowing the skills necessary to do the job no matter what the field of endeavor.
It requires a higher level of achievement than simple mastery. One must be so familiar with the procedures, methods, techniques, and tools of a particular trade that one is no longer caught up in the ‘how’ of doing it. The tools or methods become an extension of oneself. When this level of competence is achieved, one can begin to truly create and go beyond the ordinary. How long does it take to fully master a field, an art form, a craft, or an occupation? The 10,000 hour rule of Malcolm Gladwell comes to mind6, but this may be an understatement. Surely one would become very good at whatever one was attempting after this amount of time, but any real professional will have put in a similar amount of time to even be considered a professional. True excellence requires more.
In the documentary film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Jiro goes through the exact same procedures to make a single piece of sushi. The content will change depending on what is freshest and best at the markets he visits every morning, but his goal is to make each movement, cut, and preparation step an example of perfection each time, every time.7
Picasso is another interesting example in that his early drawings are extraordinarily detailed and realistic. He knew how to draw at a very high skill level, but as his mastery progressed, his technique dropped much of the realism and acquired the abstraction he is so well known for. Looking at a Picasso it would seem at first glance easy to create a similar work, yet without the earlier mastery and skill level that was perfected over years of study and experimentation, the attempt would fail.
This is because real excellence is built on a thorough foundation of skill, knowledge, and performance that cannot be cut short.
With such complete control and understanding of what one is doing, there comes about the one additional factor that makes excellence so breathtaking. It is called: connection.
Great art, outstanding products, and extraordinary performances connect us with life.
Picasso’s Guernica in the artist’s words expresses: “…my horror of the military caste which is now plunging Spain into an ocean of misery and death.” Technically brilliant it goes beyond simple technique in that it resonates with the viewer on a personal level and has become one of the most famous war paintings of all time.8
In Jiro’s case, through the medium of food, he connects the wonders of nature, the elegance of presentation, with the joys we receive from our abilities to taste, smell, and experience. The result is excellence, which is why his small restaurant has Michelin’s highest award.9
We may not, each of us, be able to achieve excellence in what we do, but at least we can discover it around us.
Today even that is difficult. It is hard to discern the extraordinary from the ordinary when we are bombarded by thousands of demands for attention from the many electronic devices we find so necessary to let us know we are still alive.
Museums are one place where excellence can be experienced firsthand in abundance, but how many of us make the time to visit a single one even if only once a month? Such is the pace of the world we live in.
In spite of the noise that envelops us, excellence does exist, but it must be sought after even if simply to observe it or to strive to attain it.
Just like Hercules, each of us, each day, every day, stands at a crossroad with a choice of paths to take, and it is these choices that shape our lives one way or the other.
- Enevoldsen, N. (N.D.) The Pursuit of Excellence. Retrieved July 14, 2015 from http://www.imasocialentrepreneur.com/pursuit-excellence/.
- A. (N.D.) Arete: The Greek Way. Retrieved July 14, 2015 from http://lancefuhrer.com/arete.htm.
- A. (N.D.) Minor Gods of the Roman Pantheon (Di Indegetes). Retrieved July 14, 2015 from http://www.unrv.com/culture/minor-roman-god-list.php.
- Excellence (N.D.) Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved July 14, 2015 from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=excellent.
- Living Treasures of Japan (2012). Retrieved July 14, 2015 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Twwjiape3A.
- Gladwell, M. (2008) Outliers, the Story of Success. New York, NY: Little Brown & Co.
- Jiro Dreams of Sushi [Motion picture]. (2012). Magnolia Home Entertainment.
- Shabi, K. (2013) Guernica Meaning: Analysis and Interpretation of Painting by Pablo Picasso. Retrieved July 14, 2015 from http://legomenon.com/guernica-meaning-analysis-of-painting-by-pablo-picasso.html.
- Magnolia Home Entertainment, cit.
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