#88: On Excellence
December 9, 2014 4 Comments
I had a version of this article ready to go about two weeks ago. I sat on it because it was … OK. It was fine. It may even have been good.
But it wasn’t Excellent. It was funny and insightful at certain spots, but at other points, it rambled. Lord knows I have a tendency to get off-topic, and while that can be entertaining, it does not always make for a congruent read.
So the article sat while the wheels turned. I picked and picked at it until I realized the problem: I was trying to write three articles at the same time. After putting this article aside for a few weeks, it eventually occurred to me that I had three interrelated-but-separate points to make. Trying to mash all of them into a single article detracted from each of the respective points, and didn’t make for outstanding work.
After that realization occurred, the knots became untangled, and the second version of the article flowed much more cohesively. This article is On Excellence:
Excellence is Out, Emo is In
I don’t know if it’s my environment or just a sign of the times, but I have seen a cultural shift in which Personal Excellence and the habits that go along with it have been continuously denigrated. Mediocrity is the new normal, and people want awards simply for showing up to work. The current generational trend is one of entitlement and narcissism.
National Basketball Association fans are well aware of this cultural shift. As recently as 20 years ago, it was commonplace in the NBA for a franchise to build their team around one superstar player: Larry Bird on the Celtics, Isiah Thomas on the Pistons, Charles Barkley on the 76ers, Hakeem Olajuwon on the Rockets, etc. This ethic of hyper-competitiveness, individual achievement, and personal-pride-bordering-on-egotism was culturally pervasive across the NBA.
In fact, it took a revision to the Olympic Games to get more than a pair of the elite basketball players of the early-1990s, many of whom openly despised each other, on the same team. Even then, there was so much animosity between some of these elite players that several were left off the ’92 Olympic Team entirely.
The model at the time – and the cultural mentality – was for one elite player to prove he was better than all of the other elite players by winning with “his” team. Aggression, Competition, Dominance, and Rivalry were core values of the era. The values that are currently more revered – Cooperation, Equality, Passivity, and Social Acumen – were almost frowned upon, or seen as signs of weakness.
No player or team better represented this model than Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls of the late 1980s/1990s. Even the most casual sports fans know about the iconic Jordan, who won six NBA championships and a litany of personal awards despite taking a three-year hiatus in the middle of his prime to pursue a professional baseball career (or to accept a secret suspension for gambling). Michael Jordan is almost universally regarded as the Greatest Basketball Player of All-Time.
Meanwhile, Scottie Pippen – a Hall-of-Famer and an all-time great in the NBA – will forever be remembered by many fans as Michael Jordan’s sidekick, so much so that the phrase “the Pippen to his Jordan” is more-or-less commonplace. As great a player as Scottie Pippen was, there was never a question about who was the face of the ’90s Bulls, due to the charisma and magnetism of Michael Jordan.
The state of Western culture at the time was for an individual or small group to demonstrate their superiority by dominating all comers. Having to partner up with a true equal was seen as a sign of inferiority or weakness. This attitude was prevalent in everything from big-budget motion pictures to Professional Wrestling. Life was all about rising to the top and beating the other guy.
But times have changed. Society seems to prefer collaborations and ensembles to individual transcendence.
For example, the modern NBA is defined by “super-teams” in which multiple superstar players finagle their way onto the same roster. This is best represented by LeBron James, who in 2010 opted to join two other elite NBA players on the Miami Heat. The Heat went on to win consecutive NBA titles in 2012 and 2013. LeBron James has since returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the current culture is still one of Cooperation rather than Dominance.
The criticism LeBron James will likely endure for the rest of his career, unless he somehow takes the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA title, will be, “You couldn’t do it without Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. You needed help.” While it’s perfectly fine to accept support, this trend – this current tendency of the Excellent to revert to the mean – concerns me quite a bit.
