firecat: red panda looking happy (Default)
[personal profile] firecat
I love this post to little tiny squishy pieces. I've always been suspicious of overemphasis on "excellence" and "progress." I seem to have avoided getting sucked in all the way by those values, but I've seen a great many of my friends beating themselves up using them. Maybe people would beat themselves up anyway if these concepts weren't around to use, but it gives me a huge grudge against the concepts. This post sets an overemphasis on "excellence" against working-class values ("work hard and do a good job") and claims that income inequality causes more overemphasis on "excellence." (Barbara Ehrenreich discusses similar ideas in Bright-sided—she argues that many Americans expect that unless they perfect their minds until they have only positive thoughts all the time, they won't ever succeed; and conversely that positive thoughts lead inexorably to success.

(Both of which expectations are bullshit...but bullshit that governments and corporations and other large organizations find it very useful to promulgate, since such bullshit leads people toward an overfocus on individuality and away from a focus on organizing, which might upset the power structure.)

http://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2011/07/18/against-pursuing-excellence/
by Jack Metzgar

Excerpts (emphasis mine):

I am not against excellence. I just think it’s over-rated as an aspiration. In fact, I think aspiration itself may be over-rated.
...
there is no evidence that pursuing excellence actually leads to it. Based on the testimony of many great artists, for example, excellence more often happens if not by accident, then through a combination of circumstances where the conscious pursuit of excellence is not one of the circumstances. An extraordinary talent or “gift” is often one of those circumstances, as is determination and focus in pursuit of a specific goal
...
My main gripe with pursuing excellence, however, is the way it necessarily encourages competition among individuals. Excelling means measuring ourselves against others, and this tends to undermine our focus on doing a good job.
...
such a phenomenon is characteristic, in my view, of professional middle-class culture in early 21st century America.
...
Fortunately, working-class culture is still a healthy, if beleaguered, antidote to the dominant middle-class one....Working hard and doing a good job, “pulling my weight” and “doing my part” – not pursuing excellence – are the core motivating values that working-class people feel bad about when they don’t live up to them.
...
the extreme levels of income inequality we have now reached make the working-class way dramatically more economically punishing. My students often have to at least mimic a phony pursuit of excellence if they are to provide for themselves and their families. The worse things get, the more they are told not to sell themselves short, to set their sights high, to aspire to become whatever you want to be (unless, of course, you just want to be yourself).
...
A culture that encourages people to “work hard and do a good job” leads to greater personal integrity, better mental health, and higher actual performance levels than the false counsel to “pursue excellence and never settle for second best.”

Date: 19 Jul 2011 01:58 am (UTC)
eagle: Me at the Adobe in Yachats, Oregon (Default)
From: [personal profile] eagle
That's a fantastic article. Thank you so much for the pointer to it!

Date: 19 Jul 2011 08:49 am (UTC)
oursin: Brush the Wandering Hedgehog by the fire (Default)
From: [personal profile] oursin
That's a great article. Too many thoughts provoked to make a coherent comment.

Date: 26 Jul 2011 06:12 am (UTC)
cynthia1960: me from Wiscon Chronicles v. 3 (Default)
From: [personal profile] cynthia1960
What she said.

Date: 19 Jul 2011 09:56 am (UTC)
cme: The outline of a seated cat woodburnt into balsa (Default)
From: [personal profile] cme
Thanks for posting that. Reading it helped me make sense of the conflicting messages I got form my family about effort, achievement, and success.

(All of my grandparents were solidly working class, and told me I would never get in trouble as long as I did my part. My parents were working class with class-climbing aspirations, so I got a mix of that attitude with the excellence one. And then I was accepted to a very prestigious and very middle-class school, and "doing your part" was no longer even a blot on the horizon.)

Date: 21 Jul 2011 12:19 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] flarenut
What they said. My particular beef is that the pursuit of excellence is so clearly a privilege-linked thing. Everyone who isn't part of the "in" group is supposed to achieve at a 90th-percentile level so that they can maybe, just maybe, make a 50th-percentile income. And people within the "in" group can perform at worse-than-chance levels and still fail upwards to new heights of power and income.

(And worse yet, when you do get grim pursuit of excellence among the in group, you get brilliant innovations like synthetic credit-default swaps, high-frequency trading and the Project for a New American Century. If Jamie Dimon, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had settled for mediocrity, the world would be a far better place.)

Date: 18 Jul 2011 11:30 pm (UTC)
mithriltabby: Imitation of the World Wildife Fund panda with question marks and caption W T F (WTF Panda)
From: [personal profile] mithriltabby
Wow. A completely different perspective on excellence than I usually use. I pursue excellence as a learning opportunity, an effort to do my next task a bit better than my last task. Excellence should stand on its own without competition; “never settle for second best” is a completely different notion to me than “pursue excellence”. And the pursuit of excellence is a much more healthy activity than the pursuit of perfection, which usually leads to defining some impossible ideal and then feeling bad that you didn’t live up to it.

Date: 19 Jul 2011 05:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] johnpalmer.livejournal.com
Well, if I say to myself "that person has different baggage around the word "excellence" than I do", I think I get where he's coming from.

Date: 22 Jul 2011 07:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tiger-spot.livejournal.com
God, yes. I am a much more collaborative person than I thought I was growing up (group projects, man -- they can do some damage to your perception of collaboration), and I so wish other people found it easier to just go with that rather than jockeying for position. I perceive it as desire for overall hierarchy interfering with fluid situation-specific leadership, most often.

Primates. Nothin' but trouble.

Date: 19 Jul 2011 08:21 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] e4q.livejournal.com
i am a recovering perfectionist. and i can report that perfectionism can make you really ill and unhappy. bad enough in an individual, but awful for a whole society.

Date: 19 Jul 2011 11:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nellorat.livejournal.com
I'm generally in favor of pursuing excellence but not perfection--I see the latter as crazy-making--but I, alo, have a self-competitive rather than an other-competitive idea of "excellence."

To me, one difference between "excellence" and "improvement" is that the former is more creative, trying to carve out new territory. Actually, I go with the latter in some areas, esp. craft hobbies, and the former in others, including work in teaching or writing.

Date: 19 Jul 2011 10:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] caprine.livejournal.com
This is very interesting. Thank you for posting.

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