Tuesday, October 4, 2016

On the Pursuit of Excellence

One of these days I'm going to get back to Pastors in Fiction. However, this post was just burning to be written this week. 

I'm in my senior year of study right now. Due to my major, most of this year consists of hands-on work that applies the principles I've learned over the last two (very stressful) years.

In addition to my 40 hours-a-week "internship", I'm expected to research topics that I'm unfamiliar with and to write weekly summaries of what I've been doing during my hands-on learning experience. Each instructor has different expectations for our summaries and what they should contain. (Which makes life interesting, as I change teachers every three weeks).

The instructor who has moderated my past three weeks of learning has very high expectations.

After I submitted my fifteen page report (that I considered far too detailed), I sat back and felt confident that I had knocked her expectations out of the park.

Only to get an email the next day saying that I had significant room for improvement.

But didn't I put six hours into it? Didn't I look up two topics? Didn't I use MLA citations? But, but, but...

Then the anger hit. This was so unfair. Her expectations were totally unreasonable. The last teacher had been content with the six page report that I hadn't done any further research on. She should know how much effort I put into my report. I had put a good effort in--I deserved an A. People who didn't try deserved B's, not people like me who tried. No one should have to work this hard.

The next day, I complained  to one of my friends about the work I had to do. She sympathized with me and said it was unfair. I felt vindicated...until I thought back on the conversation.

"I tried so hard..." "I deserve..." "She's being unreasonable..." "I put six hours of work into this. If I put that much work in..." "I know I didn't answer every question in the rubric, but nobody has time for that." "The previous student didn't have to do this much work."

Excuse me, self of two weeks ago, but when was the last time excellence cared how much time you worked on something? When did excellence care that you think deserve something? Does excellence care what someone else had to do?

When did someone achieve excellence by having that sort of attitude?

"Good enough" is not excellence. "I tried hard enough" is not excellence. "I'm tired of working on this" is not excellence. "I deserve," "I've surely put in enough time," "This is unreasonable," are not hallmarks of excellence.

"This is a flaw I should address," is a step toward excellence. "How can I improve?" is a step toward excellence. Admitting faults, being honest with oneself, performing work diligently, avoiding entitlement, and taking personal responsibility are all steps toward excellence.

I do not "deserve" an A--but I can earn one. A certain amount of time will not guarantee a good grade--but a good grade will almost certainly require a lot of time and effort to achieve.

Writing is very similar. In some ways, it requires more of us than school does, for the simple fact that we have to determine what excellence is. We don't have a teacher who will put a shiny gold star sticker on our writing and say it's good. We determine what is acceptable to send to agents or to self-publish.

*Side rant* People always complain that self-published books are sloppy, but I'm always amazed at how many good ones are out there. We spend most of our lives having someone tell us what is acceptable and giving us A's for effort. So, when we are told to strive for excellence and given the opportunity to regulate it, it's a wonder that the world doesn't blow up. *Side rant over.*

Excellence does not award points for participation. It awards points for results. It doesn't care how many writing books you've read--unless you apply them. It doesn't care how many times you've edited a work--it cares if it can be edited more. Excellence doesn't care if you're tired of fine-tuning a character--it cares if the character is fine-tuned.

Excellence is a demanding teacher. It will work you hard. It will push you past your current limits. It will force you to grow. And, in the end, it will provide reward.

Of course, entitlement is always another option. Entitlement invites us to say "enough". It invites us to blame others for our lack of excellence. Entitlement whispers what we want to hear--that excellence is too costly and unreasonable to even attempt. It tells us what we deserve, not what we can earn.

Entitlement is an easy road, but often leads to disappointment. We will never get what we feel we "deserve" if we listen to entitlement. We will become jealous souls, bereft of the ability to achieve anything worthwhile.

Even though I realize this, I'm far from perfect. I still catch myself complaining about my teachers' expectations. I still don't want to work hard some days. And I often give up when I think I've accomplished "good enough", rather than shooting for the stars.

Nevertheless, I encourage you (and my future self) to shoot for excellence. Whether that's in writing,
in school, or in some other vocation, shoot for the stars. Be all that you can be--you might surprise yourself.

Do you struggle with doing things to "good enough" rather than as well as you can? (In a healthy, non-obsessive way, of course)


  1. This is a great post! I'm glad you've caught your attitude and decided to try to do better, something everyone (definitely me included) could do more of. (I think another problem of mine tends to be getting obsessed with stuff, which is something else I'm trying to work on. *sighs* You can't have it all, right?)

    I can definitely apply this to my writing, though. If I want to be the best, I have to be the best. The end. It doesn't matter how many hours I've put into it, it just has to be good. The end. Thanks for such a though-provoking post!

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post! I also struggle to find that happy medium where I'm not obsessive, but putting in a good effort.

      Thanks for the comment!


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