There’s a beauty in excellence, in being extremely proficient at something. For me, this has to do with the way that in order to become excellent at something we have to become dedicated to it, devoted to it, and make sacrifices for it. Dedication, devotion and sacrifice are hallmarks of love, so I would say that excellence is an outward demonstration of a kind of love: A passion, a commitment, an ekstasis where something has captivated us to the degree that we have been ‘taken out of ourselves’ and motivated to pursue it with everything. Which is why it is beautiful.
A chiselled physique might be beautiful because it witnesses to hours of dedication, devotion and sacrifice in the form of exercise, gym workouts and dieting (which, granted, might be undertaken for purely self-loving, narcissistic ends, but the end result is beautiful nonetheless). A stunning work of art might be beautiful because of the meticulous care, attention to detail and effort that the artist has poured into it. A glorious musical performance might be beautiful because it testifies to the hours and hours of practice that have gone into developing the incredible degree of learned skill that it takes to pull it off. A breath-taking martial arts battle might takes away the breath because of the level of control, mastery and diligence that it embodies. A celebrity sportsperson might be compelling because they have worked towards a goal to the extent that they have honed a talent they have to astonishing levels. A professional video gamer might be awe-inspiring (to some) because they exhibit a degree of competence in their chosen medium that speaks of astonishing amounts of practice and study. A professor in an academic subject might command respect and fascination because they have spent comparative aeons down in the depths of the catalogues human knowledge, plumbing them for wisdom and insight. You get the idea.
There are no shortcuts.
A while ago someone called Malcolm Gladwell made some fuss by referencing in a book of his the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something in order to acquire mastery at it. That’s debatable, but the idea is the same: Excellence testifies to dedication. There are probably some innate gifts and dispositions, but also the brain is plastic: When we do things, and do them lots, we become excellent at doing them. This idea fascinates me because it underlines the potential that each of us has. We can become excellent at things, so what should we become excellent at? What do you want to become excellent at?
What’s a good way to think about excellence? As a Christian, I obviously try to think everything through with respect to the example of Jesus and the New Testament writers. What did Jesus become excellent at? Did he become excellent at anything at all? From the Gospels it seems that Jesus was raised as a carpenter. He must have spent lots of time chopping, shaping and crafting wood, becoming extremely skilled at working with the material that he would one day be nailed onto and die on top of. He had a trade; he had a craft; he was excellent at something. But at the age of 30 he left his trade behind and went out into the world to display his excellence at and further develop his excellence at some other things: Loving God and loving other people. Preaching and teaching about the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven. Healing people’s sicknesses. Driving out demons. Composing memorable stories that summarised his key teachings. Some of those things appear to have happen more as the result of a superabundant divine gift than as the result of practice, but some of them definitely improve with practice (there may be another rambling blog post about this at some point), and in any case none of them will happen unless something is done. How exciting would the world be if Christians became excellent at doing these things, like Jesus was?
What do we become excellent at in our society? What are the things that we practice over and over again? Looking around, it seems to me that some of the things that we become excellent at in our society include doing dull 9 to 5 jobs, procrastinating, distracting ourselves, being tested on our performance, watching TV, coordinating one-off sexual encounters, eating junk food, complaining, modifying our outward appearance and indulging ourselves. The world No 1 ‘Super Smash Bros 4’ (a video game of which I am very fond) player, ‘Zero’, plays the game professionally, full-time, and makes enough money at video game tournaments in order to live off of this. He allegedly practices the game for about 10-12 hours every day. I imagine that in part, Zero has natural skill at and flair for the game. But my guess would be that the larger part of the reason that he is so successful at the game is because he spends so much time, more than any other professional Smash Bros player, practicing it. He is excellent at it because he loves it and is completely devoted to it. Now, with all respect to Zero, Smash Bros is an extremely fun game and it is mesmerising to watch him play. There is a beauty and an excellence to his skill. But I find myself asking, is this the kind of thing that I really want to become excellent at?
As I’ve been reflecting on these things lately, I’ve been thinking about ‘What do I want to become excellent at?’
In line with the thoughts in my previous blog post, I’ve decided thus far that I want to try consciously to become excellent at the following things, whether or not I manage in it in practice:
-Loving God, my wife, family, friends, and others
-Doing all that other awesome Kingdom of Heaven stuff
-Whatever I end up doing for paid work. I’ve ended up putting that last on the list, but hey ho, it can go hand in hand with the first two points, and maybe even one day the third. NOTE: I am not here advocating perfectionism. But rather the kind of overall excellence that leads to do doing things well, or to a satisfactory level, most of the time.
Whether I do or will end up being excellent at those things remains to be seen, but those are the ostensive aspirations.
What do you want to become excellent at?
Let’s become excellent at worthwhile and glorious things.