I am not going to go into a tangent about why Western society has gotten less dominant and more cooperative, other than to say that cooperation, getting along, and protecting everyone’s feelings all the time has become the new norm. I think this is an observation something most reasonable people can agree upon. My concern is that the current trends of coddling and collaboration are directly leading to less personal excellence and individual accomplishment.
Like my favorite basketball player Kobe Bryant, I am a remnant from the “Michael Jordan” generation. I have an unhealthy obsession with Winning. I think dunking in someone’s face is Awesome. I want to see an NFL team go 15-1, not see 12 teams finish 9-7. My view is that Parity is a direct antagonist of Excellence, and that people that put in the extra effort to excel deserve to see their efforts rewarded. I see competition as serving the greater good.
I adhere to a mentality of Dominance, often to my own detriment. It’s not enough for me so simply work hard and have a place in the hierarchy. It’s ingrained into me to beat the other guy. As you would expect, like Kobe Bryant, I step on a lot of toes as I make my way.
At this point, I can’t be reprogrammed. In fact, even if I could, I wouldn’t want to be. I hate having to go around and choose my words ultra-carefully or risk offending someone with hair-trigger sensitivity. I’ll spare you my full tirade on the current state of hyper-sensitivity in America for the moment, other than to say that I am not thrilled with how things are “progressing” socially.
Moreover, I hate – Hate – when less-ambitious types try to make people like me feel bad or uncomfortable for striving to be Excellent. It aggravates me so because all Excellence really takes is dedication, hard work, and perseverance. But it’s easier for the lazy and uninspired to tear down people trying to make the most of themselves than putting in the effort necessary to succeed.
People frequently ask me why I’m always working so hard at the gym or on my writing, or why I do so much extra conditioning and technique work for beer-league hockey. I almost never have a response for them, other than “Why are you not doing extra work?” Overreaching and striving to be better is a self-evident proof for me, yet many others need to be coached or persuaded into working to improve.
I don’t think I’m better than most other people, but I sure as hell try to be. I want to be a great person, not a mediocre one. I don’t simply want to be a good writer; I want to the Best Writer. This mentality – striving to be better than other people – is almost the verbatim definition of an Elitist:
While almost everyone lauds Excellence – which is frequently attributed to positives like hard work and sound choices – most people detest elitists. Some of this is likely due to how elitists carry themselves, but an equal measure of this disdain comes from the preconceived notions of the apathetic and mediocre.
The elitist mindset generally involves bruising the ego of someone resigned to wallowing. Meanwhile, it infuriates someone who blames her or his own lack of success on circumstances within their control to see someone else excel. This has led to our current culture in which Excellence is almost frowned-upon.
A terrific, personally-close-to-home example is the almost-irrational hatred people tend to show toward Duke University, which has done nothing but routinely excel in College Basketball for the last 30 years. Alas, Duke University is one of the country’s most-selective colleges, nestled in the middle of both a state and a region that abhors all things pretentious.
The Duke University Basketball program is a prime example of Excellence and Elitism being almost indistinguishable. The main question revolves around the general impressions of “elitist” institutions such as Duke versus actuality, as well as the impressions the “elite” have of themselves.
Is everyone who Excels an Elitist? Not necessarily. But Excellent People are certainly Elite, and a lot of traits that are mindlessly assigned to Elitists and Egotists are also commonly seen in the Exceptional. It’s worth considering the value of self-acutalization before tearing down someone who wants to make the most of her or himself.
I’ve concluded that my views are probably those of an Elitist, plain and simple. I will leave that to you to judge if I am a Good or Bad Person, but I will continue to explain my perspectives on Elitism and Excellence below.
A teammate and I were talking about how expensive it to play Amateur Hockey. He was telling me that a parent of one of his Amateur teammates kept receipts, and totaled all costs – equipment, ice fees, hotels, travel expenses, etc. – at just over $10,000 for a single year. I nodded in agreement.
“Sounds about right,” I replied, doing some rough math in my head.
