It was a short conversation about the Olympics, punctuated by many “how-do-they-do-that”s and “all-those-hours”es. At the end, my friend added the interesting footnote: “I wonder what it would be like to be an athlete at the Olympics, surrounded by people who are excellent.” Then, calmly, “But, I guess we always are.”
In one way, I hesitate to disagree. Everyone has some exceptional talent or gift. There are people who can start playing a musical instruments without lessons, folks that can learn a foreign language in a month, women who can explain complex ideas to anyone, men who can instantly deliver just the right question at just the right moment. At all times, a person is surrounded by extraordinary people. I’m Chestertonian enough to be excited by the world hidden in plain view.
But, Michael Phelps trains six hours a day, six days a week. On Christmas: six hours of swimming. Behind an Olympian’s excellence in fencing, gymnastics, cycling are unfathomable self-discipline, dedication, determination.
People with abilities in music, language, teaching, writing – what is extraordinary about them is their natural proclivity. But, what makes people excellent is the doggedly executed decision to practice, study, work, and strive, not because they are bad at these things, but because they are good at them. That’s the tricky part. If a student isn’t a “natural” with math, she expects that she must expend effort to learn it. It is easy to reverse this and assume that if the basics of chemistry come naturally, it won’t take effort to master. But, excellence isn’t won that way.
So, perhaps we aren’t always surrounded by excellent people. As someone quite jolly about the human race, it pains me to suggest that. In recompense, I’ll add that there isn’t a single human being who is not an extraordinary creature, fearfully and wonderfully made. But not all of those extraordinary people hone their craft, dig their heels deep, train and focus and become excellent.
There are valid reasons not to develop one talent or another. Someone may need to choose between spending enough time with his family and mastering the piano. Someone may have a variety of talents and there simply isn’t time hone them all. There are always reasons not to become excellent at any one thing, but I’m not sure there’s ever a reason not to be excellent at something. After all, the man who chooses his family over developing an artistic skill can be an excellent father.
But, there are also invalid reasons for neglecting a talent. Laziness, fear, pride, distraction. There are some activities that just cannot create excellence; if I let myself, I will watch TV six hours a day, and be excellent at nothing. And, I’m not alone. Which is why excellence – in this sense – is not all around us.