Against Pursuing Excellence

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.

When I see excellence — when I’m competent to recognize it (and in many fields, like science and opera, I am not) — it is thrilling and heartening, as a friend once said, to realize what the species is capable of at its best.  Excellence is by definition rare, and the kind of excellence that thrills, rarer still.  It is not just a little better than “good.”  It’s way better in a way that stuns ordinary expectations, and expands them.  So the more excellence there is in the world, the better.

But that doesn’t mean we should pursue it.  First, doing so has a strong tendency to lead to a wicked combination of hypocrisy and lower standards.  As a professor at a fourth tier university that has recently scrambled up to the third tier, I’ve sat through a lot of commencements where speakers have tried to inspire graduates to “always pursue excellence, and never settle for second best.”  I love that university in an immoderate way, and have from my first day of teaching there.  I love the students too.  But they are not pursuing excellence, and they’ll have to work very hard, with great discipline and persistence to get something close to “second best.”  I’m confident that most of them will, that their education has improved their chances, and that most of them will appreciate getting into the neighborhood of the second best, but I fear for those who genuinely pursue excellence and even more for those who think they have achieved it.

Second, 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 – curing cancer or perfectly expressing a complex feeling or thought in the hopes that others might recognize it.  “Things just all seem to come together” in a way – luck, strategic help from friends and colleagues, a muse or collection of muses — that is beyond the will of the artist or scientist or carpenter or statesperson.

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. That is, trying to excel can distract us from what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, as we pause to rank ourselves against others doing something similar.

Most of us figure out fairly early in life that excellence is not in our range of capability, but the drumbeat of a culture that insists on excelling and not being second best leads us to try anyway.  Sometimes this trying makes us better than we might otherwise be, but more often, I’m convinced, it leads to an unhealthy concern to out achieve others, to feel diminished by their accomplishments, and to be constantly reevaluating our self-worth in relation to our perception of others.  This leads to a certain broken sadness, if not clinical depression, alternating with an exaggerated and exaggerating tooting of our own horn – ostensibly to impress others, but mostly to approve ourselves.  This high-stakes competitiveness with others takes our eye off the ball, undermining whatever chance we may have of achieving excellence, which in most human endeavor requires a little help from our friends.

Though probably overdrawn in this brief space, such a phenomenon is characteristic, in my view, of professional middle-class culture in early 21st century America.  The original ethic of professionalism was to establish certain minimum standards for an emerging profession and then gradually improve them.  It was a collective endeavor to elevate the level of the profession, which elevation would help not only those in the profession, but everybody — indeed, it would advance the species. (These were standard claims of middle-class professionals in the Progressive Era.  See From Higher Aims to Hired Hands for how even the professionalization of business management was originally rooted in such claims.)  Status was always an (overly) important concern, but it wasn’t atomistically individualized the way it is now.  Today’s resume-builders often actively disrespect their profession in order to individually stand out in their superior pursuit of excellence.

Fortunately, working-class culture is still a healthy, if beleaguered, antidote to the dominant middle-class one, and I have been fortunate to spend my life teaching working adults who “just want to be average” in a program that is reliably good at helping them achieve that goal.  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.  Being outstanding is not only eschewed, it is actively feared, and the culture has subtle and not so subtle sanctions against it.

The problem is not only that the dominant middle-class culture is more dominant than ever or that its characteristic individualism is turning into an other-directed caricature of itself.  Rather, 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).  Our crazy levels of economic inequality also foster a winner-takes-all culture. Winners should get not just all the honor and the glory, but most of the money and the power.  Losers should aspire to do better.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger document the devastating effects income inequality has on everything from reduced social mobility and health (both physical and mental) to higher levels of crime, teen pregnancy, infant mortality, and drug and alcohol addiction.  One of the most surprising results they found is that the more unequal a country is, the higher the aspirations children report and the larger the gap between aspirations and actual opportunities.  Conversely, the more equal a country’s incomes are, the more children report low aspirations – while doing better in education and all other indicators of social well-being.  The correlations Wilkinson and Pickett found among the richest countries in the world allow the conclusion that high aspirations lead to lower educational achievement – that is, that pursuing excellence actually makes a society less likely to achieve it.  This accords with my own observation and experience.  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.”