My teammate referred to Hockey as an “Elitist” sport, which I initially disagreed with. I cited the roots of Hockey being played on frozen ponds by poor Canadian farm kids, though acknowledged that the cost to propel an aspiring player higher up the ranks in America was astronomical. After a bit more consideration, I came to agree with him.
While Hockey may have humble origins, this is the reality of Amateur Hockey in North America: the kids whose parents have money have a tremendous advantage. They get better equipment, better ice times, and better opportunities. If a pair of parents can afford to put their son or daughter on a AAA Elite team, such as the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite, the player is getting more exposure and likely sharing a locker room with the sons or daughters of former professional players. As with everything else, money factors prominently into predicting future success.
While in theory Hockey Players are some of the most Down-to-Earth, self-deprecating people you could hope to meet, again reality paints a different picture. Hockey Players, generally, are not a bunch of impoverished kids sharing a $15 basketball or soccer ball on some rundown court or field. The cost just to outfit a Hockey Player is often hundreds if not thousands of dollars.
There are programs in many cities such as Hockey in Harlem that encourage inner-city kids to pick up the sport, but the cost just to participate in Hockey is a major mitigating factor. Hockey is also not recession-proof, evidenced by several years of declining enrollment at the Amateur levels.
As an example, for tax purposes I recently totaled the receipts for my hockey-related purchases in 2014. This was somewhat easier than in the past because I play most of my Hockey at a single rink, allowing me to estimate costs much more accurately. I’ll spare you the details, but here I spent a total of $5435 (!!!) on league fees/ice-time purchases and an additional $1670 (!!!!!!!) on equipment-related purchases.
I am not rich, and I figured on the low-end of all expenditures just for the sake of simplicity and my own sanity. I assure you that figure is extremely conservative, and if it were up to me I would play much more frequently, which of course would drive up all of the above figures.
Now, Hockey is my Love and exclusive interest in life. I don’t ski, I don’t go to concerts, I don’t do drugs, I basically hate electronics and other expensive toys, and in most respects I am value-conscious bordering on miserly. But that does not negate the fact that I conservatively spend over $7000 per year on my chosen sport.
More over, this is not even close to being an all-time high for me. God bless my mother, who somehow found a way to outfit both my brother and me and put us both on multiple amateur teams. I’m sure there were years in which she spent $20,000 or more in total to allow the two of us to play. Soccer certainly would have been cheaper.
And honestly, I didn’t even play for the “Elite” teams. I was the pond hockey kid who skated funny and tried out for second and third-tier teams and had to play my way up to the “Elite” teams year-after-year. While the mentality of constantly having to “try-out” has helped me to build a lot of character, it does not change the fact that more money would have paved a much smoother path.
So speaking socioeconomically, Hockey is absolutely an “Elitist” sport. The larger questions are, “Does Hockey Produce Elitists?” or “Do Elitists Gravitate to Hockey?” I’ll attempt to address those questions next.
Winning Fixes Everything
Mark Messier, as with Michael Jordan in the NBA, is one of the Greatest Hockey Players of All-Time. Ignoring all of his individual accomplishments, Moose is best-remembered for two team-related accomplishments:
1) “The Guarantee“, in which Moose promised a victory in a 1994 Eastern Conference Final elimination game against the New Jersey Devils. Moose made good on his promise by scoring three goals in route to a Rangers’ win. The Rangers would of course go on to win the 1994 Stanley Cup in what is remembered as one of the greatest Cup Runs of all-time.
2) His six Stanley Cup Rings, including Captaining the depleted 1990 Edmonton Oilers (sans Wayne Gretzky) and ending 54 years of frustration in leading the Rangers to the ’94 Cup.
Moose is also remembered as one of the bigger egotists in NHL history. But this alleged character flaw, for which players such as Alex Ovechkin are highly criticized, is the foundation upon which Moose forged the most-impressive resume of Team Accomplishments in the history of the League.
