On Excellence

Yesterday I was having a conversation with a few of my graduating students about their post-secondary plans. It came up that many students are making choices about which schools to attend and which courses to take based on how easy they think it will be to get high grades, so that they have a better chance of getting into programs like medical school. This is not something I was surprised to hear, as I’ve heard it many times. There are schools in our province that have the reputation for being “hard” and those that are reputed to be easy. Go to an easy school, get high grades, then coast into med school.

My question has always been “Ok, and then what?”

The answer?

“Then I’ll be a doctor.”

That’s when I always want to know what kind of doctor they plan to be. I don’t mean what area of medicine – I mean what level of competence. Very very few students say they want to be mediocre. They all plan on being excellent. I can’t help but wonder how they intend to make that true. I have questions.

What is the path to true excellence? Is it an easy one? Is it possible to simply do whatever it takes to get there as easily and quickly as possible, and then once there reap the rewards? Many think so, but it’s not true.

The path to excellence does not exist. Excellence is not a place you go. Excellence is a mode of travel.

So while there may be no path to excellence, there is a path of excellence. There is also the easy path, and they are very much not the same journey. If you want to be excellent – if you want to live on that path, then you need to work at it. It’s hard, and there are way more people choosing the easy path, but excellence is the most rewarding path there is. Yet so many people spend so much effort trying to look excellent instead of actually working to be excellent. And this is a source of great stress. When everyone around you appears to be perfect, and you know you are not, it can make you crazy. So students do what they can to appear perfect. Taking easy courses, engaging in academic dishonesty (that’s modern speak for cheating for you old-fashioned folk out there) and essentially making diligence and discipline the last resort.

My students say, “But if I take harder courses I’ll get lower marks and I won’t get into med school.”

I say, ‘Not true! Take hard courses and get high marks! It can be done. There are people doing it. Be one of those people. Be the person everyone is afraid they have to compete with instead of the person taking easy courses to compete.”

If you choose to take the easy path to get where you want to go, then once you think you’ve made it you will discover that there’s no way to leap the chasm to the path of excellence. You will be a walking fraud.

On the other hand, if you dedicate every step to being excellent then when you become a doctor (or whatever else it is that you want to be), you will be an amazing one. Having dedicated yourself to the path of excellence you won’t have to pretend to be excellent, because you will be the paradigm of it.

My message is simple. If you want to look excellent, then be excellent. Maintaining a shell of excellence draped over a mediocre core will erode your spirit. Be bulletproof. Don’t look excellent. Be excellent. It’s way less stressful.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Dare To Be Exceptional

I’m kind of a strange guy, in that most of my favourite movie quotes come from animated films or sci-fi, or both. Yoda, Master Oogway, Jean-Luc Picard, Optimus Prime … all have wisdom to share. But today’s blog is about one of my very favourites, from Mr. Incredible himself, when he found out his son was going to be part of a graduation ceremony at the end of grade 4.

“It is not a graduation. He will be moving from the 4th grade to the 5th grade. It’s psychotic! They keep inventing new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but when someone is genuinely exceptional…”
–Bob Parr, aka Mr. Incredible

How sadly appropriate in today’s society. Our children are bedecked with meaningless medals, they stare at shelves lined with trophies for participation, and they are celebrated in ceremonies commemorating inevitability. Society has decided that recognition of excellence must not come at the expense of the runners-up. So everyone wins. Every moment is a photo opportunity. When my son finished Kindergarten the photographer at the school put him in a cap and gown and handed him a fake diploma for the portrait! How proud we were meant to be, I wonder, that through hard work and dedication he had earned his Kindergarten diploma? I mean truly, how many parents can say their kids have managed that milestone?

We manufacture their success and then we celebrate it. Then we lament the fact that this new generation comes off as underachieving, entitled, and uninspired.

Thankfully we are wrong about them. But sadly the reason young people often come off this way is because we give them little choice. How is a child who is constantly rewarded in the wake of mediocre performance to learn the benefit of striving for excellence? What will inspire them if, having put forth little to no effort, they are lauded as champions? Because that is what we do. And for those children who truly shine, what is their reward, when all the others are painted with the same glorious brush? How long should we expect those kids to put in all their effort when they watch their peers work half as hard, accomplish half as much, and get praised twice as often? Because the other sad truth is that for fear of hurting those who under-perform, we under-reward those who excel. Are we doing anybody any favours with this?

Of course, it’s not always like this. Happily younger generations still have the human condition, and still want to truly excel. They are inspiring, they don’t all think life is a free ride, and many of them achieve their potential. And I know many teachers – myself included – who still push for excellence and reward it when we see it, and who do not praise mediocrity or manufacture success. That may sound harsh, but it is not. Kids know when they have put forth their best effort. They know when they have broken past old boundaries. In short, they know the difference between success and failure. And when they feel that nothing special has occurred, but the world around them still celebrates their “achievement”, it is confusing for them and makes them feel like a fraud. In other words, in trying to build self-esteem by making sure everyone gets a trophy, we really reduce it significantly. By recognizing true excellence, we foster it. We dare kids to be exceptional.

There is another quote I love, this time from a real-life person. It’s actually often mistakenly attributed to Nelson Mandela, because he quoted it in a speech, but the original author of the quote is Marianne Williamson:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
–Marianne Williamson

I have read and reread this quote to many of my students, and often just to myself. If you’ve never heard it or read it, spend some time reading it over a few times right now. If you have read it or heard it before, read it again now. Think about what she’s saying. I think about it all the time. Every time I am tempted to, say, dumb down a sentence because I think maybe the audience won’t understand it. Or every time I am singing in public and catch myself deliberately about to use my “I don’t really think I’m a singer” voice so people won’t think I’m showing off. Every time a student asks me about how I did in math when I was in high school, and I almost lie because I don’t want them to feel bad about the mark they are getting. Every time these things come up, I remember that I should dare to be exceptional, so that others will too. So I use my full vocabulary and let my students use context to figure out what I mean, I sing with intent every time, and I tell them that I was very good at math and that I had an average of 97% in my last year of high school, which was only as low as that because my English mark brought it down.

So my advice is this:

  • Parents – love your kids but please don’t confuse love with empty praise. Challenge them to be better and praise/reward them for true excellence. Don’t be afraid for them to try something and fail, because failure feeds desire.
  • Teachers – let’s continue to raise our expectations and celebrate when the students achieve at these higher levels, rather than lower them (as current culture would have us do) so that everyone can “succeed”. Let’s breed true success.
  • All of us – don’t shrink from your own brilliance. Go all out every time, and watch how everyone around you starts to do the same thing. We can be so impressive when we want to.

Let’s want to.

Thanks for reading,

Rich