Vital Signs

In Praise of Inexcellence

"If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly," said G.K. Chesterton.

All that talk about being the best is Olympic fever, ad hype. If everyone were the best, where would the rest of us be? In sports this is obvious. Perhaps not so much so in advanced nuclear physics. The guy next to me in the pool can swim as he pleases. If he's flying the plane, OK, he better be good. But even in areas where we have a right to expect expertise, we should regard the top as more of a plateau than a peak. After all, there's the copilot. He could be flying the plane. A suitable proficiency, then, in those areas. But for the others, cool your buns.

Take marriage, for instance. I had a friend in school who was perfect at everything. He took all the prizes at graduation. He got married, and then he got divorced. I asked him what the problem was. "It was a C- affair," he said. What I thought later and wished I'd said was, "But that's passing!"

Settling for a C- is important if you're, say, studying an instrument. I took lessons on the cello for several years and got far enough to enjoy scraping out Eine Kleine Nacht with some other hackers. Then one summer a pro got hold of me and said, in effect, do you want to slop along like this or study eight hours a day with me and perhaps become good? "Slop along," I said, after hardly any thought. I'm not arguing...

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