Better than your Best
I have been thinking a lot recently about the pursuit of excellence. Like motherhood and apple pie, it is hard to imagine a bad word about excellence. Surely we want our children to experience excellent education, we want them to achieve excellent standards and we want them to aspire to excellence in whatever tasks to which they may turn their hands. I can't think of a school that wouldn't affirm excellence in principle, and that wouldn't consider the pursuit of excellence a legitimate drive. After all, who would want to pursue mediocrity in education? Who would want to attend an undistinguished school or to achieve unremarkable standards? However, like most aspects of life, it is no bad thing to examine some of our implicit assumptions and see whether they stand up to scrutiny.
I suspect that most parents have told their children that they just need to do their best. I am reasonably sure that every teacher has offered some equivalent encouragement. However, even that innocuous encouragement raises questions. The reality is that our resources are limited. The effort required to achieve excellence in one context limits the effort available to achieve excellence in another. On a very simple level, to give one's very best to Music would require a limitation of the time available to Maths. To give everything to one's career would leave very little to one's family. To do one's very best in one field must involve limiting one's capacity in another. Life entails trade-offs; we can't do it all.
Therefore, it follows that we all apportion our time and efforts according to our priorities. We make decisions about what is most important to us and act accordingly. Universal excellence, for an individual or an organisation, is a myth. Rather than pursue and expect excellence in all things, we would do well to prioritise our efforts around the things that matter most.
Excellence can be a false God
A second, and related, point about the pursuit of excellence is that it can be a false god. The Biblical language of idolatry is helpful for us here; idolatry involves treating something that is not God as though it is. Sometimes we can elevate excellence as though it could guarantee us security and significance, as though it can give our lives and efforts meaning, as though it can provide us with our hearts desire, be that success or popularity or wealth or happiness. Therefore, we make sacrifices, put other things aside, and make achieving excellence our top priority.
As is always the case, idolatry comes back to bite us. A focus on excellence can so easily become a drive to perfectionism, an inability to cope with failure and an unrealistic expectation about the nature of life. Educators see these pressures in our schools. It is a heavy burden to believe that your worth is determined by the quality of your achievements.
However, lest the above comments lead you to think that we should not advocate for excellence, let me be very clear that there are good reasons to pursue excellence. These reasons arise less from individual Scriptural proof texts, and more from theological reflection.
It seems to me that the primary impetus for Christians to pursue excellence understands this pursuit as a thankful response to God. Through no worthiness of our own we have born into opportunities that are provided to us, whether by virtue of the point in time and space that we inhabit, or by virtue of the innate abilities and talents with which we have been endowed. In response to these gifts, we show our thankfulness by making the most of that which has been given. In this view, the pursuit of excellence is a moral obligation, incumbent on us.
What does it mean to make the most of what you've been given?
However, this prompts another question. What does it mean to ‘make the most of that which has been given’? Is this a mandate for maximising our wealth? Is it a justification for maintaining a position of socio-economic privilege? Is it grounds for self-indulgence or self-centredness of one form or another?
Our pursuit of excellence is shaped by our commitment to love others. From a Christian point of view, love for God is expressed through our loving service of our neighbour. The logic is that the shoe-maker glorifies God by making excellent shoes, which are a blessing to those who will wear them. So too the doctor's excellence is a blessing to those who are sick, the musician's excellence is a blessing to those who listen, the teacher's excellence is a blessing to her students, and the student's excellence is a blessing both in the present to those around him and in the future to those whom he will serve.
It is no bad thing thing for us to aim for excellence. However, excellence ought not be considered as an end in itself, nor as a means to secure our hearts’ desires. Rather, it is at its best as an expression of thankfulness to God, directed in service to others.
Tim Bowden is headmaster, Trinity Grammar School