Jack Metzgar

This entry was posted in Class and Education, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Understanding Class and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Against Pursuing Excellence

  1. Pingback: Against Pursuing Excellence | Washington Spectator

  2. Josh says:

    I think you have fundamentally misunderstood the pursuit of excellence. The pursuit of excellence is not the pursuit of success, nor is it the pursuit of one-upping everyone else.

    Excellence, as you have conceived it, is a struggle to be better than other people. This is perhaps understandable given our culture and I can see why people get that meaning from the word excellence itself. After all it means essentially to “rise above”. It is an easy mistake to think that this means rising above other people. That is, however, not correct.

    The pursuit of excellence is not a competition with other people. It is a competition with yourself. You are not seeking to rise above other people. you are seeking to rise above your own current state.

    You talk about your third tier university and how the students there are not pursuing excellence. This is because you imagine excellence to be defined by competition with others. Of course by this standard your college is hopelessly unable to compete with top tier universities

    But once again, the pursuit of excellence is not about being better than other people. It is about being the best you, that you are capable of being. Of course the vast majority of people are not going to be “the best” at any given field of study, occupation, art etc. What they can be “the best” at is being who they were meant to be, and who they want to be.

    When properly understood your third tier college is ALL ABOUT the pursuit of excellence because the students who go there (at least some of them) are trying to be better than they currently are. They are trying to not settle for a lesser version of their own self and their own life.

    It is human nature to settle for less, to take the easy road, the comfortable road. Most of us coast through life putting in as little effort as possible trying simply to maximize our comfort and entertainment (at least in our culture). The pursuit of excellence is about rising above that nature and taking a harder, more disciplined road so that you can be the best that you can be. How good other people are has nothing to do with it.


  3. smbathe says:

    The article rings true. I’d summarize my thoughts by saying that too many companies preach excellence and practice mediocrity.


  4. Employee employability does not come from loyalty to excellence. As businesses, universities, states, counties, cities worldwide stumble through the recession some find themselves in a phase of creative disassembly. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are shed. World class University of California Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) and his $7 million outside consultants are firing employees via his “Operational Excellence (OE)”: 2,000 axed by end 2011. Yet many cling to an old assumption: the implied, unwritten management-employee contract.

    Management promised work, upward progress for employees fitting in, employees accepted lower wages, performing in prescribed ways, sticking around. Longevity was good employer-employee relations; turnover a dysfunction. None of these assumptions apply in the 21 century economy. Businesses, universities, public institutions can no longer guarantee careers, even if they want to. Managements paralyzed themselves with a strategy of “success brings successes” rather than “successes brings failure’ and are now forced to break implied contract with employees – a contract nurtured by management that future can be controlled.

    Jettisoned employees are discovering that hard won knowledge earned while loyal is no longer desired in employment markets. What contract can employers, employees make with each other?

    The central idea is simple, powerful: job is a shared partnership.
    • Employers, employees face financial conditions together; longevity of partnership depends on how well customers, constituencies needs are met.
    • Neither management nor employee has future obligation to the other.
    • Organizations train people.
    • Employees create security they really need – skills, knowledge that creates employability in 21st century economies
    • The management-employee loyalty partnership can be dissolved without either party considering the other a traitor.

    Sustained employability in the 21st century economy is not loyalty to management, company, university, public agency or union.


  5. kitchenmudge says:

    In my experience, those who talk about pursuit of “excellence” are management hacks who want to say something half-assed “inspiring” to the workers. It should be dismissed at first sight.


  6. Tim Strangleman says:

    I think Jack is really on to something here. The British sociologists Mike Savage talked about the way people would often talk about themselves as being ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’, rather than discuss class location. I also think this is picked up in the work of other sociologists down the years. I think working class people often want recognition without wanting to stand out. There isn’t necessarily a contradiction between wanting to be the best you can be without being the best at something.Thanks Jack


  7. Jack Metzgar says:

    Thanks, everybody, for this wide array of comments and insights. One thing I’d like to add about people “aspiring to be average.” It only sounds funny in our excelling-drenched, achievement-oriented culture that thinks everybody either is or should be “middle class.” Many people are, by definition, below average, and many who are not perceive themselves to be. To rise to averageness is a worthy aspiration, and it can even be a noble one if you also aspire to raise the average. If all us below-average folks made it to average, it wouldn’t be the average anymore. We’d advance the species.