The lesson? Winning Fixes Everything. While poor Alex Ovechkin – despite being a three-time Hart Trophy Winner and 60-goal scorer- is hailed a me-first diva by the assembled Canadian media, Mark Messier so revered as to have the NHL Leadership Award named after him.
Most athletes, and Hockey Players for sure, are taught to believe that they are better than their competition, or capable of being better. So it may be true that Hockey Players are in fact Elitists, or at least raised with an Elitist perspective, because the Elitist view literately serves a greater good: Accomplishment as a Team.
As established above, Hockey is absolutely an Elitist sport, and to make it in the higher levels of the sport a player needs to have a certain dedication to Personal Excellence. But eventually, when a player’s Personal Excellence is given up wholly for the greater achievement of the team – as is the case with NHL Hall-of-Famers and Stanley Cup Champions such as Steve Yzerman and Mike Modano – the player is revered, or even immortalized.
Egotism, or perhaps the Elitist perspective, is simply a means to an end. While arrogance for the sake of self-satisfaction is basically worthless, Ego in the name of Excellence – and ultimately Team or Group Success – not only worthwhile, but noble.
Excellence in Writing (?)
While I write in part to air my grievances with the world, as noted previously I also write to teach and pass information along. My view is that if I am going to take the position of an Author – as an authority on a given subject – I need to not only know what the hell I’m talking about, but also present my points in such a way that they can be understood. This need of mine to put forth an outstanding product is usually just attributed to my massive ego.
But there’s an alternative view to dismissing this need of mine as egotism. It’s possible I spend so much time editing and honing these articles of mine because I want the work to be Excellent. After much thought and reflection, my view is that my pursuit of Personal Excellence has fed my self-confidence, not the other way around.
And suddenly, there’s a nobility to these self-aggrandizing articles I write. While most of these articles are about me, they aren’t really about me. The articles are about the life lessons I’ve learned, which I try to pass along to readers. I try to use my experiences and personal growth as a template – in both negative and positive ways – for others to follow or reject, but ultimately to learn from. All of this is done in the name of producing something Excellent, not putting myself on a pedestal (yet another reason I’m retiring the blog at #100).
Writing, as with all other forms of art, gains or loses value dependent on the writer’s dedication to the work versus her or his personal agenda. When the writer or the artist makes the work about the work itself, rather than the name on the bottom of the work, I think the quality of the work increases exponentially.
If you want to be an Excellent writer, make the writing about the work – as Bruce Lee did with Jeet Kune Do – and not simply a vehicle for ego fulfillment.
A Final Lesson in Excellence
As you may or may not know, most of the Jack Has Spoken articles double as therapy for me. If I am annoyed or dwelling on something, I don’t generally go and vent to my friends or family. I often spend significant time alone, and try to look at whatever is bothering or distracting me as objectively as possible.
In fact, I have always been kind of a loner. Even though I have made a team sport my religion, I have always been kind of kept to myself and more recently used writing as a means of curing what ails me.
In any event, I have taken a lot of quiet time to reflect and think. Here are two absolute truths about I know about myself:
1) I Give a Fuck
I will get into this more in a future article. But the truth is that I do care, deeply. You know those people who are always spouting about, “no fucks given” before they do something reckless or short-sighted? The people who use the phrase “You Only Live Once” as an excuse to be an obnoxious bane on society? Those are the people that are doing YOLO wrong.
The people who truly understand how fleeting and fragile Life is Do Give a Fuck. My favorite example from fiction is Rick Grimes, lead character from the best-seller novels/smash-hit TV series The Walking Dead.
Here is a great misunderstanding about Rick Grimes from the Meme crowd:
Like me, Rick Grimes Does Give a Fuck. In fact, Rick Grimes gives many, many fucks. He cares so deeply about the safety of his family that he can will himself to rip the throat out of another man with his teeth.
