Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way.
– Booker T. Washington
The pursuit of ‘excellence’ started out as a faint nagging at the back of my head when I was still a kid. Magnified by the constant urging from my parents and teachers, the voice in my mind telling me to keep trying harder grew louder over the years. As I moved into high school and college, I felt increasingly compelled to push myself to the limits, and fell into a blue funk whenever I fell behind my peers.
Recently, I’ve started to wonder: Have I let this pursuit of excellence become an endless and pointless one?
This thought first surfaced a few months ago when I was chest-deep in a pile of school commitments. I was drowning, having to juggle both the former and a part-time job. Yet, I chose to give my all for each and every task I had on my plate without prioritising. What else do you do when you’ve spent more than half your life in an education system that primes you for EXCELLENCE? No sleep, no family time, nothing but COMMITMENT from me!
Every day felt like a fever dream. I was trudging through a swamp of deep unhappiness – as long as the next thing I did for the sake of it produced results. It finally dawned on me that I was neither understanding nor enjoying the processes of things I was doing.
The secret of joy in work is contained in one word ― excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it.
– Pearl S. Buck
I had foolishly allowed the shine of excellence to blind me to its true meaning.
In Singapore, we believe in the idea of meritocracy — that rewards should be earned based on one’s own efforts. The widespread assumption is that one needs to ‘excel’ in order to climb this invisible meritocratic ladder… but excel how? After all, the pursuit of excellence is a lot more than just attainment of results – it is fundamentally about understanding and enjoying the process, freeing up the mind and spirit to want to learn and improve. Pain and gain should come hand in hand on the path to self-improvement, yet we constantly treat the latter as a peripheral concept… to our own detriment.
I made a promise to myself to change my outlook on excellence. No more being trapped in an endless, and ultimately fruitless pursuit – no more bringing misery upon myself. My pursuit of excellence shall be a joyful one. I have committed to unpacking the purpose of the things I do, instead of going through the motions without meaning. I trust that things will gradually fall into place as I navigate these familiar waters with a new boat.
I’ve made an attempt to change, and that’s enough for now.