“The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.” Confucius
“Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.” Remember that phrase? If you attended a Catholic secondary school or are familiar with the writings of St Ignatius, the translation, “All for the glory of God,” was immediately pulled from your temporal lobes. While the poetry of his enjoinder is beautiful, I come from a marginally religious family and despite my education and exposure, my father’s often operatic demand for personal best, trumped St. Ignatius every time. The message, however, coming as it did from two directions, was internalized and the quest for personal best became part of who I am. I rarely dwell on it these days, but a recent chance encounter set me to thinking about it again.
I walk every day, and on my route I pass a music studio that is usually tightly closed. Yesterday, however, the weather was exceptionally fair and the street facing windows and door had been opened. A child with a bell-clear voice was practicing and his voice was so charming that I stopped to listen. His song was from Les Miserables and much to the irritation of his teacher, he abruptly stopped before he reached the upper registers of the final phrase. “Why?” she asked. He replied, “I don’t have it right.” It would be easy to portray him as a Type-A perfectionist who has been destroyed by his parents, and while you may be right, I think there is more at play here. His teacher backed up a bit, they began again and this time he hit the high-notes that had bothered him. I could almost see the smile on his face when he said, “I did it.” He set a goal and reached it, and while his voice was God given, his self-awareness displayed levels of discernment and determination that no one has given or can ever take from him. His push to get it right was truly an accomplishment.
I’ve come to question the wisdom of the easy praise we shower on our children. I know it’s done out of love and kindness, but I think many of our children have developed an over-valued sense of worth. There is, after all, a difference between writing and writing well, and while we all celebrate those early triumphs, shouldn’t something distinguish a job well-done from one that is merely finished? Are expectations really such a bad thing? We are reaching a point where “Good job, Buddy,” has no meaning because it’s applied to everything, whether it’s deserved or not. I’m not espousing the cause of Tiger Moms, but certainly our children need to know we, parents and society, have expectations of them and that our respect is something that must be earned before it can be given. We’ve become so concerned with the concept of their happiness, that we’ve forgotten it changes from one day to the next. Our children don’t need another app or florescent sneakers, they do need the tools that will allow them to forge their own happiness when we are gone. They need to learn how to prioritize, make decisions and strive for personal best in order for that to happen.
Over time, organized sports have made personal best a metaphor for winning. That limitation is unfortunate because the concept can be applied to all areas of our lives and extends to all of our accomplishments. To achieve personal best, you have to determine what you want and then break its acquisition into attainable segments or stages. Motivation will be required to get there and goal-oriented people know that motivation has three components: activation, persistence and intensity. You have to select and start movement toward your goal and then be prepared to block any obstacles that get in your way. Finally, you have to decide how much effort you are willing to expend in its attainment. Goal oriented behavior is quite specific. I love this quote from Philip Adams. “When people say to me: ‘How do you do so many things?’ I often answer them, without meaning to be cruel: ‘How do you do so little?’ It seems to me that people have vast potential. Most people can do extraordinary things if they have the confidence or take the risks or strive for personal best. Yet most people don’t. They sit in front of the telly and treat life as if it goes on forever.” From my perspective, life is like a game of musical chairs. If you allow obstacles to keep you from your dreams, someone else will take your chair. So, go for it and take your seat at the table. There is a chair waiting for you.