Rumors of excellence

I’ve been thinking about excellence for a long time, and one aspect of this rumination has been listening to the way people think and talk about excellence. It seems we have two common perspectives on excellence, and each of them miss something essential about striving for excellence — what I call excellencifying.

It’s hardly a surprise that we would find different perspectives on excellence. After all, we find different perspectives on everything from our deeply-held values to avocado toast, and everything in between. But I find it very interesting to think about how a particular perspective on a particular activity reveals important features of the philosophy of life the lies behind each perspective.

Some people believe not just that excellence is revealed by competition, but that excellence can only be achieved through competitive engagement with others. It’s as if we are natural slackers, who need combat to strive for anything better. Daily life is filled with literal and metaphorical battles: We race against the clock, we fight cancer, compete for jobs, and even win arguments. Life, from this vantage, is a winner-take-all affair, where second place is the first loser.

On the other hand, there are people who believe that we are excellent by nature, and all it takes for that natural excellence to be revealed is acceptance and encouragement. When people are valued and accepted, they blossom and show themselves to be accomplished. Everyone should be rewarded for participating; no one should feel the sting of defeat. Life, one would say, is a continuous struggle against the dehumanizing effect of losing.

These two perspectives resist each other, but they are oddly incomplete, in complementary ways. The competitive view of excellence rightly prizes striving, but contextualizes excellence in a zero-sum game in which striving is not inherently valuable but only as a means to an end: winning. The natural view of excellence encourages and supports us, but at the cost of any motivation for striving: If I am already excellent, what’s the point? And the price extracted is that we gradually conflate excellence with mediocrity and striving with complacency.

One way to understand the consequences of these perspectives is to ask what “healthy competition” means: To the competition view, it means learning how to win. From the nature perspective, it means learning to lose, even when we win.

One perspective views human beings as atomistic competitors in mutually adversarial relationship; the other sees us as symbiotic members of a status quo. To one, we are solitary tigers; to the other, sponges. When a tiger fades, its territory is up for grabs; another winner takes over. Sponges, on the other hand, can be scrambled, and they dutifully reassemble themselves to form another sponge.

In fact, rational animals are neither. While we are a highly communal animal, we have the capacity to strive for excellence — a capacity we often choose to forego. Similarly, striving for excellence is neither natural nor a zero-sum affair for communal animals. When a community recognizes the value of excellencifying, striving becomes inherently valuable — even when there are winners and losers, because their striving has enriched the lives of everyone involved.

Even in our polarized society today, we could recognize this communal brand of excellencifying: Think about researchers in different institutions vying with each other to be “first” at a vaccine for a threatening illness. No matter who “wins,” might we not all benefit from their competition?

But even in a fairly obvious example such as this, the partial perspective can be insistent. Do the researchers work for pharmaceutical companies, who see a win not for community but for profits? Or, on the other hand, why take the word of researchers to begin with, since we are all naturally gifted at forming our own judgments?

When excellence becomes a zero-sum game, there is no incentive to share. Only the winner benefits, so it would be self-defeating to offer assistance or share information. But when each person is an arbiter of excellence by nature, there can be no genuine sharing because there is nothing substantial to share, so accolades ring hollow.

Suppose we recognize and accept our weakness for attractive but partial perspectives: What would rational animals do — at least, on their better days? Wouldn’t we create compensatory mechanisms to help us through these moments of weakness, the moments when we are most tempted to turn away from the capacity for prudence that nature gave us?

Instead of embracing a partial perspective that answers to our animal propensity for anxiety, suppose we deliberate about our interconnectedness and the ways in which excellencifying promote human flourishing. What would we establish as a rewards for excellence, if we could accept both the rational and the animal in ourselves?

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