The Habit of Excellence

All healthy humans are capable of enjoying excellence. More than that, they can enjoy sustained and repeated excellence. And it does feel good to excel… to know that you worked hard and accomplished something. It proves to us that we can improve, that we can rise, that we are able to achieve. Everyone needs that, and everyone can get it… though many of us seldom or never do.

And so, one of the most important lessons a young person can learn is how to excel… to learn that they have the capacity to excel.

What Excellence Is And Is Not

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do,” wrote Ecclesiastes, “do it with thy might.” And that’s good advice. But excellence, at least in this world, has limits: It is not automatic, it isn’t possible in every area of life, and it isn’t easy.

Excellence, to be clear, is not the same as “winning,” even though the two sometimes coincide. This is not about dominance; seeking to dominate puts us into a a long, downward slide, spawning some very unlovely characteristics. What we should prefer is to be repeatedly excellent, measured by our own, internal standards.

You don’t have enough time and energy to be excellent at everything you’ll do in life: none of us do. So, don’t imagine that you are supposed to; that’s a way to make yourself unhappy for life. As we noted above, excellence is hard; it requires focused energy and long, sometimes painful, practice.

But it is attainable, and it is enjoyable. There’s not much more satisfying than knowing the you did something important and difficult, and did it well.

How We Become Excellent

There is a prerequisite for excellence, and that is knowing that you can. What I mean by that is not being told that you are wonderful; I mean knowing that you can achieve excellence, based upon actual excellence… because you’ve actually done it.

Mere praise, no matter how persistent and effusive, will never replace earned belief: knowing that you worked, endured and exhibited actual excellence.

So, how do we get that?

We most commonly learn it by being pushed into it, hopefully when we are young.

Parents, of course, can get excellence started, by teaching their children about it and very directly informing them of three things:

  1. You can be great at things, even many things.
  2. It’s hard to do. You’ll have to work and suffer and persist. You’ll have to overcome obstacles, and maybe many of them.
  3. There will always be an alternative that looks easier. That will lead you away from excellence, not toward it.

That’s honest advice, and productive advice. The modern alternative – “you’re a special flower,” and so on – is a setup for disappointment, pessimism and depression. We are special, of course, but that won’t make you successful by magic; we still have to work, and sometimes we still fail.

Some of the most potent and enduring lessons in excellence come after puberty. There are several reasons for this, but that’s a long explanation, and I don’t know which of them are the most crucial… probably they differ for each individual. But I do know that I’ve seen this in practice, and repeatedly.

It also seems necessary, at least for many young people, that they learn how to excel from someone other than Mom and Dad. Almost certainly this has to do with what psychologists call individuation, but what matters now is that this model seems consistent and even necessary.

For these reasons, young people commonly learn the price of excellence and their capacity for excellence from coaches, mentors and bosses. That is, from older people who demand hard things of them.

We may also get it by observing it in others and wanting it for ourselves… wanting it badly enough that we’ll work for it. And that’s an excellent way of attaining it.

Another important step lies in choosing things to excel at. Some things simply aren’t important enough to spend all that energy upon. “Something not worth doing,” as an old friend of mine used to say, “is not worth doing well.”

The Habit of Excellence

Excellence can become habitual, and in general this is a very good and productive thing. It’s one of the things many of us learn from hard-working parents. It’s not so much that they tell us we should work hard, but that we see them – day after day after day – laboring, persevering, and attaining difficult things.

If we see that consistently, we begin to form expectations of excellence. And that leads to the habit of excellence.

Beneath the interplay of our daily thoughts sit our expectations; I think of them as the crucible in which our decisions are formed. Whatever our expectations (our deep beliefs) may be, they will color and guide our choices. And so to expect excellence of ourselves and our lives can be a powerful and long-lasting thing.

This can be of better or worse varieties of this, of course. There are families that push (even force) excellence upon their children for their own sakes. That is an error, and actually a type of abuse. It’s not the child’s purpose to make the parents look good, make the family name great, or any such thing. The purpose of the child is to improve themselves and improve the universe: that’s what human life does: it intelligently and willfully transcends entropy.

We want to pass along the habit of excellence to our children: that we put in the necessary time and effort to do the important things, and that we do them well.

But again, we don’t teach our children these things to make ourselves look good; we do it to make them better people and to make the future of our species better.

Two Last Thoughts

To close, I’ll leave you with two thoughts. The first is a great line that sums up a lot of this, written by a man named David Weinstein:

The important thing about winning is knowing that you can.

Translating the comment into our terminology, we’d say that the crucial thing about excellence is knowing that you can attain it. Because once you do, and once you feel the satisfaction of it, you can attain it regularly.

The second thought is the importance of refusing lower standards. We can’t be overbearing with excellence (as the parents who demand it for their own status), but neither can we go the other way.

I once had a discussion with a lady who was moving her family cross-country, because the mindset prevailing where she had been was bereft of excellence. She didn’t want her children to think like the children and families she observed there. She told me of a conversation with a local school superintendent, who told her, proudly, that “Half our students meet the state average.” That, she went on to say, was a very common attitude in the place, and she couldn’t bear her children absorbing it.

The fact is that you want your children to have friends with high assumptions of life. You may risk finding some who are arrogant (with elitist parents), but that can usually be worked around. What you don’t want is your child adopting the belief that excellence is fraudulent or unreachable. And, to be very blunt about it, you don’t want your children falling in love with people who carry such beliefs.


Paul Rosenberg