  8. L A Kurth says:

    The definition of “excel” is to be superior to, to surpass. It depends on others’ failure and its ultimate dream is to have millions at the lowest level so that the heights will seem higher– though they may not actually BE higher. To do good work, to test one’s limits–all important and valuable in my book–but to merely surpass others–ick
    Thanks for a great blog


  9. Pursuing excellence at all costs can result in unanticipated consequences. UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) has forgotten that he is a public servant, steward of the public money, not overseer of his own fiefdom. These are not isolated examples: recruits (uses California tax $) out of state $50,000 tuition students that displace qualified Californians from public university education; spends $7,000,000 + for consultants to do his & many vice chancellors jobs (prominent East Coast university accomplishing same 0 cost); pays ex Michigan governor $300,000 for lectures; in procuring a $3,000,000 consulting firm he failed to receive proposals from other firms; Latino enrollment drops while out of state jumps 2010; tuition to Return on Investment drops below top 10; QS academic ranking falls below top 10; only 50 attend Birgeneau all employees meeting; visits down 20%; NCAA places basketball program on probation, absence institutional control.

    It’s all shameful. There is no justification for such violations by a steward of the public trust. Absolutely none.

    Birgeneau’s violations continue. Governor Brown, UC Board of Regents Chair Lansing must do a better job of vigorously enforcing stringent oversight than has been done in the past over Chancellor Birgeneau who uses the campus as his fiefdom.


  10. -k- says:

    “No one “aspires” to be average.” To the extent that this is not a semantic argument about the meaning of ‘aspire’, I disagree, Kelly. If you don’t know anyone who would cop to being perfectly content with being average, I’d say that’s a pretty good illustration of Metzgar’s point–in certain circles we’re so obsessed with excelling that it’s not socially acceptable to want less.

    There are, in fact, tangible downsides to excellence: there’s a considerable amount of upkeep involved in maintaining the perception that you’re there. In all but a very few cases, this is something that is largely socially determined–despite what Hollywood would have us believe, the misanthropic geniuses aren’t the people steering the ship–and not wanting to have to invest the time, money, or interpersonal energy it would take to get and stay in the sweet spot is, to me, entirely understandable.


  11. I’ve thought recently that it is more valuable to know the right way to do something and to do it the right way than it is to achieve perfection. If a wire is soldered quickly and with confidence by a technician with enough experience to know that it is good enough, then that is a kind of perfection in-and-of itself. There can be gracefullness and beauty in such a thing.


  12. Kelly Ohler says:

    Perhaps “excellence” is not the appropriate word. “Perfection” and “being the best to the exclusion of ideas and another’s societal recognition” would better express what Jack Metzgar is trying to explain. “W-C” people surely want to be good at what they do; no one “aspires” to be average.” Just like the wealthy and the middle classes, W-C people have other avenues of “excellence” that they pursue such as church endeavors, hobbies, local organizations, etc. which can be more important to them than their workplace expertise.
    A natural pecking order instinct in a capitalist society exaggerates and twists to unnatural proportions to the point of devaluing the skills of others at the cost of The One who can do the best.
    Paul Mishler makes an interesting point that these sorts of conversations are a sham, as they are seeming to proliferate at the very moments when inequality is at a peak—almost as if academia (and other media for that matter, such as the Newsweek cover about the American Dream of homeownership isn’t what it’s made out to be, therefore we shouldn’t aspire to it) is cutting of revolution at its ideological base. A college education, home ownership, and now doing a job to the best of your ability are concepts academia thinks should be eroded, and replaced by…..acceptance of a caste system?


