The forgotten language of excellence

Gareth van Onselen says we're a country that bends over backwards to accommodate mediocrity

A commitment to excellence

There are many ideas pervasive in South Africa today, designed seemingly to improve our lives. Most are ill-defined; many, on close inspection, ill-conceived. Among them, however, you will not find excellence or its pursuit. That is a remarkable fact. The South African public mind does not talk or listen in the language of excellence. We do not define it, we do not demand it, very often we do not even understand what it entails. Why is that?

The answer, I suspect, is telling. In the other direction, we bend over backwards to accommodate mediocrity. Accountability has lost its meaning, compromise is used to retard progress rather than encourage it and we negotiate in excuses. As a result, we settle too often for the average or that which is only just good enough; if not, worse. I have set out the nature of mediocrity before, here and, more briefly, here.

Imagine another world. One where excellence and its pursuit was the benchmark by which both our aspirations and expectations were measured. One where excellence was commonly understood to be the driving force behind our collective ambition. One where excellence defined our approach to accountability, to the public service, to education. Where South Africa spoke the language of excellence. Where it was the rule, as opposed to the exception. Where it was promoted, cherished, embraced and celebrated. And, most importantly, where it was lived. Where our lives, our jobs, our interactions with the state, our dreams and experiences where enriched by excellence and its pursuit. What a glorious place that would be.

Perhaps a good place to start is to begin a conversation about excellence, what it is and what it demands of us. Below I have attempted to give the idea life, to set out what the pursuit of excellence entails - to define a commitment to excellence.

Read it. Tell me what you think. Forward it on. Share it. Does it describe you? Is this something you would commit to? Is it wrong? How could it be made better? Is it reasonable to expect this from our public representatives? From each other? If so, why don't we? Is it something we can expect from ourselves? What would a South Africa look like that embodied these ideas and acted in this way?

Let's start a conversation about excellence. Let's promote the language of excellence. It can only be to our collective benefit. Here is my contribution.

A Commitment to Excellence

The aspiration of an ideal: Excellence is an ideal. It is the highest standard. The pursuit of excellence is a pursuit of that goal; that is - its accompanying attitude. It is a catalyst for progress and development, and the driving force behind the betterment of the human condition.

An attitude everyone can adopt: Being able to differentiate between an excellent outcome and the attitude that is the pursuit of excellence is central to its appreciation. No one is capable of achieving excellence in every sphere but each person is capable of excelling in that area particular to their unique aptitude. Likewise, everyone is capable of pursuing excellence regardless. And that attitude is what makes real the possibility they might excel at their strengths, even their weaknesses. Whether or not excellence is ever achieved is merely the consequence its pursuit.

A force for good: Whether or not one pursues excellence says something about who they are and the principles they represent: that they wish to be an example; that, by aiming for highest standard, they seek to establish best practice and set a precedent for others to follow, and that, by such a pursuit, they wish to learn, to grow and to contribute to progress, knowledge and betterment.

A chance to conquer the unknown: Inherent to excellence's pursuit is competition and the risk that one might fail. To succeed, that possibility must be embraced. Embraced because it is to understand that, in order to the raise the bar and set a benchmark, one must venture into the unknown; that the reward, even in failure, always outweighs the risk and for that reason one should be undeterred by risk or conflict, failure or setback. The true value of the pursuit of excellence lies in the trying. For the conflict averse, that is an adventure they will never experience.

An appreciation of success: Competition generates excellence, but it requires tolerance to succeed. Not just a willingness to accept and embrace best practice, even when one is not responsible for it, but to understand that, in defining it, one has a duty to share it; for its value is lost if its lessons are hidden.

The general benefit: Because excellence is an ideal, at times its pursuit requires that greater goal be placed ahead of one's own standing. Not to flinch from that challenge is to understand that one's personal circumstances are ultimately but not always immediately enriched by such an idealistic outlook.

A constant source of inspiration: It requires an understanding too that, once the highest standard has been achieved, one not be complacent; that one take stock, identify new goals and aim higher still. To this end the pursuit of excellence demands one remain questioning, about one's own conduct and the nature of the surrounding world. Always to ask: ‘How can I do this better?' And always to seek an answer.

