Mid-March is about the time a lot of New Year’s resolutions have begun to wane and guilt to set in. This article aims to relieve you of some of that guilt.
Since the publication a few decades ago of In Search of Excellence by Robert Waterman and Tom Peters, a national obsession has emerged of being outstanding in all that we do. The relentless competition of self-glorification on social media has contributed to this trend. You can find on Google a list of the “ten best books” about excellence. No doubt there are dozens more. This excellence cult, if that is the right word, does not focus solely on business, as Waterman’s and Peters’ book does. Oh no, below are just some of the areas in which you must strive to excel.
- Executive or boss
- Parent and/or grandparent
- Child—take care of the elderly
- Investor and saver
- Believer—church, synagogue, temple, mosque—attendance, classes, contributions, volunteer work
- Citizen—stay informed, play a role in supporting candidates and/or causes, vote, help others vote
- Industry contributor—articles, speeches at conventions, political action
- Health Maintenance—weight, sufficient sleep, exercise, what you eat and drink, regular doctor visits, including to dentist and ophthalmologist.
- Hobbyist—leisure time such as golf, sailing, hunting, hiking, motorcycling, bicycling, yoga, etc., but not too dangerous if you have a family
- Culture—music, art, literature, theater
- Avoiding anything that suggests “addiction.” (Did you know that there is an area of published research on “religious addiction?” Maybe there is also an excellence addiction or should be.)
- Home maintenance and repair
- Home yard maintenance
Might there be a connection between this ethos of excellence in all areas and the increasing disengagement of young adults from the workplace and adult responsibilities? How many young persons would look at the prospects of such a life and say, “Awesome, sign me up!” How many might be turned off by this self-preoccupation with being the perfect me and turn instead to a life of underachievement, cynical hedonism, or worse?
Realistically, in how many of the areas listed above can you be excellent? You need to choose. In which areas will you be merely adequate or even mediocre? To which would it be wiser simply say, “not for me” or “not now, maybe later”? Each area is potentially making a claim on your time and energy. My suggestion: you cannot live a fulfilling and meaningful life without constant frustration and fragmentation unless you tell some of them, “NO!”
Where will you find support for your decisions not to strive for excellence? In this article, for one place.
If you have a set of New Year’s resolutions committing you to excellence in most areas of your life, consider breaking or forgetting some or most of those resolutions as soon as possible.
Then develop a thick skin. Why? Someone, you can be sure, will remind you of your failure to live up to your potential, whether that be your spouse, coach of whatever kind, kids, employees, pastor or rabbi, local chamber of commerce, a business author, political action group, but surely someone, and probably many. And the voice may come not from outside but from within your head.
Meanwhile, note that many people in history whose achievements we most admire were not chasing all-around excellence. There is a reason geniuses and inventors often seem antisocial, athletes and actors sound semiliterate when they speak off script, intellectuals are disconnected from practical affairs, great humanitarians forego the pursuit of wealth, entrepreneurs focus on wealth creation, volunteer military personnel go wherever their country sends them in spite of the cost to their families, and career politicians are obsessed with law and public issues—as well as re-election. Such diverse individuals know intuitively the truth spoken by the American philosopher Paul Weiss, “No one can do all the good.”
President Lincoln showed awareness of this truth when some advisors during the Civil War expressed severe disapproval that his top general Ulysses S. Grant was a heavy drinker. With his characteristic combination of wisdom, compassion, and wry wit Lincoln responded, “Well, I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.” Grant could stop drinking, as he had proved before the war, or defeat the Confederate army, but apparently not both at the same time.
The demand for excellence in all areas is a feature of an egalitarian, democratic society as well as a threat to its continuation. To remain a free people, we cannot abdicate governance to an educated elite, and citizens must therefore devote time and energy to holding our officials accountable. They work for us, we are the rulers, not the other way around. On the other hand, the culture of pervasive excellence can be exhausting to the point of surrender. The temptation then arises to pursue only “personal goals” and leave the broader issues to someone else. There is always a surplus of potential tyrants willing to accommodate.
Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith says that most managers can accomplish only a couple of relatively simple behavioral changes in any one year. Recent research indicates that converting “competent jerks” into “loveable stars” is rare. If this is true for that part of one’s life where the most time is spent and upon which livelihood depends, how much truer must this be for the rest of one’s life as a whole?
A suggested alternative to resolutions: decide on your life’s priorities and focus your best efforts there. Be very specific. Forget resolutions for self-improvement which are usually vague or overly general statements of intentions or desires. Instead, set a very limited number of goals, two or three, based upon your priorities.
Then make plans, that is, specify steps and dates, so that you can track and hold yourself accountable. Also consider the advice of psychologist and author Jordan Peterson to strive to be truly great at one worthwhile thing. Make that a primary focus.
Respect the other areas of your life, develop the good habits and discipline needed for any significant achievement and then accept that you are far from perfect. Imitate Lincoln and do the same for those around you. Ignore the unending, unsolicited advice from supposed experts, whose private lives are likely not one more “balanced” or ideal than yours.
There will always be voices that say, “you could do and be so much more.” Yes, and you could always do and be so much less, which is where excellence obsession can leave you.