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Against "pursuing excellence"

I love this post to little tiny squishy pieces. I've always been suspicious of overemphasis on "excellence" and "progress." I seem to have avoided getting sucked in all the way by those values, but I've seen a great many of my friends beating themselves up using them. Maybe people would beat themselves up anyway if these concepts weren't around to use, but it gives me a huge grudge against the concepts. This post sets an overemphasis on "excellence" against working-class values ("work hard and do a good job") and claims that income inequality causes more overemphasis on "excellence." (Barbara Ehrenreich discusses similar ideas in Bright-sided—she argues that many Americans expect that unless they perfect their minds until they have only positive thoughts all the time, they won't ever succeed; and conversely that positive thoughts lead inexorably to success.

(Both of which expectations are bullshit...but bullshit that governments and corporations and other large organizations find it very useful to promulgate, since such bullshit leads people toward an overfocus on individuality and away from a focus on organizing, which might upset the power structure.)

by Jack Metzgar

Excerpts (emphasis mine):

I am not against excellence. I just think it’s over-rated as an aspiration. In fact, I think aspiration itself may be over-rated.
there is no evidence that pursuing excellence actually leads to it. Based on the testimony of many great artists, for example, excellence more often happens if not by accident, then through a combination of circumstances where the conscious pursuit of excellence is not one of the circumstances. An extraordinary talent or “gift” is often one of those circumstances, as is determination and focus in pursuit of a specific goal
My main gripe with pursuing excellence, however, is the way it necessarily encourages competition among individuals. Excelling means measuring ourselves against others, and this tends to undermine our focus on doing a good job.
such a phenomenon is characteristic, in my view, of professional middle-class culture in early 21st century America.
Fortunately, working-class culture is still a healthy, if beleaguered, antidote to the dominant middle-class one....Working hard and doing a good job, “pulling my weight” and “doing my part” – not pursuing excellence – are the core motivating values that working-class people feel bad about when they don’t live up to them.
the extreme levels of income inequality we have now reached make the working-class way dramatically more economically punishing. My students often have to at least mimic a phony pursuit of excellence if they are to provide for themselves and their families. The worse things get, the more they are told not to sell themselves short, to set their sights high, to aspire to become whatever you want to be (unless, of course, you just want to be yourself).
A culture that encourages people to “work hard and do a good job” leads to greater personal integrity, better mental health, and higher actual performance levels than the false counsel to “pursue excellence and never settle for second best.”

This entry was originally posted at http://firecat.dreamwidth.org/730254.html, where there are comments.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 18th, 2011 11:30 pm (UTC)
Wow. A completely different perspective on excellence than I usually use. I pursue excellence as a learning opportunity, an effort to do my next task a bit better than my last task. Excellence should stand on its own without competition; “never settle for second best” is a completely different notion to me than “pursue excellence”. And the pursuit of excellence is a much more healthy activity than the pursuit of perfection, which usually leads to defining some impossible ideal and then feeling bad that you didn’t live up to it.
Jul. 18th, 2011 11:33 pm (UTC)
I sometimes pursue improvement, but I don't pursue excellence, because I think the former is possible to discern and sometimes to measure, whereas the latter is just sorta nebulous. I more often pursue improvement of some specific kind, decided by me—e.g., I want to learn this particular skill.
Jul. 19th, 2011 05:29 am (UTC)
Well, if I say to myself "that person has different baggage around the word "excellence" than I do", I think I get where he's coming from.

Jul. 19th, 2011 05:51 am (UTC)
Yeah. I think the exact term used is kind of a side issue, though. The article is trying to analyze a systemic issue—pressure to be competitive and comparative and how it undermines the ability to actually get work done. We can call it striving for excellence or striving for perfection or whatever.
Jul. 22nd, 2011 07:32 pm (UTC)
God, yes. I am a much more collaborative person than I thought I was growing up (group projects, man -- they can do some damage to your perception of collaboration), and I so wish other people found it easier to just go with that rather than jockeying for position. I perceive it as desire for overall hierarchy interfering with fluid situation-specific leadership, most often.

Primates. Nothin' but trouble.
Jul. 19th, 2011 08:21 am (UTC)
i am a recovering perfectionist. and i can report that perfectionism can make you really ill and unhappy. bad enough in an individual, but awful for a whole society.
Jul. 19th, 2011 11:31 am (UTC)
I'm generally in favor of pursuing excellence but not perfection--I see the latter as crazy-making--but I, alo, have a self-competitive rather than an other-competitive idea of "excellence."

To me, one difference between "excellence" and "improvement" is that the former is more creative, trying to carve out new territory. Actually, I go with the latter in some areas, esp. craft hobbies, and the former in others, including work in teaching or writing.
Jul. 19th, 2011 10:18 pm (UTC)
This is very interesting. Thank you for posting.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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