On excellence

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Today, a brief look at the idea of excellence. In particular, how identifying excellence is often confused with its pursuit. In other words, how a description is conflated with an attitude, why the distinction is important and what role each – being able to identify what is excellent and being able to pursue it – plays in a society.

On excellence

By: Gareth van Onselen

8 May 2012

There is a tendency to confuse excellence with its pursuit. To understand the difference, one needs to distinguish between a description and an attitude.

Indentifying something as excellent is a relative judgement. It is an assessment of something’s merit in relation to those other things similar to it and the determination that it stands apart as exceptional in some way. Thus, it is a snapshot in time. And, on that basis, one is able to celebrate a particular achievement. Also, to try and understand what differentiates it in this way. This is how we learn.

The pursuit of excellence, however, is an attitude – and so it is ever-ongoing. Even if something is excellent, for those who pursue excellence, that achievement will only ever be the source of some temporary satisfaction; their immediate inclination will be to try and assess how it might be improved upon.

It is for this reason that the pursuit of excellence is an ideal and, as with all ideals, is aspirational. This is where its real value to a society lies: as the driving force behind progress and innovation.

Where the bar is set, in determining what is excellent and what is not, is therefore critical. The moment it is lowered, mediocrity gains a foothold and the pursuit of excellence is denuded of its worth – it no longer seeks out the highest standard, merely the most acceptable. And systematically expectations are lowered. Likewise, the lessons we learn become the wrong ones.

Thus, excellent achievements are the measure against which the pursuit of excellence calibrates itself, and a gauge as to its health.

Confusingly, the word ‘excellence’ alludes to both that which is excellent and the pursuit which underpins its achievement and so, when using it, one should have a clear understanding of the implications for both.

Gareth van Onselen writes in his personal capacity. He is employed by the DA as a Director of Political Analysis and Development. An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day.

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