Must we strive for excellence in everything we do? Is there a downside to the message our kids receive that they should always do their best? At a congregational retreat last fall, I found myself immersed in a thoughtful conversation with some parents of teenagers about the pressure on young people to do everything well. The dominant culture message—reinforced by schools, families, media, and nearly every organized activity—is that one may never rest in the quest for excellence. Success is doing your best at math, piano, soccer, history, and tasks assigned by your boss (or parent).
Parents seeking to guide their youth are themselves trapped in a dominant culture that fawns over the moral superiority of those who overcome obstacles to achieve success and recognition. Graduation and milestone ceremonies, while offering obligatory words about being “good” people, celebrate and honor achievement and excellence. While each of us can clearly distinguish between being “good” and being accomplished, our society tends to conflate happiness with success and achievement.
But where does that leave a person who isn’t particularly interested in doing their best in math or science or history? who likes to play field hockey but is happy not being a star? who holds a job not because it is a calling that enables them to make a mark on the world but rather because it provides funds to pay the bills? What about those who like to play guitar or write poetry or dance salsa not to achieve perfection but for the joy of engaging? For many of us, at some time in our lives, our struggle to survive a physical, emotional, cognitive, or social challenge leaves little room for striving for excellence in other areas of life. Many have a compelling interest that is not typically measured in school, well-compensated in the workplace, or even, typically, shared with others.
What if sometimes happiness and fulfillment mean not striving for excellence or mastery?
Our third Unitarian Universalist Principle speaks of “acceptance of one another.”Our Universalist heritage tells us we are loved- and worthy of love, just as we are. We are worthy of acceptance and love no matter what we have and have not achieved, whether or not our paid work helps to change the world, whether or not we always (or ever!) strive for excellence in endeavors that interest us. As UUs, may we be curious about one another’s stories, lives, passions, and commitments. In this season of graduations, milestones, and achievement awards, let us share stories across generations of times when striving for mastery or excellence made you feel more alive and when it has been a burden. Let us share stories about times when enjoyment or engagement was our sole goal. Ask one another, “What makes your heart sing?” and allow space and time to truly listen to the answer.
Read Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D. on "the good-enough mother" in Psychology Today online.
The Tapestry of Faith program The Wi$dom Path offers a Faith in Action activity to reflect for yourself or with a group about the concept of "faithful earning"—that is, focusing one's working life on a search for daily meaning rather than on an accumulation of credentials or monetary earnings.
The UUA guidebook Bridging: A Handbook for Congregations has resources to help you engage young adults in conversation about life issues; make "striving for excellence" a topic. See the Find Out More section on cross-generational conversations.