My wife and I have long used the word excellence as the standard, or at least the goal, of our relationship, parental efforts, and work. Doing so has not come without complications however. The word itself is complex, nuanced, and carries abundant social connotation. Using the word excellence to describe one’s life is often met with a bit of cynical judgment. To be fair, it is a rather lofty statement. In modern English excellence is synonymous with superiority, brilliance, supremacy, and other seemingly pretentious notions. In this way, excellence is mixed up with self-glorification and condescension toward others. Nonetheless, we have stuck with the word and, more importantly, the pursuit.
I have wanted to breakdown and articulate what we mean when we say we are pursuing excellence for some time. When the senior leaders of the organization I recently partnered with, Apartment Life, announced that excellence is the theme for 2019, I decided this is an excellent time to take a shot.
I think the miscommunication about excellence comes in through semantics and how language is used. The word itself originates from the Latin roots ex, meaning out beyond, and celsus, which means high and lofty. In other words, the root basically means, “out front and proud of it!” The problem is that we have borrowed much of our meaning from ancient Greek philosophy.
For the Greeks, excellence was associated with virtue. It is thus something we practice or strive for, rather than something we are. It makes much more sense to state that it is something we are becoming. The Greeks used the word Arete, which is a concept to describe the fulfillment of purpose. The reason we cannot technically be excellent is because it has no precise measurement. For example, we call a person brave when she acts with bravery, even though that act of courage is not scalable to all of humankind. The point is that excellence is indeed obtainable and many are able to put it into practice. This is important because it clarifies that excellence is not perfection, which is unachievable.
A great example I have heard is in regard to athletics. We call a person who regularly trains to run races a runner. This person who commits him or herself to the sport practices and strives everyday so that he or she can compete. On the day the race comes, say our runner falls ill and performs poorly. She or he is no less a runner than if she had taken gold. We would not bar this person from ever racing again and, more importantly, we wouldn’t suggest that he or she is not excellent at the sport based on one race. So it is with applying excellence to our everyday lives. It is a practice that we pursue and a description of our best.
Part of why I prefer the Greek meaning to the Latin root is that I don’t believe that my win necessarily means another’s loss. When we speak of excellence, we are not simply referring to our position relative to others. While it is true that the aptitude and proficiency of others gives us reference and scale, excellence is about our own independent actions. With that said, others can play an important role in our excellence. Others become our coaches, champions, and accountability. And sometimes, they can even be our competitors.
While competitors are not necessary for us to have excellence, it can be motivating to have them on our tail. To hear their steps and breath propels us forward. I personally want others right up at the front with me because they become a reminder that I’m on the right track. They also provide community and fellowship. As they give their best, they hold me accountable to giving my best. Excellence is thus about integrity as well.
I would be remiss if I did not mention one final thought regarding excellence and my spirituality. For as much as the Christian tradition uses the word excellence, it is surprising to me that the Greek word Arete is pretty rare in scripture. It shows up a few times in 1 and 2 Peter and then once in Philippians. The beautiful thing about the Philippians reference is that is lands right in the middle of chapter 4 during the exhortation which ends with “…Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”
Excellence is not arrogance; it is the practice of living out our calling. Excellence takes focus and effort, but it also takes grace and humility. It need not be doggedly pursued to utter exhaustion. Rather, it is one bold step at a time down a path of growth. As you walk this path, may you be blessed and may you become a stronger, braver you.