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Excellence: What It Is and How It Relates to Goal Setting

I have a love/hate relationship with the term “excellence.”  Part of that is due to my own laziness, lol. Another part is caused by inherent insecurity. But in my opinion there is actually a real danger in our current dependence on the word, which seems to have become a buzzword lately. I think we need to use caution before bandying it about. Let me elaborate.

Excellence is a term used a lot these days. Are you feeling the weight of responsibility to live up to it? How do we write goals with excellence in mind? Read this for answers to these questions and more!Dictionary.com defines excellence as
1. the fact or state of excelling; superiority; eminence: his excellence in mathematics.

and excellent as
1. possessing outstanding quality or superior merit; remarkably good.

So let’s talk about these. I see the words “outstanding,” “superior,” “eminence,” and “remarkably.” What idea do we get from them?  I get that when we are referring to excellence, we are talking about something that rises above the rest. Something that is better than almost everything else. Excellence means the crème de la crème, y’all.

Constantly lately we are told to strive for excellence.  It is seen as THE way to be these days. If you are not out for excellence, you are not working hard enough. If you are incapable of excellence (gasp!), you are inferior.

What is the problem with that? BY DEFINITION, excellence means better than all (or at least most of) the rest. But BY DEFINITION, we can’t all be that!!

By definition, some of us — MOST OF US — are stuck in the “unexcellent” realm. Only the best can be excellent. Excellence is only achievable by a few, or it is no longer excellence.

And when everyone’s super… NO ONE will be. (Syndrome, in The Incredibles)

Most of us (again, by definition), are therefore actually setting ourselves up for failure when we strive for excellence. So what happens when we don’t get there? When we don’t get to the top (or almost the top) of whatever endeavor we are engaging in? We get discouraged and feel inferior.

I say let’s get off the “excellence” train.

To the homeschool mom whose kid is not reading by age 6 (or even 8 or 10) — YOU ARE NOT INFERIOR. To the homemaker whose house doesn’t look like it should be in the pages of Better Homes and Gardens or who burnt the casserole last night — YOU ARE DOING GREAT. To the salesperson who isn’t selling as much product as others you know — IT’S TOTALLY OK!! Don’t let those who tell you that you are not good enough — because you are not “excellent” — get you down.

Excellence reeks of comparison. In striving for excellence we are most often comparing ourselves to others. When we rise above them, we feel superior. When we are stuck in the pack, we feel inadequate.

Striving for excellence causes unrealistic expectations. I know of a church that encouraged its members to practice excellence in all things. I also know of an incident at that same church where a leader reamed out a helper who didn’t do something well enough. The helper had volunteered to do the job, and the job was being done as well as the helper knew how — just not in a superior fashion. There was no consideration for the helper’s ability level, or for reasonable human error. Because “excellence” was not occurring, a dressing-down was given. That’s not how it’s supposed to be, y’all.

Whose standards are defining what is excellent and what is not, anyway? Some things are just a matter of taste, after all. Whose taste determined that someone else was excellent at something and not you?

What about those of us who CAN’T be excellent in a particular activity? Does that mean we aren’t supposed to do it, because we can never do it above and beyond others? Of course not! But in many cases, that’s how it works. It’s that old conundrum where you can’t get the job without experience, but you can’t get experience without getting the job. Likewise, you can’t get excellent at something without practice — but oftentimes people won’t let you participate because you are not already excellent.

Some are just more capable of being excellent in just about everything. Others are more middle of the road in just about everything. AND THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH BEING MIDDLE OF THE ROAD. Average is FINE. For the average among us, the call to strive for excellence is a recipe for disaster and discouragement.

Can the term “excellence” ever be used for good purposes?

I think excellence can be used in a good way when we are comparing our own present performance to past performance. If we have gotten better at something, then that is excellence. We have risen above ourselves. Our performance is of remarkable quality compared to what we used to do. Yea, baby! Let’s keep the comparing within our own personal sphere.

When we are doing any kind of goal setting, I think we should avoid the terms “excellence” and “excellent.”  Instead of a goal which says “Strive for excellence in all things” (Phew!  Can you say “Doomed to fail”?), or even “Become excellent at cooking” (still a bit scary, to my mind), let’s try “Get better in these three areas by measuring my performance thusly” or “Learn how to make a yummy soufflé.” Whether it is yummy is then determined by you and no one else. And guess what? LOTS of soufflés can be yummy! Yummy is not a term that separates a precious few out from all the rest.

Should we strive for excellence? If it means striving to get better at what we are doing, then I give a resounding yes. If it means trying to rise above the pack, then I say we need to proceed with caution. The comparison game is a bitter one to play.

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