Richard Beck on shunning 'excellence'
In the language of the psychologist Barry Schwartz, I tend to be a satisficer rather than maximizer when it comes to getting things done. That is, I tend to aim for "good enough" rather than "excellence" or "the best."
This tendency of mine sets me at odds with the zeitgeist of our age, particularly in the world of corporate America--the pursuit of excellence, being the best or, at the very least, the best you can be.
Pushing back against this impulse, I'd like to argue in this post that you shouldn't try to be the best you can be. I'd like to argue that you should settle for being average and good enough rather than for excellence.
In fact, I'd like to argue that you embrace being a failure.
Why would I make that argument? Because I think the pursuit of excellence is sitting atop a lie, a fear-driven lie.
The root of this lie is that excellence--striving to be the best, or even merely better--assumes we are gods. Excellence assumes that we are not, in fact, finite creatures with finite resources of time and energy.
Of course, let me add, a lot depends here upon one's definition of excellence. By excellence I'm pointing to the impulse in our culture where being satisfied with being "average" or "normal" or "good enough" is somehow an admission of defeat or failure, a giving up or a throwing in the towel. By excellence I'm pointing to the neurotic driveness that demands constant improvement, that this year--personally or institutionally--has to be better than last year.
But as should be clear, this is impossible. You can't get better and better and better. Again, we are not gods with infinite resources. We are finite, limited creatures. We have a top, a limit. Past a certain point, you can't get better.
That is, unless, you start borrowing--or robbing--from other facets of your life. You can get better at work if you begin to borrow some time or energy from, say, your family. To get better at, say, work you can work longer hours, spending less time elsewhere. Because this is the only way a finite creature can get better. You can't tap into an infinitely deep reservoir of time and energy. You have to borrow from somewhere to get ahead elsewhere.
This is why I think the idol of excellence is a great lie. Excellence presupposes a false anthropology as it assumes that we are gods and not human beings. Human beings, of necessity, have to be "good enough." Or, at the very least, excellence entails sacrifices, borrowing from other aspects of life to get ahead in another areas. Sacrifice-free excellence is unavailable to us. We are not gods.
This is why when I hear calls for ever escalating excellence, progress, and improvement what I really hear is a call for sacrifice. Of course I could do "better" in various areas of my life. I could throw in more time or energy. But if I do that what is going to be sacrificed?
To be concrete, there are a variety of things at work where I've achieved a "good enough" level. But my workplace, probably like your workplace, can't really compute "good enough," the goal should be excellence and constant improvement. Being "good enough" is an admission of failure. We should strive to be the best. Or, at the very least, we should bebetter than we were last year. Constant improvement is the name of the game.
But, again, that is impossible. The only way I can improve and improve and improve across the board is if I start, say, taking time away from my family or church. Excellence is revealed to be a euphemism for sacrifice and idolatry. When an institution demands "excellence" what they are really asking for greater and greater sacrifice. Yes, I could be abetter worker. But at the expense of being a worse father, spouse, or friend.
And yet, most of us are ready and willing to make these sacrifices. We buy into the illusion and the lie. We don't want to "settle" for being good enough, so we neurotically pursue excellence and betterment. Why do we do this?
I think it has to do with our fear of death. Behind the push for excellence is a fear of death.
Again, being "average" or "good enough" is often experienced as a sort of failure. But as we've just diagnosed the situation, being "good enough" isn't as much about failure as it is about our finitude. And that's where the fear of death enters in. Being "average" or merely "good enough" provokes existential anxiety as we are confronted with our limitations. Again, there is a delusional anthropology behind the quest for excellence. We'd like to think we have inexhaustible resources--all the time and energy in the world to be excellent in everything. Which is to say we'd like to be gods, beings immune to death. This desire to be god-like--to be excellent--is driven by a fear of our own mortality, a fear of our own finitude. Failure--not being excellent--reminds us that we are humans and not gods, that we are mortal creatures vulnerable to death.
Fearful of our mortality, then, we opt for delusions. We pretend that we are gods and delude ourselves with god-like myths that "failure is not an option" when, in fact, failure is a fact of life for finite creatures. Failure is intrinsic to human existence. Be be a human is tofail.
Our discomfort with failures, then, is a fear of death. Our discomfort with being "average" or "good enough" is a fear of death. The neurotic push for excellence is driven by a fear of death.
To be shamed, then, for being normal, average, good enough or a failure is to be shamed by a fear-based illusion. Basically, you are being shamed for being what you are--a human being. That's the tragedy of modern life: You are not allowed to be a human being. You have to be better, something more. A god. Otherwise you're a failure.
But I'd like to remind you--with a word of grace and truth--that you are, in fact, a human being
You are a failure.
And that means you are good enough.
This article was originally published on the Experimental Theology blog on 21/02/2013 you can find the original article here