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Touching Excellence?

“In the absence of continual external reinforcement, we must be our own monitor, and quality of presence is often the best gauge. We cannot expect to touch excellence if “going through the motions” is the norm of our lives. On the other hand, if deep, fluid presence becomes second nature, then life, art, and learning take on a richness that will continually surprise and delight. Those who excel are those who maximize each moment’s creative potential—for these masters of living, presence to the day-to-day learning process is akin to that purity of focus others dream of achieving in rare climactic moments when everything is on the line… The secret is that everything is always on the line.” – Josh Waitzkin, The Art Of Learning

I’m writing in the usual chair, with the cup of hot coffee well on its way down, with the cat over the shoulder in her usual way (excited tail swatting equals prey she’d burst through glass to catch) and I’ve run through the usual habit loop to get here. Routine is an essential part of productivity – no secret there – and the way you approach that routine matters as much as the routine itself – again, nothing revolutionary in that statement. So, knowing this, why don’t we all regularly touch excellence?

I keep coming back to that Warren Buffett 5/25 strategy, and shake my head at the 25 things I’m currently doing. Working, writing, parenting and husband, home renovation projects (excellent timing on those), learning a language, trying to stay fit, and on and on. Josh Waitzkin wrote about touching excellence having focused completely on first chess and then Tai Chi. That’s a perfect strategy for touching excellence or achieving mastery at anything. Give up everything else in your life in pursuit of the one thing. And that’s why only a small percentage of people do it.

It turns out sucking the marrow out of life requires a lot of work. Always “on” kind of work. You end up saying no to a lot of things you’d prefer to say yes to in that pursuit of excellence. So maybe pursuing pretty good will do? Personally, my priority list has shifted with the pandemic. I must complete the home renovations, I must keep my career objectives on track, and I must stay healthy. Everything else, including really important things (to me) like writing, learning a language and certainly travel have shifted into maintenance mode. Finish the home renovations and free up head space for one of those other 20 things. Simple, right?

It really has to be that simple. I’m just not that good a juggler. Waitzkin’s perspective that “those who excel are those who maximize each moment’s creative potential” is certainly true, but it’s fair to also ask, what am I trying to excel in, and at what cost? The answer changes over time. Waitzkin wasn’t a National Chess Master while renovating a bathroom and balancing a career and family. I respect and am often awed at excellence, I just don’t find it a practical pursuit in my current situation. I’ll take excellence in balance, great at one or two other things and incremental improvement at the rest, thank you. Over time, maybe I’ll create an excellent body of work I can look back on (that’s surely a worthy goal), and celebrate the not-so-excellent-but-pretty-damned-good in my life too. Hopefully I’ll have that bathroom renovation project done first.

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