  13. Mike says:

    This is a problem with which I struggle every year as director of a law school academic support program in a (rare) law school with egalitarian instincts. On the one hand, becoming a lawyer does not require astounding intellect, a fact that many would find uncontroversial. On the other hand, to become a competent lawyer requires a certain amount of doggedness that is quite painful in its initial stages. The problem – how to find just the right amount of effort to “get by” without aiming too low and crashing into the mountain. In addition, when I was a blue collar kid I was told all that crap and I believed it. Eventually, albeit by a circuitous path, I found myself attaining goals that had been suggested were possible to achieve. As a law school teacher I recognize that it is actually true that one does not know where the next great jurist may be found (perhaps in this very room!) One final point – as much as we may be dismissive of the inherent notion of excellence, the wielders of power are not about to disabuse themselves of the notion that they are excellent. In maintaining the myth, they must transmit it widely; and who is the stout soul who would oppose the excellent without being excellent?


  14. Yael Tiferet says:

    Isn’t there a middle ground? I agree that there’s way too much emphasis on aspiration and excellence in our culture, but I can’t support any return to the idea that it’s wrong to want more than you have, do better than others or enjoy being different. I grew up in West Virginia subject to the subtle and not-so-subtle sanctions against the outstanding because I did well in school without really trying, and got into the habit of not trying too hard or working too hard because if I had it would only have been that much worse. This was not a good thing for me and it isn’t a good thing for anyone. I think we can have encouragement for all to do the best they can and do their part without discouragement and scorn and cruelty for those who want to do more than others or simply different things from others.

    Lord knows I am frustrated by job interviews and resume writing where I have to present myself as a really rare bird when I’m not, not in that respect, and convince the interviewer that I have genuine passion for activities that in fact I do so that I can write and make things in my spare time. But I also remember once being sacked and in the exit interview I was told that one of the mistakes I had made was letting on that I had a master’s degree and didn’t like sports, and being seen reading Japanese comics in Japanese, and that some people felt sure I must think myself better than they were because I had mentioned in passing something about graduate school, could read (at a third grade level) in another language and didn’t care to talk about football (the only subject I didn’t care to talk about in the whole time that I worked there).


  15. Excellence is desired, wage concessions by UCLA Chancellors Faculty and UCOP are necessary. Less words and more deeds: pitch in! University of California faces massive budget shortfalls. It is dismaying Calif. Governor Brown. President Yudof and Board of Regents have, once again, been unable to agree on a package of wage, benefit concessions to close the deficit.
    Californians face foreclosure, unemployment, depressed wages, loss of retirement, medical, unemployment benefits, higher taxes: UC Board of Regents Regent Lansing, President Yudof need to demonstrated leadership by curbing wages, benefits. As a Californian, I don’t care what others earn at private, public universities. If wages better elsewhere, chancellors, vice chancellors, tenured, non tenured faculty, UCOP should apply for the positions. If wages commit employees to UC, leave for better paying position. The sky above UC will not fall.
    Californians suffer from greatest deficit of modern times. UC wages must reflect California’s ability to pay, not what others are paid.
    Wage concessions for UC President, Faculty, Chancellors, Vice Chancellors, UCOP:
    No furloughs
    18 percent reduction in UCOP salaries & $50 million cut.
    18 percent prune of campus chancellors’, vice chancellors’ salaries.
    15 percent trim of tenured faculty salaries, increased teaching load
    10 percent decrease in non-tenured faculty salaries, as well as increase research, teaching load
    100% elimination of all Academic Senate, Academic Council costs, wages.

    (17,000 UC paid employees earn more than $100,000)

    Overly optimistic predictions of future revenues do not solve the deficit. However, rose bushes bloom after pruning.

    UC Board of Regents Chair Sherry Lansing can bridge the public trust gap by offering reassurances that UC salaries reflect depressed wages in California. The sky will not fall on UC


  16. Guest says:

    Thank you, Jack. Yeah, the “pursuit of excellence” is best used to describe a luxury car. I would like to read more about the sanctions you mention, and add that what it takes to “pursue excellence” sometimes requires not just abandonment of solidarity, but John Lennon’s famous “learn how to smile as you kill if you want to be like the folk on the hill.”

    I wanted to share the Gini coefficient, which is a measurement of income distribution equality. The U.S. ranks fourth among measured countries in the world (Brazil, Mexico, and China being ahead, in that order). Some scholars think that a ranking above 40 (which is where we are & have been) is also an indicator of increased social volatility.


