Demanding Only "Excellence" Can Lead to Failure

The quest for elite performance can end up eroding ambition and talent.

Posted Sep 24, 2012

“Excellence” has become the  “keyword” for education, in the same way that “thin” has become the “keyword” for  “attractive.” It’s reached the point where it’s hard to imagine anything else being acceptable; it’s hard to imagine “excellence” not being the singular goal of all learning just as it is to think that “thin” might not be the only thing worth working for in terms of our shapes and sizes.  

The concepts seem to be braided into the culture in ways that are more than a little unnerving; why should everybody be judged by one standard? Who decides what is “excellent” and who decides what is “attractive”? Don’t these measures change from generation to generation? Aren’t they subjective? Do we really want to force every student into the same cut-out pattern?

Not to say that the idea of being an good at what you do, being an expert, being a leader, being productive, or being fabulously talented is anything new—hey, I’m 55 and those words have been around even longer than I have—but this commanding, demanding focus on something as necessarily hazy as “excellence” deserves attention, especially during the first few months of the new school year.

Shouldn’t we all be striving for excellence, teaching for excellence, insuring excellence, and achieving excellence at all costs?

Ummm, maybe not.

Let me explain.

During my treks around the country talking to educational groups, I’ve noticed that the concept of “excellence” (or “elite performance”) is eclipsing some of the more traditional ideas about competence, self-esteem, creativity, and problem solving. There are panels about it, there are articles about it, there are books about it. New posters for display on classroom walls figure the word “excellence.” Say the word often enough, of course, and it loses all meaning. Without something to anchor it—a series of definitions, a strong, defined community, a club you can get into, or a least a temporary tattoo to show that you’ve been initiated—how can we approach such a monumental concept?

Is it that we’re all wildly excited about distinguishing “the best” from “the good,” “the fine,” and “the okay”? Is this really how we should be spending our time?

As parents, counsellors, and teachers—as the people who are privileged enough to be around those younger than we are—we need to encourage every child to understand that they are the expert on who they are. After all, they are the reigning authorities on themselves—the rest of us are just amateur observers; they are the birds—we’re the bird-watchers.

Developing a sense of mastery over their own complex, unmapped, and emerging selves is no easy task for our students.  “Know thyself” has never been an easy assignment; it’s not, for example, like drawing turkeys by using your hand as a template.

With pieces of themselves drawn from so many places, it’s not surprising that kids seem increasingly fragmented in their emotional lives, as well as in their school lives. Images and expectations from television, from music, from movies, from their immediate and extended families, from their after-school activities, from their coaches, from their religious leaders, and, yes, from the dozens of teachers they’ve had, strike them from all angles. Of course they cower; of course they hide. To inflict the burden of excellence upon kids when we’re not even sure what "excellence" means may have a paradoxical effect—like taking a "sleeping aid"  which keeps you awake and jumpy all night.

The quest for elite performance can end up eroding ambition and talent the way rain can to help a small plant grow can but can, in a downpour, drown it entirely.

I’m not saying that kids with promise should not be encouraged to develop enthusiasm or even passion for their talents. But I don’t think they should be trapped inside what is regarded as "potential" by the cheerleading adults around them, as if they’re being caged by possibility. It seems to me that a lot of kids are being driven towards developing an “excellence” that might be better called “obsession.”

We keep telling kids that they should do only what they do best—I think that’s a flaw in our system.

If a kid knows how to do something instinctively and wonderfully right from the start, by all means we should applaud his or her endeavors and offer every kind of support. Yet we should also encourage and support their attempts to try something altogether different; we should tell them that rising to a new challenge might be as much fun as the exploration of ground they already know.

When I was a kid, I always felt bad for my classmates whose parents spent a lot of time, money, and effort making them into little Mozarts, Magic Johnsons, or Martha Grahams. They seemed sad to me, and they always seemed to feel that they were letting somebody down when they didn’t come out in first place, or at least on the winning side. While they were being driven to ballet lessons or to try out for yet another state-wide team, I was happily entertaining myself scrap paper and a box of Crayolas, or else playing with my Barbies or watching re-runs of Green Acres on T.V. My free time wasn’t organized, which is why I have developed, over the years, such a fondness for the word “free.”

Harnessing someone’s talents still means that you’re putting them in a harness—that you expect them to pull some kind of weight. But a harness is not something out of nature; it is a contrivance, a series of trappings, which inevitably end up domesticating and burdening the very creature that wears them. “Excellence” shouldn’t be a burden; achievement shouldn’t be a rope around your neck or a weight around your ankle. Doing well should be a choice, a gift, a chance, and a pleasure.

The old adage says that the only thing worth doing is worth doing well, but I’d like to suggest that we approach the new school year with a different perspective: that anything worth doing is worth doing. If you can do it well, that’s terrific, congratulations, good for you! And if turns out that you can’t do it well, wasn’t it interesting—and really, terrifically sort of fun—to have given it a try?

As we’re starting this term, we can best show our own generosity and, if we're professionals, our own expertise by providing a structured but friendly environment for learning. We should encourage playfulness in our own lives as well as in the lives of our students, because playfulness is the antithesis of stress. And stress, as we know, kills creativity, dynamic problem solving, and the powerful enjoyment of learning new things. 

Helping someone learn new things and getting a kick out of the process: isn’t that why we’re here? Educators should help students to see and embrace the abundance of life—it isn’t only about “excellence."

In learning and in life, one size does not fit all.