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David has been writing and publishing since 2006.  

Is the pursuit of excellence limitless?

Mar 28, 2024 | Reflections

or is good enough sometimes just that?

Among the many pleasures of house shopping is seeing how someone else lives.  Even more so after buying a new home – you constantly wonder, how did these people live like this?  No dimmers on this light switch, atrocious lighting, you call that closet storage – all actual quotes about our home.

This begats the question – why do some make such choices?  Is it a failure of vision – an inability to envision a better future?  Or is execution the scarce commodity? Or maybe the busyness of life got in the way and the benefits weren’t worth the headache?

As an entrepreneur, my mind produces a nearly unlimited set of ideas on how anything, literally anything, can be changed, improved, enhanced, and evolved.  Give me a blank legal pad and let me go to town on ideation.  Yet with the perspective of time, a more pressing question has begun to emerge.  While I can always envision something different, a different future, how do you know when the present is good enough? 

When / where does average actually make sense?   Conventionality, however gauche, does have its advantages.  No one is getting accolades for driving a Toyota Camry – but historic reliability, wide spread availability of low cost parts and limitless locations for service, make it a default choice worth serious consideration. 

Contrast that with a modern world is focused on optimization.  Headlines tell stories of when to sleep, 5 things to eat now, what to do to achieve your dreams, etc.  In the face of this cultural moment, it seems prudent to ask the question of when you might not want to optimize?  What are the bounds of excellence?  I wrote in my last post that excellence is holistic across all of life – but is that true?  Is excellence pursuable in all areas of life or only a select few?

In answering this,  there seems to exist a continuum of choices that can help focus your efforts.  On one end of the continuum there are things that are worth attention in the moment, but very little beyond that.  In this group, you could place things that are relatively inconsequential.  They may be so inexpensive, have such low downsides or be relatively easy to course correct.   Things that might fall into this group:

  • Where to eat for dinner and what to order?
  • Which brand of toothpaste to buy?
  • What route on the GPS to take home?

Assuming some basic thresholds for quality, any answer to the above is likely to lead to a fine result.  Maybe not optimal, but certainly something that works.

In the middle of the continuum are things that are worth attention and a degree of effort now because getting the correct answer will free up time/resources/energy for things that are more important.   Something that might fall into this group would be learning how to optimize a night’s sleep.  This might involve shopping for a new mattress, making adjustments to your sleep environment (white noise, black out curtains), developing better evening screen time habits. 

Once these decision are made though, there may be limited benefit from optimizing further.  If you are getting 7 hrs and 12min of quality rest, moving that to 7 hrs and 18 min, just simply may not make that much of a differences.   The pareto principle seems most relevant here – can you get 80%+ of the benefits with 20% of the effort?  In my experience, knowing when to stop is often the hardest part. 

The final end of the continuum are the domains of life where pursuing excellence is perhaps possible and worth your time. As we discussed in our last post, excellence is about a posture, an attitude of pursuit of full potential / possibility. 

For myself, I believe excellence is worth considering across the following domains:

  • Self – How do I pursue potential in my body/health, my mind, and my spiritual (for the non-religious become a person of character) development?
  • Marriage – As the single most important and intense human relationship – it needs to be fed/watered and pursued
  • Family – This would include children, as well as extended family
  • Work – does my work align with my skills and interests and does my work provide a valuable service to others?
  • Community – This where I include both close-proximity community like friends to my intersection with broader community through things like philanthropy

The actions one pursues in one domain of life have really implications and impacts on the other areas of life that may be of equal or greater levels of importance.  Pursuing excellence in something may requires levels of time or money, that leave a paucity of resources for the pursuit of excellence in another domain.  It will be of exceptional importance to carefully weigh trade-offs then to ensure that resources are being expended correctly.

Notice that for these major categories they are all to some degree about relationships – whether to self or others.  The other can be in close proximity in the case of family, or it can be the recipient of service as a client or customer.

Freud highlighted that love and work are the two paramount dimensions of life.  The late Clayton Christensen, a Harvard professor and thinker par excellence, phrased it this way, “When people who have a high need for achievement…have an extra half hour of time or an extra ounce of energy, they’ll unconsciously allocate it to activities that yield the most tangible accomplishments. And our careers provide the most concrete evidence that we’re moving forward… In contrast, investing time and energy in your relationship with your spouse and children typically doesn’t offer that same immediate sense of achievement.”

Knowing that there is an immediacy bias to pursuing success in certain domains of life means we must work extra hard to not short chains domains that operate on a different success wavelength.  A key dimension then in the pursuit of excellence then is knowing what areas of life are drains on time / energy / resources that limit your ability to pursue the things that matter.  Carefully putting boundaries on these sorts of blackholes can help free you up to purse the things you care most deeply about.

Excellence then must be considered.  While there is a sense of forward movement and pursuit, it must also include the conscious awareness of its limits and the selective choice where good enough is just that.


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Nashville, TN