Reaching for Excellence in a Short Life

Life is the daily march towards excellence or oblivion. We make of it what we will, but we all have our role to play in the dance. Isn’t it better to get out on the floor and do your bit, however awkward it might feel at times? That bit, done consistently, defines what our mark on the world might be.

I saw a funny graph recently that sums up perfectly the act of incrementally building something meaningful, with no tangible signs of progress:

Source: @jackbutcher

It reminded me of a Latin phrase I’d saved as a reminder to myself to do what I can in the time I have: Ars longa, vita brevis (“art takes time and life is short”). For this is the cadence of mastery on display. We grind along in our chosen work, building consistently towards–should we be so bold as to dream it–excellence. And what external signs do we see but polite encouragement from friends and family and quiet indifference from the universe?

“We must always seek, always endeavor. Nature makes the wilderness flower anew, the star to shine, the water to flow down slopes, round obstacles, into empty places, dreaming of the sea that waits it yonder, and which it may at last reach.” – A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life

But what do we seek? Attention? Profit? Mastery itself? The answer is different for everyone, but I think the answer lies in perfecting the craft to the best of our ability in the short time we have in each day, and by extension, in our brief lives. This incremental ascent to better is our mission, and if we’re lucky maybe something comes of it in the end. But the magic is in the daily attempt to reach levels previously unimaginable while plodding along in the valley of “this is pointless”. Most people just move on to less frustrating pursuits. But excellence demands consistent attention.

“Because we think well of ourselves, but nonetheless never suppose ourselves capable of producing a painting like one of Raphael’s or a dramatic scene like one of Shakespeare’s, we convince ourselves that the capacity to do so is quite extraordinarily marvelous, a wholly uncommon accident, or, if we are still religiously inclined, a mercy from on high. Thus our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of the genius: for only if we think of him as being very remote from us, as a miraculum, does he not aggrieve us…. But, aside from these suggestions of our vanity, the activity of the genius seems in no way fundamentally different from the activity of the inventor of machines, the scholar of astronomy or history, the master of tactics. All these activities are explicable if one pictures to oneself people whose thinking is active in one direction, who employ everything as material, who always zealously observe their own inner life and that of others, who perceive everywhere models and incentives, who never tire of combining together the means available to them. Genius too does nothing but learn first how to lay bricks then how to build, and continually seek for material and continually form itself around it. Every activity of man is amazingly complicated, not only that of the genius: but none is a ‘miracle.’” — Friedrich Nietzsche

That’s a long quote, borrowed in its entirety from Robert Greene’s book Mastery. Maybe it’s too long to quote in a relatively short blog post, but I like to break a few rules of SEO order along the way. This blog, for all I put into it daily, is a small but important part of the life I’ve built for myself, and an indicator to those who might pay attention of the incremental progress I make towards become a better human. As another year draws to a close, I think about the progress I’ve made, see the long climb ahead of me, and hope I’m given the time to reach my own personal summit. Excellence? Mastery? No… not yet, but maybe a small step closer.

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