Nicole Dieker is well aware that she does not actually define the word “excellence” anywhere in this blog post.
I’ve been asking people, as we get back into socializing again, what excellence means to them.
I’d be curious what it means to you, if you want to leave your answer in the comments.
(For the record, none of the people I’ve asked yet have given anything close to a similar response. This surprised me. Should it have?)
For me, right now, excellence means three things:
Working towards what you know (or believe) is right. The obvious example would be something like the repeated thirds in the left hand of the fifth movement of Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts; when I first learned the piece in high school, I took the movement too quickly because it was “easier” to play the thirds when you played them just a bit too fast. When you actually play at Stravinsky’s indicated tempo, you have to work at matching the articulation from third to third to third. You can cheat when you play faster; just bounce your hand like you’re dribbling a basketball or something and the thirds will fly by so fast that no one will notice if the articulations weren’t even.
But that’s not what ol’ Strav wanted (or at least not what he wrote on the page).
And leaving the work of “getting it right” undone is like telling yourself “I’m giving up the possibility of excellence.”
Which brings me to:
Not leaving possibility on the table. This must be why everybody I’ve talked to so far has a different definition of excellence — because the phrase “not leaving possibility on the table” not only includes a cliché, but also has very little to do with the accepted concept of “being excellent at something.”
Except for me, right now, that’s like the whole deal.
I’m not excellent yet. I’m not a magician yet. But the idea that I could be — that I might solve the problem of those thirds, that I might spend an entire day acting instead of reacting, that I might actually become my best self — and that’s where it gets tricky, because “best self,” like “excellence,” is a moving target, but what I mean to say is this:
Why couldn’t I be an excellent pianist?
Why couldn’t I be an excellent partner?
Why couldn’t I be an excellent writer?
Why couldn’t I be an excellent teacher?
Why couldn’t I be an excellent friend, daughter, aunt, community member, and all the rest of it?
Why would I say, just shy of turning 40, that I’m giving up on any of those possibilities?
Which brings me to:
Extending the practice of excellence towards as many areas of your life as possible. There’s the question — and L and I are currently discussing this question — of whether pursuing excellence in one area of your life naturally limits the possibility of pursuing excellence somewhere else.
I’ve written before about the idea that your choices limit your choices, and I’m pretty sure that trying to be an excellent pianist and an excellent painter and an excellent cook at the same time — and yet I’m not sure about that, when I really think about it.
Not just because polymathery is a thing, but also because excellence is a practice, and learning how to practice excellence in one aspect of your life makes it easier to practice excellence in other areas of your life.
Right? I mean, I know that you only have so many hours to put towards the piano or the canvas or the novel or the marathon training or the partnership or the family or the job.
But it seems like excellence includes balance. Like it would be impossible to be truly excellent without also being able to balance that excellence among all of your priorities.
And yes, I know you’re going to shout “NABOKOV MADE HIS WIFE LICK HIS STAMPS” or whatever it is that proves that supposedly excellent people can be less-than-excellent at many aspects of their lives, or that excellence requires you to prioritize and sometimes that means de-prioritizing the people closest to you.
I reject that idea, on the concept that you’re automatically eliminating the possibility of a better option.
The kind of life, for example, where you choose your people, choose the maths at which you want to poly, be specific about who and what and why — and then put your growing (and compounding) practice of excellence towards everything you choose, while reserving a more general kindness, conscientiousness, thoughtfulness, active-not-reactiveness to put towards everything you might not have chosen.
I mean, that’s what I’d like to do with my life.
What about you? ❤️