Serious critics sometimes argue that the standards in art are always relative, but all
artistic masterpieces give them the lie.
John Gardner in The Art of Fiction: Notes of
Craft for Young Writers.
The only thing most people do better than anyone else is read their own handwriting.
Edwin Bliss once said, "The pursuit of excellence is gratifying and healthy. The
pursuit of perfection is frustrating, neurotic, and a terrible waste of time."
Tim Hansel, Eating Problems for Breakfast, Word Publishing, 1988,
Excellence is to do a common thing is an uncommon way.
Booker T. Washington.
The name Stradivarius is synonymous with fine violins. This is true because Antonius
Stradivarius insisted that no instrument constructed in his shop be sold until it was as
near perfection as human care and skill could make it. Stradivarius observed, "God
needs violins to send His music into the world, and if any violins are defective God's
music will be spoiled." His work philosophy was summed up in one sentence:
"Other men will make other violins, but no man shall make a better one."
Daily Bread, January 25, 1993.
The work of Japanese painter Hokusai spanned many years before his death in 1849 at age
89. But toward the end of his life, the artist dismissed as nothing all the work he had
done before age 50. It was only after he reached 70 that he felt he was turning out
anything worthy of note. On his deathbed Hokusai lamented, "If heaven had granted me
five more years, I could have become a real painter."
Today in the Word, September
Joe Theismann enjoyed an illustrious 12-year career as quarterback of the Washington
Redskins. He led the team to two Super Bowl appearances--winning in 1983 before losing o'3
the following year. When a leg injury forced him out of football in 1985, he was entrenched
in the record books as Washington's all-time leading passer. Still, the tail end of
Theismann's career taught him a bitter lesson: I got stagnant. I thought the team revolved
around me. I should have known it was time to go when I didn't care whether a pass hit Art
Monk in the 8 or the 1 on his uniform. When we went back to the Super Bowl, my approach
had changed. I was griping about the weather, my shoes, practice times,
everything. Today I
wear my two rings--the winner's ring from Super Bowl XVII and the loser's ring from Super
Bowl XVIII. The difference in those two rings lies in applying oneself and not accepting
anything but the best.
Readers Digest, January, 1992.
Henry Kissinger, in his book The Whitehouse Years, tells of a Harvard professor who had
given an assignment and now was collecting the papers. He handed them back the next day
and at the bottom of one was written, "Is this the best you can do?" The student
thought, "no," and redid the paper. It was handed in again, and received the
same comment. This went on ten times, till finally the student said, "Yes, this is
the best I can do." The professor replied, "Fine, now I'll read it."
From Henry Kissinger's The Whitehouse Years.
For many years Admiral Hyman Rickover was the head of the U.S. Nuclear Navy. His
admirers and his critics held strongly opposing views about the stern and demanding
admiral. For many years every officer aboard a nuclear submarine was personally
interviewed and approved by Rickover. Those who went through those interviews usually came
out shaking in fear, anger, or total intimidation. Among them was ex-President Jimmy
Carter who, years ago, applied for service under Rickover.
This is his account of a Rickover interview: I had applied for the nuclear submarine
program, and Admiral Rickover was interviewing me for the job. It was the first time I met
Admiral Rickover, and we sat in a large room by ourselves for more than two hours, and he
let me choose any subjects I wished to discuss. Very carefully, I chose those about which
I knew most at the time--current events, seamanship, music, literature, naval tactics,
electronics, gunnery--and he began to ask me a series of questions of increasing
difficulty. In each instance, he soon proved that I knew relatively little about the
subject I had chosen. He always looked right into my eyes, and he never smiled. I was
saturated with cold sweat. Finally he asked a question and I thought I could redeem
myself. He said, "How did you stand in your class at the Naval Academy?" Since I
had completed my sophmore year at Georgia Tech before entering Annapolis as a plebe, I had
done very well, and I swelled my chest with pride and answered, "Sir, I stood
fifty-ninth in a class of 820!" I sat back to wait for the congratulations--which
never came. Instead, the question: "Did you do your best?" I started to say,
"Yes, sir," but I remembered who this was and recalled several of the many times
at the Academy when I could have learned more about our allies, our enemies, weapons,
strategy, and so forth. I was just human. I finally gulped and said, "No, sir, I
didn't always do my best." He looked at me for a long time, and then turned his chair
around to end the interview. He asked one final question, which I have never been able to
forget--or to answer. He said, "Why not?" I sat there for a while, shaken, and
then slowly left the room.
Gordon McDonald, Ordering Your Private World, p.
Statistics and Stuff
In his book In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters outlines eight principles of operation
that are practiced by the most excellent, innovative corporations. They are:
1. Act quickly.
2. Serve the customer.
3. Encourage creativity and innovations.
4. Know the value of your employees
5. Stay close to your business.
6. Do what you do best.
7. Don't get fat at the top.
8. Adhere to established values while allowing employee independence.
Peters points out that some of these characteristics are so basic that they are like
"motherhood" and "apple pie." They bore to yawns the average business
student. On the other hand, says Peters, these qualities are almost conspicuously absent
in most large companies.
From Tom Peters, In Search of Excellence.
Brian Harbour picks up on this theme in Rising Above the Crowd: "Success means
being the best. Excellence means being your best. Success, to many, means being better
than everyone else. Excellence means being better tomorrow than you were yesterday.
Success means exceeding the achievements of other people. Excellence means matching your
practice with your potential."
Paul Borthwick, Leading the Way, Navpress,
1989, p. 64.
In his fine book, Excellence, John Gardner says, "Some people have greatness
thrust upon them. Very few have excellence thrust upon them...They achieve it. They do not
achieve it unwittingly by 'doing what comes naturally' and they don't stumble into it in
the course of amusing themselves. All excellence involves discipline and tenacity of
Ted W. Engstrom, The Pursuit of Excellence, 1982, Zondervan Corporation,
The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity
and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither
good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.