Some people – usually losers who secretly hate themselves – think being dedicated to your goals or the people you care about is lame or a weakness. It’s exactly the opposite of that. Caring about something or someone provides you with inner reserves of strengths that you did not realize existed.
Rick Grimes gives a fuck, and so do I. One of my biggest character flaws is that I will go through extended periods of time when I pretend not to care. I even lie to myself about it, and in the past I’ve tried to drown that truth in binge-drinking. But the truth is that I do care.
(Critical Note: I am not turning my back on Alcohol, my One True Friend. Unlike the rest of my friends, Alcohol has always been there for me. Having said that, there is a huge difference between having a few pops to celebrate your Hockey Championship versus using Alcohol or Drugs to dull the pain of a battered soul. I speak from experience on both counts.)
2) I May Be an Elitist/Egomaniac, but it’s because I’m a Competitor/Winner
People frequently point out that I am a dick, a snob, arrogant, cocky, SMOFO, (Smug Mother Fucker) or some variation therein. Half the time these people have never even exchanged words with me, but that’s another story altogether.
I fully admit I was a raging prick throughout college and a few years afterward. Many men go through a maturation period in which they realize they have greater responsibilities than themselves, and I am one of them. I have spent recent years atoning for mistakes I made as a younger man.
But here’s something I learned: without that extra edge and that drive to compete that I’ve traditionally had, I’m an inferior person.
My father had me playing baseball before I could put one foot in front of the other, and I’ve played Team Sports nonstop since. Without realizing, I was raised to adopt the traditional values of an Athlete – Aggression, Cooperation, Dominance, Fair Play, Work Ethic, Refusal to Quit, and ultimately Excellence – as my Core Values. I can lie to myself about it, but the fact is that I want to beat the other guy, not get along with him.
As I’ve explained, my Core Values have become a limiting factor as I’ve gone out into the world. As an example, I recently described myself to a friend’s wife as having “an aggressive personality”, and she replied sincerely, “oh, that’s too bad.” The point is that while I see Aggression not only as something to aspire to, but as a Survival Necessity, most people view Aggression as a highly-undesirable trait.
(Note: My friend’s wife also likes to say, “You catch more bees with honey.” My response? Who the hell wants to catch bees?)
My mistake in all of this has been attempting to apologize for who I am and what I believe in. It’s fine that I am aggressive and cocky and competitive, because the world takes all types to revolve. Moreover, being surrounded in recent times by mostly-complacent people led me to forget why I was raised to be this way:
Sports are ultimately about defeating competition and/or reaching new peaks in performance, in a controlled environment. Sports are thoroughly noble. Sports have a beauty and a purity surely unseen in War and Politics. If I were King of the World, I would use the Olympic Games to settle disputes between countries. But I digress.
Without competition, without the possibility of someone taking your job or getting a better opportunity than you, a person will atrophy. Having the drive to outdo someone – not all the time, but when needed – is what has protected our race since the dawn of time. It’s simply Darwinism: the better hunter gets the antelope, and the weaker hunter starves.
My view is that getting too far away from the competitive mentality ultimately damages a person’s ability to survive, which I covered at-length in #87: Challenge Yourself. Cooperation has immense value, but so does having the ability to excel.
I am a Hockey Player. To my core, I believe that Collectivism and Unity achieves much more than Individualism. But I also believe, in my core, that my family/friends/teammates and I are the ones that deserve to achieve, and like Rick Grimes I will go to extreme lengths to see the people I care about prosperous and/or victorious.
There is room to strive for Excellence and the Elitist approach, just as there is room for Compassion and Cooperation. All of these ideals are best achieved while conducting yourself with both Character and Class. The trick, as usual, is using a measure of discretion as you navigate the minefield.
My closing piece of advice is to refuse to let the dissatisfied and the mediocre drag you down. If like me you instincts are to Rise and to aspire to greater things than yourself, do not let the bitter and the vindictive sway you.