The glory of trying: To pursue excellence is to accept that one has a duty to articulate their goals clearly and unambiguously; for the highest standard is meaningless if it not properly understood or conceptualised. To this end, it is important to recognise that any failure in the pursuit of excellence is not a failure at all. Rather, it is an opportunity to develop; for the very benefit of striving towards an ideal lies in the lessons learnt in its attainment. The only failure is not to seek out excellence. And to pursue anything less is to settle for mediocrity.

To stand up for an ideal: It is authentically to strive to embody such a pursuit: when excellence is under threat, to feel aggrieved and to rise to its defence; where mediocrity thrives, to feel passionate about eliminating it and where excellence exists to celebrate and take great joy from it. In this way, the pursuit of excellence should define one's attitude.

To outlaw its enemies: The enemies of excellence include: apathy, indifference, superficiality, vagueness, fear, denial, appeasement, insecurity, low self-esteem, laziness, coercion, control, low standards, mediocrity, a lack of accountability - against all of these one should stand resolutely opposed.

To fight for its allies: And, in response to them, one should seek out excellence wherever it exists, and to champion its component parts: competence, merit, expertise, hard work, dedication, competition, confidence, self-belief, commitment, understanding, reason, logic, originality, efficiency, argument, rationality, knowledge, tolerance and development. The pursuit of these ideas should be the guide by which one's decisions are made and the words by which one advocates for excellence and its pursuit.

To be willing to account for one's failure: Likewise, if the pursuit of excellence is to be one's creed, one must accept judgement by the standards to which one aspires; for anything less would be to lower the bar. In turn, that excellence and accountability enjoy a special relationship, each one reinforcing the other. And so, if one loses their way, if they become mediocre or poor, their own aspirations demand they be held to account; for excellence loses its meaning if mediocrity becomes acceptable.

The expectation of excellence: At the same time, each person has a duty to hold their peers to the same standard - because a collective pursuit fails too, if any member does not uphold the requisite values. Indeed, that is to open the door to mediocrity.

A foundational principle: Because a commitment to excellence is foundational it must be placed ahead of considerations of age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture, tradition or gender. The moment one places a ceiling on excellence, a limit on its pursuit, one denudes excellence of its very purpose. The pursuit of excellence should never be suppressed in favour of some aspect of identity. It is an ideal, and thus elevated above those considerations, which should not hinder its attainment nor used as an excuse to negate its value and excuse mediocrity.

A reason to grow and develop: In the same breath, it is necessary to understand that development is the cornerstone on which excellence is built; that if one aspires to the highest standard, fulfilling that aspiration means equipping one's self and the people around with the skills and expertise necessary to achieve the requisite outcomes. And just as any development process must itself be excellent, so must it be accompanied by a desire to develop an appetite for knowledge. But one must have such an appetite in the first place.

To recognise its constraints and to strive to overcome them: Our personal circumstance define the manner in which of us is able to pursue excellence, whether deprived of or blessed with opportunity. Appreciating that fact should be how we gauge the pursuit of excellence; but never to excuse complacency or victimhood and always to engender confidence and agency.

The wonder of originality: Always accompanying excellence and its pursuit is innovation and so one must be committed to promoting and encouraging originality and, with it, difference; always to think of and embrace new and better ways to do things, for no reason other than the fact that the pursuit of excellence is the pursuit of new ideas.

Rationality as our guide: In formulating those ideas one must rely on reason, in defending them, on logic, and in advocating them, on argument and evidence. In short, rationality must be the language through which one gives structure to original thought. Without it we cannot celebrate knowledge or appreciate understanding.

A proud representative of excellence: One must be dedicated to fighting mediocrity in all its guises: to championing outcomes over processes, to use compromise as a means to ensure progress and not as a proxy to appeasement, to ensure accountability is used to engender progress, never to accept that the average is good enough - indeed, to make it clear that the average is unacceptable - and always to guard against any encroachment on the province of excellence.

Excellence in word and deed: Finally, one must understand that excellence and its pursuit cannot exist in rhetoric alone. That it must be practiced. Committing to giving life to such an undertaking and to making it part of who one is, is the test by which it succeeds or fails.

This article first appeared on Inside Politics.

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