Posted by: gcarkner | January 21, 2022

Can Excellence Hurt Us?

High performance, excellence, superior effort: Who would argue against that? Matthew Crawford, senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s  Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, detects a flaw in the quest for excellence. He has some vital insights on a current dilemma facing students and faculty. In his brilliant 2015 book, The World Outside Your Head: on becoming an individual in an age of distraction, he suggests that our quest for radical individualism and autonomy is leading us into a unhealthy moral autism. We are actually losing our agency, our precious moral skill. Matthew calls this the ‘cult of sincerity’, i.e., that you yourself can be the source of the norms by which you justify yourself. This is a radical responsibility for which we may not really be prepared. It offers too much self-sovereignty of the wrong kind. He notes that we actually need others (friends, family, colleagues) to check our own self-understanding–through triangulation–to tell us we are doing okay, that we are good or excellent (or sometimes not up to our best effort, silly or downright irresponsible). How else do we avoid the narcissistic assumption that we are the centre of the universe, that we can do no wrong.

One thing that sets us apart as humans is our desire to justify ourselves; we never act without moral implications, says Crawford. We are the moral animals all the way down.. That might come as a shock. We all need a web of people that we respect to which we feel accountable. And we need a healthy set of norms to guide relationships and mutual expectations, in order to build trust in an uncertain world. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor agrees (Sources of the Self) that morality requires an understanding of how certain goods operate within our psyche and within a community. See the series Qualities of the Will in this blog. Crawford appreciates Iris Murdoch, who was a mentor to Taylor during his PhD work in Oxford. Murdoch believed in the recovery of the ancient language of the good, in certain ideals that transcend human desires and decisions.

Ay, There’s the Rub Matthew Crawford notes that in times of cultural flux, where it is unclear what the rules or norms are in the greater society, it is quite difficult for us to understand ourselves socially. We feel isolated, disempowered, uncertain, afraid to make moral judgments. This leads to an existential problem, an angst. As a result, we become victims of the values of the marketplace–productivity, performance, usefulness, cash-out value. The marketplace was never meant to set the standards of human relations, moral identity or integrity, but today our consumerism/capitalism ideology is quite strong. This culture is performance all the way down. Psychologist Alain Ehrenburg (Weariness of the Self), notes that this is leading to epidemic levels of depression in our current culture of performance. Enough is never enough; there is always more that we could do to pursue excellence, to please our supervisors. We are never good enough on these terms and conditions. What started out as an inspiring motivator (high quality work) has morphed into a kind of slavery. 

Ehrenburg writes:

Depression presents itself as an illness of responsibility in which the dominant feeling is that of failure. The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself. In a culture of performance, the person reads the value and status of her soul in her worldly accomplishments.

Today, we are suffering chronic stress about not doing enough, spending enough of ourselves, enough hours in the lab or library, not having a strong enough resumé. IT workers are constantly on the prowl of the internet in their off hours to keep up with the latest technology, so that new college grads don’t replace them in their jobs. The calculus of excellence often means for us that we feel that we have to hit a home run every time we are up to bat. We are always faced with the raw issue of our capacity to make things happen, leading to this new pathology of weariness. We are taught in graduate school either covertly or overtly, Be Exceptional! The weariness of having to become one’s fullest self is leading to new levels of depression, and personal breakdown. Workaholism naturally kicks in. On top of this, it is difficult to mitigate this depression level of stress and anxiety in an age of high performance, because weariness calculates as weakness. Guilt and shame kick in (Brené Brown).

Who wants to appear weak in a competitive marketplace of jobs and accomplishment? We are taught to make ourselves irreplaceable to our employers. How do you tell your supervisor that you are weary and need a stress leave? Thus, we turn to self-medication quick fixes, stimulants like Prozac or Adderall (an amphetamine) to keep us at the top of our game, high-performing. There is an epidemic in the usage of such substances among university students (engineers?) and also young faculty seeking tenure in high-performance universities. Many students that we have dialogue with strongly affirm this concern. But have we been sold a lie? Is excellence really a code word for workaholism and inevitable exhaustion and burnout, broken marriages and addictions? Where is the wisdom in that pursuit?

While we seek liberation through this glorious autonomy of the self, we are discovering that it can be a very serious kind of slavery. And we are desperately, painfully lonely. It is a Venus flytrap phenomenon. Has modernity and the Technological Society turned on us? Paul in the Book of Ephesians believes that Christ can give us some reprieve and perspective on this modern dilemma. But we will have to rethink reality, rethink where we place our identity and our understanding of success and excellence. Ephesians 4 gives an alternative paradigm of community and one-anotherness. The irony is that as we pursue excellence for the sake of love or appreciation (recognition, academic glory), but we often don’t get it in the end. We need a better place to locate our identity. We get disappointment, despair, and even jealousy from our peers.

 ~Gordon Carkner PhD, Philosophy of Culture, Meta-Educator with UBC Graduate Students David Crowder, Come As You Are


Tough Questions:

1. How do we set boundaries on our work in such a cultural climate?

2. At what point does building our resumé become idolatry or enslavement?

3. Are we building significant, accountable relationships in grad school?

4. What are the virtues, character, values, principles, moral goods  that are worth fighting for? See David Brooks, The Road to Character.

5. How do we find spaces for reflection, deciding on big issues like calling and covenant?

6. Where is our community outside of work? When do we play? How do we escape self-absorption?

7. How does emotional intelligence apply to the current dilemma of workaholism and weariness?

8. We take time out to update our computer software. When do we take time out to update our soul?

9. How can professors aim for something less than excellence when we see our students striving to keep up with the literature, the laboratory production, the peer-reviewed paper writing alongside their personal, church and family relationships? They need encouragement as people.

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