The Pursuit of Excellence is Part of the Pursuit of Happiness
The Pursuit of Excellence is not Perfection
I’ve been wondering what holds us back from asking for the help we know we need and from pursuing excellence at whatever we’re doing.
Here’s what I’m thinking aloud and invite your responses: Pursuing excellence somehow smacks of perfectionism. It connotes young athletes being driven to harm’s way in order to win medals. I’ve heard and read a lot lately in the personal growth and creativity fields about people disclaiming expertise, about the beauty of not-knowing, about letting go of such pursuits.
When I’ve mentioned mastery before, people have responded with virulent claims that the pursuit of mastery is elitist, old-school, exclusive, aggressive.
People I work and talk with shrink away from their best possible creative work. I know that desire to pull back, crawl under the tortoise shell, and be very, very small.
But here’s what I’m thinking based on my work with others:
Pursuing excellence is not obsessing about perfection. Pursuing – not achieving – excellence is about letting our best selves show up to do the best work we’re meant to do with the best finesse we can learn and muster.
(Read more here about how wonder and the pursuit of happiness fit in with the pursuit of excellence, and share your thoughts, provocations, amens, and disputes in the comment section.)
The pursuit of excellence is about learning the tools of our trade, whether it’s in carpentry, design, entrepreneurship, writing. It’s about not failing but “collecting data” about ourselves, our skills, and more when things don’t work out as desired – and then getting back up.
It is not about performing but about discovering the skillful means to engage if not transform our audiences.
The Wonder of it All
Wonder, I’ve discovered, has this beautiful tango with the pursuit of knowledge and of mastery. Wonder pushes us beyond what we think we know. And then as soon as we discover new knowledge, new skill, wonder appears again. We stand astonished at what we can do and how we can do it – all in service of our art and business and the people whose lives we aspire to touch.
I believe many of us are called to rise to our innate excellence in a certain field. Greeks like Aristotle called that innate excellence arete. The virtue of excellence. The virtue of cultivating your talents, crafts, abilities to fulfill your greatest potential and purpose.
But among so much mediocrity, junk-shipping, cheapened customer interactions, and tv shows that purport our basest histrionics as “reality,” I also believe we need you to stand up for and track your brand of excellence.
There’s wonder and the deepest kind of gratification and contentment in that pursuit.
Happiness in Voluntary Self-Challenges
In his lecture known as The Ethics, Aristotle referred to the pursuit of excellence as essential in what he called the pursuit of eudaimonia. The closest word in English for eudaimonia is “happiness.” When drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson adapted his ancient Greek mentor’s phrase when including, as part of our inalienable rights, the phrase “the pursuit of happiness.”
I’ve witnessed countless creatives and professionals light up when they observe themselves doing something, making something, finessing something that two years was foreign territory. Witnessing that kind of self-admiration, a high level of self-realized happiness, is a beautiful thing.
Well, that’s what I’m wondering. You? I’d really love to hear your thoughts.
Thanks for running with me,
So I LOVE that you are using the word mastery. It isn’t elitist (to me). It reflects respect for the art and craft you are choosing to interact with. Anyone who seriously pursues art knows there’s no end to your learning about it. You’re never done. There is no ‘mastery’ if you view it within the framework of being “done” with learning. But seeking mastery to me means a commitment to a lifetime of discovery & awe with whatever medium you’re choosing. So, will I ever master all there is to do and learn about writing? Not a chance. But is my commitment to the craft and to literature and stories full-on, full-bodied, full-souled? Yes. And, and this is the most important piece, I think — with pursuit of mastery (authentic pursuit of mastery) comes the utmost humility & the profound awareness of the constant standing in the field of questions. (Or as you’d say, the hut of questions) 🙂 Seeking excellence demonstrates a respect for the art and its power — and a respect for the cultivation of the gifts you’ve been given to take care of. Why feed my cat generic Walmart food if I can provide something better, more sustainable and more healthful? Treating the gifts I have with respect means learning all I can about how to use them and how to bring them to their fullest fruition in my unique life. Everything doesn’t get a gold star. 🙂 (But that’s a different rant …) And yes, I’m working on a book about this. LOL.
Laraine~I always appreciate your voice here. Respect for the art – and the tradition – right. Humility, yes! Our readers, their imaginations and hearts, merit our respect. Can’t wait to read your book!