President’s Charge to the Class: The Value of Excellence
Excellence is a college core value. Excellence means we are committed to setting high standards of academic rigor in courses and creating high expectations for achievement by everyone. Standards, rigor, expectations, achievement, everyone. This is what it says. This is what our core value says.
There is no conflict between excellence and the Quaker testimony of equality. Equality is a God-given right that levels the playing field for anyone who strives to be excellent.
The twin beacons of excellence are action and attitude. Excellence is how you behave and what you feel.
Excellence leaves fingerprints everywhere it touches. Excellence propelled you to graduate this morning. This is the day the Lord has made and it is marvelous in our eyes.
But what matters most is not this remarkable moment but whether you sustain excellence over millions of moments, maintain the utmost levels of creativity, and continually test yourself against long odds in challenging circumstances.
Only excellence and courage will fix the economy and a $1.6 trillion federal budget deficit. It’s tough to grasp a number that big. Bill Maher suggests that you take the true market value of your home today and add a trillion-six. I suggest noting that a trillion-six stack of $100 bills would be 1,000 miles high. Only excellence will overcome the scourges of poverty, ignorance, and prejudice and stop aggressive war, environmental catastrophe, and the politics of division and discord. Excellence is not a graceful ornament to civilization.
How do we become excellent? Set great goals, work hard, work smart, and learn from experience.
First, aim high. Take every job intending to become the CEO. Raise your children as potential Rhodes Scholars and Nobel Laureates. Major League Baseball’s Keith Hernandez has won every batting and fielding award there is but his biggest fear is looking back in retirement and thinking, “I could have done more.”
Aim high. You will soar into the heavens and, like Tolkien’s Great Eagles, see far. Julia Ward Howe reminds us “to him who presses on, at each degree, new visions rise beyond the dim unseen.”
Second, work hard. Hard work never killed anybody, but life’s losers figure why take the chance. Excellence is more than just winning and losing. Excellence is about the journey as well as the destination.
Doing your best and giving it all you’ve got is the essence of excellence whether you finish first or last. Play every game, sing every song, and live every day like it’s your last. Movie mogul Sam Goldwyn observed that the harder he worked the luckier he got. He might have added the more successful too.
Put in the time. Crowd the hours. Work that needs doing cannot be neatly boxed into an eight-hour day with lunch breaks, web surfing and daydreaming. Someone once joked that government bureaucrats never look out their office windows in the morning in order to save something to do in the afternoon.
Third, work smart. Focus your mind. Excellence is not achieved in 15-second bursts, interrupted by instant messages, Facebook friends, or Twitter tweets, or messing around with your iPod, iPad or iPhone in manic multi-tasking. You want focus? Detox digitally.
Finish what you start. It’s as easy for adults to be sidetracked by new adventures as it is for children to be distracted by shiny objects. Saying is not doing. T.S. Eliot wrote that “Between the idea and the reality. Between the motion and the act. Falls the Shadow.” An Olympic long distance runner from Kenya doggedly ran through an injury, crossing the finish line 45 minutes behind the race’s victor. The athlete commented later, “My country did not send me here to start the race. They sent me here to finish it.”
Fourth, learn from your mistakes and your successes. They can be great teachers. Excellence is not one uninterrupted victory lap. Never make excuses. Disraeli advised prime ministers to never complain and never explain. But shun vaulting narcissism. Unlike TV’s Dr. House, when someone says to him, “Good job,” he thinks, “Wasted words.” Unlike Oscar Wilde when asked after the dismal opening performance of his latest play, “How did it go tonight, Oscar?” “Oh,” said Wilde, “the play was a great success. The audience was a failure.”
Seek out the truth even if it hurts. Do not let the obnoxiousness of the messenger divert you from the message; listen to truth from anyone. Have the courage to speak that same truth to power. A heckler once interrupted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in the middle of a speech denouncing the crimes of Stalin. “You were a colleague of Stalin,” the heckler yelled, “why didn’t you stop him then?” Khrushchev glared and barked out, “Who said that?” No hand went up. No one said anything. No one moved. After a few tense moments, Khrushchev said quietly, “Now you know why I did not stop him.”
Being excellent often requires us to have colleagues whose strengths compensate for our weaknesses. If you are disorganized, gravitate to people who are methodical. If you cannot say no, befriend someone who can.
Concerned about his lack of culture and education, Napoleon kept Talleyrand around as French foreign minister for his graciousness, charm, and wit. This same Talleyrand once characterized America as a country with thirty-two religions and only one sauce. Such powerful pairings of opposites range from the politics of Kennedy and Johnson and Obama and Biden to the dramatis personae of Felicia and Bernadette in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”
In sum, it has been said that excellence can be won if you care more than others think is wise, risk more than others think is safe, dream more than others think is practical, and expect more than others think is possible.
Guilfordians do not blow our own horns often or loudly enough about how excellent we are. Maybe it’s academic shyness or Quaker humility. But I hope the Class of 2011 knows that you have earned the right to brag a little. You are the change this nation needs. You will make the world a better and gentler place. You will never underestimate the power of the Dark Side because the Force is with you.
Be good, do well, and be so excellent, as Bunyan said in Pilgrims Progress, that when you pass over at life’s sunset, all the trumpets will sound for you on the other side. I have been honored to be your full-time president and part time professor on this part of your flight to greatness and glory. Thank you.