Ambition, Part Two (Success versus excellence)

You deserve a big hug

One of my fencing coaches told me today, "You're one of the people on the fencing team who deserves a big hug at the end of the season for your hard work."

I appreciated this comment. I appreciated it far more than I expected. What I appreciated was not the implicit compliment (nice as that is), but that someone had noticed the time, effort, and thought I put into the team and into improving my own fencing.

Back to ambition

If you take a look at my recent rambling on ambition, you'll find I think it's up to you to achieve what you want to achieve. You're the only person you'll have to blame if you're not satisfied with how you've lived your life, be it a sport that you'd like to excel at, a dream job you want to have, a novel you plan to write. The only person who can get you the places you want to go is you.

I call this drive and determination to do the work needed to do the things I want to do ambition. A friend of mine, though, noted that "ambition" often has negative connotations. It's associated with evil overlords and corporate weasels. And "work," that's associated with external imposition. It's something to be avoided. This comment made me think: Why do I approach work (and ambition) differently?

Fencing coaches give good advice

The most prominent influencing factor that came to mind was my first fencing coach, George Platt. He was a cheerful, positive man, and he explained the difference between achieving success and achieving excellence to all his fencers. Success, he said, is how good you are in relation to the rest of the world.

Success is job promotions and high salaries and winning medals in competitions. Excellence is how good you are in relation to how good you individually can be. Achieving excellence is being the best you can be, regardless of how good anyone else is. And that should be your goal: being the best you can be. Doing what you enjoy and putting effort into the things that are important to you.

Most of us, we'll never be The Best at anything. The hard part is not letting failure to achieve success dissuade us from continuing to pursue excellence. It's easy to be discouraged. It's easy to fall into the trap of "I work, but no one else does and no one appreciates it, so I'm going to stop." It's easy to lose motivation. So in a world increasingly full of lazy slackers, we need to acknowledge the people who do work hard, no matter what results they garner. That acknowledgment may be exactly what they need to keep going.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010 - tags: advice fencing goals life


  • said: Reply

    I suspect that home-schooling also has something to do with it (especially following a conversation I had with Sonia about experimental school designs).

    Also, despite the fact that each one of us is ultimately responsible for what we do or don’t accomplish, it’s important to acknowledge that *almost* nothing can be accomplished without a vast network of support that starts with the people who produce, pick and ship our food (imagine having to farm while in college! No, really, take a full minute!), picks up with our parents, and rolls on past to the people who created and maintain the industries in which we might want to work, the people whose demand supplies our paychecks, the people who built the machines that get us to work, the people who decide whether or not to hire us (based on whatever criteria they happen to apply that day), and, ULTIMATELY ultimately, on the arbitrary nature of the variables that shape the tiny moments immediately before each one of those people makes any given decision. Without other humans, we could accomplish little but collecting food, and that we did accomplish would have little meaning but survival. Other humans are an inextricable part of the living framework that enables our actions and gives them meaning.

    The proverbial buck stops at each one of us … but it starts far, far away before it ever gets passed in our direction.

    PS: I hope your blog supports my italics.

    • said: Reply

      Homeschooling certainly has something to do with it, I have no doubt.

      Good point: I don’t mean to suggest that a person’s vast network of other human support is not necessary! We all start in different situations, no one will be presented with the same set of opportunities, some people will get by on sheer dumb luck without expending any effort at all, and nothing would get accomplished ever without the rest of the human population helping out. But taking that as a given: If you put the effort in and still fail, that’s one thing. But if you never put in the effort in the first place? That’s your own fault.

  • said: Reply

    I hate the negative connotations that have been attached to ambition such that to say someone is “ambitious” is a thinly-veiled euphemism for “he’s a back-stabbing dickhead who will clamber to the top of the proverbial ladder at any and all costs.” Ambition is a good thing.

    And while I like your logic in your success vs excellence paragraphs, it is sometimes motivating to have external benchmarks. True, having external benchmarks at any point in my education before grade eleven wasn’t all that helpful (most of my peers were slackers and a lot of them weren’t doing so hot on their assignments, but I was a slacker too and I got straight As). But then I went to smart school (aka one of the few high schools in Arkansas with a focus on proving their students with the opportunity to go to college should they choose to do so). At ASMSA, it might have been a little healthier sanity-wise to only base my success/excellence on my own ability and performance and to not compare myself with my peers, but I finally had intellectual peers, and damn it, I was going to use them (that sounds awful, doesn’t it?). Got an A- on that AP Physics C exam? Awesome. Class average was a C? Even better. So-and-so got a regular old A without the minus? God damn it. Must do better. It may not quite parallel the point you were making, but if I hadn’t at least occasionally based my perception of my own success or excellence on that of my peers, I probably would have convinced myself at the end of my junior year that I wasn’t cut out for this shit and gone back to wasting away in public school.

    • said: Reply

      I agree that it can be very useful to have external benchmarks. No arguments there: competition can be a delightful inspiration.

Comments are closed.