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David has been writing and publishing since 2006.  

Excellence is not just for productivity bros

Feb 27, 2024 | Reflections

Is excellence little more than just hyped up efficiency?

The Internet is good for many things, the creation of new terms for example. 

Terms like “Bro” and “Bro Culture” originally were an attempt to group and characterize a certain type of hyper-masculinity.  If we all at this point instinctively know what it means for someone to be a Karen, I am willing to bet for most, “bro” has a similar connotation.

The standard, regular way bro is typically associated with a hard-partying lifestyle – think cast of Jersey Shore.  But the concept quickly expanded.  Young men, being quick to become obsessed with any number of items, always seem to seek out a group of similarly minded individuals.  Thus, there are any number of bro subgroups – finance bros, gym bros, cornhole bros (I mean seriously how did that turn into a professional, televised event).

As someone who listens to a lot of podcasts and reads a lot of nonfiction, it is easy to run into the productivity bro subculture.  This group is obsessed with maximizing output, self-improvement, and attaining success. 

Compare that to the purpose of this newsletter, namely the thoughtful exploration of excellence and its import to life.

There is a risk in discussing excellence, namely that it or at least its analogues are common topics of discussion in the productivity bro world. 

And therein lies the danger, it is easy for a noble concept like excellence to seem only applicable to a certain, aggressive, hyper-optimizing individual.  When excellence has insights and applicability to us all.


So what then is excellence – is it more than just a hyped up efficiency? 

With apologies to several serious students of the classics who receive this newsletter, consider the ancient Greek concept of arete. Arete, also translated as excellence or virtue, was concerned with the idea of the ‘full realization of potential or inherent function.’

While the word virtue today has a sort of finger-wagging, schoolmarm-esque quality, to the ancients there was a deeper sense of the word’s meaning.  From a child engrossed in play to a beautiful table well-set for a meal, something realizing its potential, or at least in pursuit of it, retained a nobleness of purpose and a beauty worthy of emulation. 

In a transitory world, inundated with interruptions and conflicting priorities, the steady pursuit of potential offers a clarity of purpose for us all. 

Excellence is this pursuit – a steady one foot in front of the next effort towards the possible.  

There is no fixed destination to be reached – the journey is never complete.  It is an attitude or posture to pursue.  A desire to improve and grow towards doing a thing as well as it can be done.  This forces us to take joy in the work along the way – not in the achievement of certain milestones.  One author has described the journey of faith as a “long obedience in the same direction.”  The pursuit of excellence shares a similar spirit.

Excellence is not about maximizing one dimension at the expense of the whole.  I recently heard an interview with an entrepreneur, now later in life, describing how for nearly 30 years, he worked 7 days a week in the office.   While this effort perhaps contributed to a certain amount of professional success, one cannot help but think this was the guy in the gym who skipped leg day.  Sure he may have built huge arms, but the rest of his life is so out of balance.  Excellence considers the totality of things, not the maximization of the singular.

At the same time, excellence is likely not about all dimensions in your life.  Flaubert exhorted us to “be regular and orderly in your life, so you may be violent and original in your work.”  Pursuing one’s full potential in a select few areas will likely require the conscious arrangement of the rest of your life so as to maximize the time, energy and resources available for higher pursuits.  While this anecdote has been wildly overplayed, it still retains a degree of resonance.  Namely, how Steve Jobs wore the same outfit everyday.  Regardless of the reason for it, it simplified a choice and as well provided a strong psychic signalling mechanism that Steve was in pursuit of higher goals. 

Excellence then is about a path and a pursuit.  But it is far more than just achievement or maximizing efficiency. 


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Nashville, TN