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The Habit of Excellence

By Edward Baugh

The opposite of excellence is not failure, but mediocrity.

When I accepted, hesitatingly, the invitation to write this piece, I knew right away that I was submitting myself to the challenge and threat of excellence. I would have to “come good”; I would have to aim at excellence; I would have to write with the fear of failure hanging over me. One challenge of excellence is that the fear of failure might make one avoid the pursuit of excellence and be content with being adequate, or “good enough”. Because of this fear, in addition to the effort required, many people shy away from the pursuit of excellence. They shy away from the status of exceptional achiever because they are afraid of being accused of thinking themselves better than other people, of being ostracised as over-reachers, “show-offs”. It is the culture of “bad-talk” and “carry-down”, a culture characterised by the peer pressure of mediocrity. We do well to remember the saying that the opposite of excellence is not failure, but mediocrity.

The great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, a man of some flamboyance and much brilliance, once remarked that early in life he found that he had to choose between false modesty and honest arrogance. He chose honest arrogance. He was not afraid of the consequences of excellence. I am not suggesting that those who achieve excellence should feel free to be arrogant. The opposite of honest arrogance is not necessarily false modesty. There is arrogance and arrogance. Wright’s arrogance was not offensive, not the petty arrogance of those who seek to lord it over others: it was a stylish sense of his own worth. It did not seek to put down others. Only a questionable excellence uses itself, not as a beacon, but as a stick to beat the aspiring.

In the disinterested pursuit of excellence, the sternest challenge is the challenge of one’s own high standards, a challenge of which others might not even be aware. For eighteen years I was the Public Orator for the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies. My responsibility was to write and read citations for persons receiving honorary degrees. These awards are the university’s recognition of outstanding achievement and excellence. I acquired a reputation for being good at the job, so much so that many people still identify me with that ancillary function rather than with the function for which I was paid, which constituted my career, and at which I also tried to do my best.

From the outset, as Orator, I considered myself to have inherited a tradition that required a high standard of performance, with the added weight of responsibility that I was speaking not for myself but on behalf of the institution. It was my challenge to myself to maintain this standard and, if possible, raise it, and stamp my own presence on it. I came to realise that each year I set out to do better than I had done the year before. This was, of course, an unreasonable ambition, based on illogicality. It implied that excellence was always a receding horizon, frustratingly unattainable. I knew this. Still, it was important for me to think that I was always trying to outdo myself; that was part of the drive.

When I finally gave up the job, the feeling of relief derived not only from the sheer freedom from the preparatory work involved, but also from the sometimes nerve-wracking effort to make each citation special, from the weight of competing with myself. The dilemma involved in the decision to retire was a matter of choosing between, on the one hand, these freedoms and the feeling that I had earned them, and, on the other hand, my sense of responsibility to those who had come to depend on and expect my performance. Such, I suppose, is one challenge to excellence, one’s responsibility to others who look forward to one’s delivery of it. The kind of excellence most easily noticed and most popularly rewarded is the kind manifested in activities that occur in the limelight, the kind that attracts the aura of glamour, the excellence of “stars”. This is the excellence which depends in significant measure on unusual talent or prowess, as in sport and scholarship, the arts and certain professions. But there is also a kind of superlative action, not normally identified by the buzzword “excellence”, which may manifest itself even where there is a lack of exceptional talent, skill or prowess involved.

I am thinking of a quality of character, of integrity, of attitude, a heightened sense of responsibility toward one’s brother or sister human being. A society’s quality of life depends as much, perhaps even more, on this kind of excellence than on the other kind. Where this excellence of spirit and humanity is lacking, the other kind of excellence, the excellence of superlative prowess, may be severely compromised. You may be the greatest batsman or mathematician in the world, but if you do not have a matching largeness of spirit, a matching good sense and sensitivity regarding those with whom you interact, a shadow is cast across your achievement. We need as a society to cultivate the idea of excellence in the habit of service.

Recently, I had to take a flight from an airport in North America. Ahead of me at the check-in counter was an elderly woman in a wheelchair. She pointed out to the clerk that she had been assigned a seat to the back of the aircraft, and asked if she could get one to the front. The clerk brusquely, if not rudely, said she couldn’t do anything about that because the seat had already been assigned. She made no attempt to see whether or not a seat nearer to the front was available. The woman in the wheelchair grumblingly accepted the edict and was in due course wheeled to the back of the aircraft. During the loading-up process, one of the flight attendants noticed the woman with the wheelchair. She immediately said, “Oh, you have a wheelchair. Let me see if I can find you a seat nearer the front.” So said so done, and she took the woman caringly to her new seat.

Here was a case where common decency and considerateness also constituted excellence, action worthy of applause. We are all the better for it if the habit of excellence is cultivated even in the most humble and routine duties and undertakings, especially where these involve the responsibility to others. To opt for sloppiness and mediocrity is to undervalue ourselves, and to corrupt our capacity to appreciate fully the excellence of the limelight, of extraordinary prowess and effort, the excellence of the exceptional.

Edward Baugh is a poet and scholar, and one of the Caribbean’s most distinguished literary figures. He is emeritus professor of English at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and recognised as a major authority on the work of Derek Walcott. He is also the author of two collections of poems.

The first Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence, each valued at around US$80,000, will be presented in October.

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