What is excellence? For some reason, I’ve been pondering this question lately. I checked Webster’s, and found that excellence is the “quality of being excellent”. Wow – that’s disappointing. I think most of us have a sense of excellence, and maybe that’s the point. For me, excellence is a knowing more than anything else. I know it when I see (feel) it. I have observed what I have perceived as excellence a few times in my life. Because I was the observer, this also makes me wonder whether it is harder to perceive excellence if you’re actually in the middle of it rather than in a position of observation. Let me explain. One of my perceptions of excellence came through observation of a band that my son participated in at a preparatory school in Omaha. Every aspect of the performance was considered, from how they entered the room with precision, sitting down at the exact same time, and then proceeding to play wonderfully. This example of excellence was due, in small part to the reputation of the school, and in large part to their terrific band director. A second example comes from Interlochen Arts Academy, which is a boarding school for fine arts in upper Michigan that also provides camps over the summer. Because my son attended Interlochen his senior year, and my daughter attended a camp there last summer, I have visited several times. Interlochen is a very special place that also emanates excellence, from the performances, to the teachers, to the classes, to the guest artists. I think the only place they miss the mark is the cafeteria, but maybe those are only great in cooking schools. Interlochen is a place that takes kids of mixed abilities and turns them into self confident artists, writers, and musicians who leave with a belief in their abilities as an artist and as a person ready for their next stage in life. The fact that many graduates return to Interlochen to work during the summer makes me think that that the students feel the excellence of this special place as well.
Have I ever experienced excellence? I trained as a fellow in transplantation at the University of Minnesota during its peak, and worked with many truly great surgeons and founders of transplantation. I look back at that period fondly, but at the time I was mostly stressed and tired. I think it is not uncommon to realize “after the fact” the excellence of a program or specific teacher. For more on this, I recommend the book “Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations” by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, these authors spoke at Interlochen.
What is the common ground between these examples that gives me this perception of excellence? I think in large part it is the gift of high expectations. Expecting great things from students tends to yield great things, and not expecting great things will yield less than great, or even worse mediocre. Of course, we all need a kick in the gluteus maximus sometimes to make this happen. The trick for those doing the kicking - coaches, band directors, business leaders, principal investigators, parents, etc is when and how hard to kick – to motivate and push without creating resentment, discouragement, or self doubt in the receiver; to help them see the greatness in themselves that they can’t yet see. I guess this is the gift of those that create excellence, and something I am certainly trying to develop as a parent, lab leader, and physician. What is the result? Huggy Rao, Profesor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources at Stanford, says that excellence is “when people do the right thing, even when no one is watching.” As a PI, business leader, teacher, and especially as a parent, what could be better?
For more information see:
Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky (available at Amazon or your favorite bookseller)
Scaling up Excellence: Huggy Rao at Tedx University of Nevada.