  17. Lowell May says:

    Not perhaps primarily a flaw of individualism insofar as culture generally disperses and can distort notions of excellence throughout the collective. Thus the dominant culture has sculpted excellence into not just Horatio Alger mythology but also the mythology of American exceptionalism, that justifies manifest destiny and imperialism to this day.
    And the most egregious distortion is that we are not taught what we need to know to excel, namely that we are at our best an enhanced reflection of all our experience throughout the generations and the basis for all that is to come, that knowledge is a dialectically developmental phenomenon which has as its core moments of profound knowledge and action from within the working class, especially during times of insurgence.


  18. Roy Wilson says:


    I think I can offer a corollary (sts) to your judgement that “excellence” is over-rated. If the pursuit of excellence leads to (some) winning, then the fact of winning must mark one as excellent. Of course, there are different standards of winning and losing and thus of excellence. I wonder who establishes the standards? Rhetorical question, that.

    You say: “Most of us figure out fairly early in life that excellence is not in our range of capability, but the … culture … insists on excelling and not being second best”. If excellence means that we are likely early on to exhibit “world-class” skill in some arena, then we have the singular counterexample of Einstein. I think the misguided pursuit of winning (~ excellence, per my corollary :-)) leads students be pigeon-holed by the school system (principally via tracking) and – worse – by themselves. Who knows how many of the potential second-best never emerge. Here I think I’m simply echoing your point about the harm of excessive comparison of self with others that competition can promote.

    You say: “Being outstanding is not only eschewed, it is actively feared, and the culture has subtle and not so subtle sanctions against it.” I’m a bit confused by this statement because you say earlier that WC culture provides an antidote to the pursuit of excellence. I’m not sure that fear is an antidote: it certainly blocks the pursuit, but it doesn’t necessarily protect against the effects of “not having tried to be the best”. Critical thinking – maybe cogntive therapy too – is needed to stop the pain.

    I agree with your observations regarding increasing inequality. Relatedly, there is problem of the deep-seated belief in individualism that makes it possible for me to claim that I have earned what I have (“By God, I’m excellent!”) and if you haven’t got what I’ve got, it’s because you are defective in some (mostly moral) sense that justifies your damnation. Certainly it is a self-serving belief that supports the haves while numbing the have nots. Although the power of action is necessary, I’m increasing convinced of the need to persuade ourselves and the Other on the basis of social-psychological principles as well.


  19. Michael Sacco says:

    The statistical reality is that most of us are “average.” Jack is onto something here and we should revel in it! It won’t happen of course, but this phony pursuit continues to let the few amass wealth at the expense of the many with nary a peep from the seething mass of the “ordinary.”


  20. Paul C. Mishler says:

    Jack Metzgar as raised a very important point – and one that many of us, especially, those of us who are teachers have been trying to find a way to articulate. But I think he is too easy on those who keep urging young people from children to adult students to aspire to excellence. I believe it is more insidious. It is interesting, for example, that all of this blather about excellence comes into play at the very moment that inequality began to rise and the possibility for success became more an more limited for working class young people and young people of color. It is a sham! It is not that achieving wonderful things in ones life should not be encouraged for ourselves and our students. Their ability to do so depends on two things that are absent in our society today; encouraging young people to follow their passions, and having a social order structured to support those aspirations. Einsteins and Michelangelos are idiosyncratic, but success is open to all if a society wants it to happen. Ours doesn’t. Instead “excellence” is simply another form of blaming the oppressed and exp[loited for not suceeding. It is saying, in effect, “don’t be like those slackers and do-nothings who are failing”. It serves to convince working class people to see those whose failure is GUARANTEED by our social order, as the cause of failure. It is not that by rejecting the propaganda for “excellence” we want to encourage mediocrity. It is only by rejecting this campaign can we actually encourage real sucess in our students, and build a society where “the free development of each, is the condition for the free development of all.”


  21. USW Blogger says:

    You’re talking blaspheme. Americans believe they are the best at everything, so there’s no room for not aspiring for excellence.


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