Practicing excellence is not a privilege. It’s a birthright. It’s in part what we human beings are here for. We have these remarkable faculties. Perhaps what most elevates us is to finesse our best attention and direct it toward specific endeavors that benefit others, whether that benefit is through art, social change, business artistry. It turns out that excellence has little to do with the easy life.
In the 1960s, John W. Gardner
became convinced that we don’t live up to the potential for excellence that is the birthright of every person. / This has two consequences. Our lives become drab and impoverished. We never experience the feeling of exhilaration that one has when acting at the fullness of one’s capacities, the kind of feeling that an Olympic athlete may have when running her personal best, or a poet may have when turning a perfect phrase – what I call flow. The second consequence is that people who are both badly paid and have dull jobs eventually become alienated from the fortunate few.
– Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Yet in this disrupted economy rich with entrepreneurial king and queen makers, it’s tempting to slip into some fantasy, really a siren’s call, of luxury and easy routes and comfort. A 4-hour work week with a beach chair as a desk chair. We tell ourselves that if we become rich then we will have an even greater positive impact on society. It turns out that luxury and easy routes and comfort are anathema to what Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” based on his in-depth study of numerous individuals who have flourished.
Flow, he found, emerged not when people enjoyed privileges of financial wealth, recreation, or drug use. Instead, flow emerges by their placing themselves in situations that they relish and that challenge the best in them, that entail high degrees of novelty and uncertainty and risk. Flow has less to do with quality of attitude and more to do with quality of action.
Gardner could have applied his own brilliance and accolades to making lots of money. Instead, he devoted his talents to pursuing possibilities for different social structures in the United States. He sought social structures that would allow plumbers as well as painters to pursue excellence. In his eighties, he returned to teaching.
Flow comes from a deep inner drive. A right drive and intention:
“I never did anything that I wasn’t strongly motivated to do. I never did anything for a title, for power, for money, unless I was deeply interested in the subject. I don’t know why I behave that way, but I guess I felt life was short and I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I think the other things can be even more secure if you have that base of motivation, if you stay close to your own values.”
I think of him as an exemplar of excellence for those of us in life’s autumn and winter seasons.
I think of our chimney cleaner. He enjoys the work, the challenge of the work. He and his partner give themselves challenges each year to improve their business system and flow. He was the first guy I saw in the Hudson Valley several years ago using an iPad to do his business from living room to living room. They challenge themselves to find complementary ways to serve their customers – helping them purchase new fireplaces and stoves, giving them goofy surprise gifts.
We can make ourselves miserable trying to pursue a fantasy of “the easy life,” when the excellent life is potentially right here.