on Excellence

“We must overcome the notion that we must be regular. It robs you of the chance to be extraordinary and leads you to the mediocre”. Uta Hagan (1919-2004) a German-born American actress and drama teacher

On May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy made a special address to Congress on the importance of space. Up to that point America had experienced a series of disappointments in our goal to conquer space, and after the successful launch of Sputnik in 1957 by the Soviet Union, were demoralized even further that our Cold War enemies were the first ones to have men circle the Earth. In that speech, President Kennedy did not console Americans with the fact that we were not alone in our failure. He did not ask that we at least meet the Soviet’s success. Instead, he set the lofty goal that we should top their success and put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In his speech JFK did not want to settle for average. He wanted, and expected, excellence. And while he was not alive to witness it, that expectation of American excellence led us not only to meet but beat his goal when our astronauts planted our flag on the moon on  July 20, 1969.

This is why I have been finding it so disappointing to witness many of America’s leaders, and in some cases her own people, growing ever more content with just maintaining mediocrity and the status quo. Whatever happened to the idea that America is where one goes to dream, to create, and to risk it all for success? When did it become ok to be only average? When did mediocre become the new standard of excellence? Why is it becoming more acceptable to treat those who challenge the status quo with contempt and derision, and that it is now somehow offensive for anyone to be successful?

Perhaps it is because excellence makes people nervous, as it tends to highlight the failings of others. Excellence has always been the mortal enemy of the mediocre and the average. Mediocrity is safe, easy, comfortable, controllable, and it does not require hard work. Excellence is the exact opposite, and often demands that people go further than they ever have. Excellence requires a different kind of yardstick, as comparing ourselves to others will only show us what average is. We need a goal much bigger than just average in order to achieve excellence.

I do not see those who bravely call out mediocrity for what it is as somehow being negative, critical or spiteful. Instead, I see it as evidence of a faith, of a belief in the fact that we are all capable of excellence and should never settle for anything less. We were created to always be striving, always be growing and always become better men and woman with each passing day.  If JFK would have been afraid to challenge the status quote of mediocrity, we would never have landed on the moon. Our President would have instead advised us to be content with the fact that, when compared to the rest of the world’s accomplishments in space, we were already above average. But he knew that is not who we were then, and we need leaders who still believe that is not who we are now.

So I think that instead of looking at average as the goal, we need to find out what is excellent and strive for that.  Mediocrity is excellent only in the eyes of mediocre people (Joseph Joubert). Instead of consoling ourselves with the statement of “well, at least we are better than they are” we need to be saying “who or what is the best and how do we get there?” We need to stop looking at what is below us so we can feel higher, and instead look up and see how far we have yet to reach. There is no shame in being half-way up the mountain, as long as you know that is not where you should permanently stop.  Reaching the pinnacle should always be every climber’s goal.

I am weary of hearing our leaders lowering expectations, expecting us to settle for corruption, incompetence and general mediocrity. I find it offensive when some of our own people continue to support the status quo by suppressing any challenge to mediocrity, saying that average is good enough. I no longer want to settle for those who have no faith in the strength and intelligence of the American people. Why can’t we be number one in business now? Why can’t we be number one in energy now? Why can’t we kick butt in education now? Why must we accept just average in anything we do? With the intelligence, creativity and gumption of the American people we can accomplish anything. The seat of wisdom does not lie in Washington DC – it lies with us. We don’t need government’s help to fix things; we just need to push aside all the naysayers, the average-is-just-fine peddlers, the status-quo tyrants and release the great American citizen braintrust. After all, the creativity of our fellow Americans has done more to improve the quality of human life in the last 236 years of our short history than any other nation on earth has done in the past 5000 years. We were not created to be average – we were created to be excellent!

“Excellence is a better teacher than mediocrity. The lessons of the ordinary are everywhere. Truly profound and original insights are to be found only in studying the exemplary.” Warren G. Bennis (b. 1925) American scholar, organizational consultant, author, & pioneer of the contemporary field of Leadership studies.

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