Why do we want to be better?

April 5, 2022

Excellence is tangible

We all know excellence when we see it. As a business traveller, I can spot it a mile off and I will give credit to a company like Emirates. I can only describe their offering as excellent. If you are a first class traveller, (I was upgraded once!)  they go the extra mile to iron out all the minor snags and frustrations. Nothing is too much trouble for the kindly staff who are at your beck and call. There is a price for this level of service, of course.

Now, contrast this with a bad budget airline. One might think their customers are an inconvenience. They treat us like cattle. The service is surly and if you haven’t followed the rules, you might not get on the plane or face a stiff financial penalty. Didn’t print your own ticket? Hand luggage too heavy? You get the picture.

Orchestrated effort of thought and action

Quality and near perfection are not an accident. It requires gargantuan efforts daily to keep the system running just as it should. They build capacity in, to ensure that the customer barely recognises the odd skipped heart beat. I’m in awe of organisations that do things well. Usually, it is down to a happy blend of good philosophy, wise leadership, responsive systems, and a motivated team.

Missing the target, hurts

Like the best organisations, we should strive for excellence in our own lives.. but if you are anything like me, you know what great looks like, but you cannot deliver it daily. There is an ‘old-fashioned’ word for this. Sin. Harmartia in the original Greek - to fall short. I often think of it as an old English longbow archer taking aim at his target and, at the last minute, being distracted, he fluffs his shot, and the arrow falls short. That archer will walk away irked at himself, knowing that he had the wherewithal to strike at the heart of the target, but he missed. What a disappointment. So while sin, more fully understood as a transgression against God’s holiness, it also speaks to our failures in life; moral and spiritual. The trouble is that sin is contagious, and it plants roots like Japanese knotweed and soon renders the territory which we are trying to cultivate unproductive. On a spiritual level, there is only one solution - Jesus. We need to reorient our lives in a different direction.

Our rebellious hearts force us to deny the immutable eternal principles which our forefathers learned to be true. Examples being: There is a seed time before harvest, the importance of sacrificing something today for the benefit of tomorrow. All debts must be paid and you must maintain the physical and metaphorical walls in your life. We think the rules don’t apply to us. We are too civilised, too modern, too advanced and the best one. My favourite “It’s different this time.”

No, it is not different this time. Because while the system can be set up perfectly, we humans err. We are incapable of doing what we say we will consistently. We become jealous, bored, angry, and resentful. Dostoevsky, in his book Notes from the Underground, explains it well:

Underground man drops some truth bombs

“ Shower him with all earthly blessings, drown him in happiness completely, over his head, so that only bubbles pop up on the surface of happiness, as on water; give him such economic satisfaction that he no longer has anything left to do at all except sleep, eat gingerbread, and worry about the non-cessation of world history — and it is here, just here, that he, this man, out of sheer ingratitude, out of sheer lampoonery, will do something nasty.

He will even risk his gingerbread, and wish on purpose for the most pernicious nonsense, the most non-economical meaninglessness, solely in order to mix into all this positive good sense his own pernicious fantastical element.”

Paradise lost

We are incapable of living that life of excellence, of living according to principle and trusting God. The story of the Garden of Eden - encapsulates it all. Adam and Eve thought they knew better.. They only had one rule to follow - yet inquisitiveness, lack of trust and moral courage sank them. They had everything, still they lit the touch-paper just to see what would happen. While some dispute this story - it explains exquisitely our human condition. The created order, perfection, connection with God and abundance to suddenly being cast out into a dark, absurd world of which it was impossible to make sense. The tragedy, the divine justice, and the pain of loss is woven into our DNA. Our bodies ache and groan at the knowledge there was once something better - and we blew it.

The story of Adam and Eve exquisitely explains our human condition. The created order, perfection, connection with God and abundance to suddenly being cast out into a dark, absurd world of which it was impossible to make sense. The tragedy, the divine justice, and the pain of loss is woven into our DNA. Our bodies ache and groan at the knowledge there was once something better - and we blew it.

Chosing your existential poison

Camus in the Myth of Sisyphus suggests we stick our two fingers up to the situation we find ourselves in and seek freedom from the absurd by living a life of revolt and passion.. I’m more aligned with Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky. Life is absurd, but I’m pushed towards faith because there is a creator’s fingerprints on everything I see. There is right and wrong, justice and injustice. There is excellence and imperfection. I’m especially drawn to the latter.

I know my flaws so well, I can tell you already how I will miss the mark. How if I cannot constrain evil that lurks in the corner of my heart, it will cause enormous grief and damage to those I love. I have made Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith”. Far from being the easy option, it has its costs. I walk this fine line between faith and works. I do the work because it is my duty. I must bring my ‘A game’, but even my best work will never save me. Only faith can do this.

Giving our best requires effort in certain areas

The call for excellence, for higher standards, echoes inside each of us. We cannot leave the delivery of this excellence to chance. It requires thought, planning, graft and maintenance. We have each been gifted specialisms, areas which fall inside our locus of control and influence. This is the sweet spot. There is no point in me trying to be a spreadsheet maestro in my day job. I do know enough to get by, but my work and effort should be on what I do best. For me, this is in communicating ideas and building relationships. That you are reading this now - is my attempt at excellence. I’m trying to use the best words to make this post rewarding. Daily, I want the best of me to shine forth for God’s glory and I hope and pray that he will deliver me from all that misses the mark and disappoints Him.

Be faithful, where you are called

In doing this work, there is always a hope in the back of your mind that it will be noticed and read but I’m fearful to be magnified in any way - as I know if was examined under a microscope, I would be a hideous specimen.However, In this writing, I’m trying to be faithful to what I believe are my strengths and I want to encourage you to let the very essence of yourself percolate through in those areas where you excel. Hold nothing back. Strive to be ‘pitch perfect’ where you are most gifted.

Motorcycle philosophy again! (Parting shot)

I once asked a friend who had an immaculate motorcycle how he kept it so clean. His dry response was. “I wash it a lot” - but there is a genius in this. Even if he misses an area on one wash, he will deal with it on the next wash. By continually being in action, doing the next right thing and reflecting on how you can improve, you will make increasing progress.

That is all excellence is - continual improvement and the maintenance of standards. It is not an end but the by-product of a focused life, well lived.