What is excellence?

Excellence – the quality of excelling, of being truly the best at something.

It is so subjective isn’t it?  And unless measured against quantifiable attributes one person’s excellent is another person’s version of mediocrity.   Excellence is the quality of excelling, of being truly the best at something. I would also question whether one’s perception of excellence is also closely related to one’s state of mind – are you more likely to view things as excellent if you are of a positive disposition? 

I will profess to being somewhat of a foodie and have experienced, and thoroughly enjoyed, some remarkable food.  The pinnacle possibly being at a rather famous Michelin restaurant in Oxfordshire.  What made this meal worthy of those coveted stars?   Was the whole meal stellar?  And if it was eaten at a small town café, would it have tasted so good?   Is part of the gastronomic perfection down to location, experience and the perception and anticipation of what is to come?   Those Michelin stars signposting and guiding my experience. The setting, the service, the knowledge of the food and wine, the fact that nothing was too much trouble and that my needs were second guessed … all made this a truly remarkable event.  I was made to feel special as if I, and my companion, were the only people who mattered. My abiding memory of the food was not the incredible duck breast with pureed almonds and a cherry gel – though that comes a very close second, but the bread! Humble fayre elevated to a level of true excellence. The recipe refined, and further refined.  But, would the bread have been as tasty if it had been a loaf at home?

I have also eaten, what I thought to be at the time, the best fish and chips in the world! Haddock cooked to perfection – snow white flakes in a crisp bubbly batter with fat chips at just the right level of sogginess.  Eaten with greasy fingers, out of the paper, on a slightly windswept day with seagulls circling in a way that threatened theft.  My mum, my dad, my daughter and I all sat, side by side, on a wooden bench on the promenade at Filey*.   This was every bit as excellent as my Michelin meal. (*Filey is a seaside town in North Yorkshire located between Scarborough and Bridlington).  The best salted-caramel ice-cream, incidentally, was in a similar scenario, looking out to sea, watching the boats, sunshine bearing down and good company – utter contentment.

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In the instances above I suspect context and state of mind had a great deal to play in my perceived judgement, and although these experiences were poles apart, each have a very special place in my heart and each were, indeed, excellent. I know some of you reading this will be thinking how can I even compare Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons with a humble chippy and an ice-cream kiosk in Leigh-on-Sea, but I can because this is all about the subjectivity of perceived excellence.

So, what is excellence?  It is the quality of being outstanding or extremely good, perhaps even the very best – is there anything better than excellence?   When I think on it, I simply come up with synonyms: outstanding, stellar, exemplar, superb, exquisite, exceptional, admirable. All similarly unquantifiable.

Subjective it may be, but achieving excellence is never easy to do.  It takes hard work and dedication, a belief and a determination to do, or to be, the very best.  I remember being a teenager and told at school that I would never amount to much because I “settled for mediocrity”.  Those were harsh words but they resonated, and when the sting of them had settled, I reflected that they were probably true, but there was no intrinsic motivation there to be any better. Though I would say, with a soupçon of arrogance, that my mediocre was better than some people’s excellence. – but well below par when compared to some of my truly exceptional peers! And therein lays another issue with this subjective term.  Excellence, it would appear, needs to considered on a very individual basis.

People really do value and appreciate excellence because it is so hard to find.  As a matter of course, prior to purchasing, we seek out evidence of excellence through reviews of products and services and hope that the trend of stars will be a true reflection of said product.   There is the hope that the excellent ratings are not simply people “jumping on a band-wagon” and following, sheep-like, a trend.  Just because something is popular does not make it excellent – perhaps it just has outstanding marketing! Remember the saying that the grass is not always greener on the other side, let’s now add to if that , if it is it could be artificial! So now we have perception of excellence being based on set criteria, personal perception and whatever idea we have been sold!

But excellence can also be quantifiable, measured against set criteria. I know that our own “Excellent” Inspection report will be read by current and prospective parents seeking affirmation that my school really is excellent, as judged by an independent body.  The pride of my staff, parents and me for attaining this excellent rating is huge, it is a great achievement and it required vision and determination.  It needed every member of the team to be pulling the same way and for everyone to believe in the excellence of the school and its outcomes for the pupils.    I believe that my staff do this every day, regardless of inspectors looming in the background.  That intrinsic motivation to be excellent is here in spades, no one here settles for mediocre. This positive mindset, as well as individual and group efficacy, leads to a CAN DO/WILL DO approach that transcends to the pupils.

I think that it is clear that excellence is rarely gained by a single action but rather through a succession of positive attitudes and actions, it comes from vision and purpose; it flows from consistent performance over time; it results from continuous reflection and refinement.  It doesn’t happen by accident.   

However, I do believe that one’s perception of excellence is very much centred upon having a positive mindset, some people will always find the negative, while others very much look for the positive relishing in the excellence around them.   Personally, I like to find and celebrate excellence wherever it may be.

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

Published by headshipjourney

A teacher of thirty years, and mother of twenty seven years, I think I've learned a great deal - about children, about teaching and learning and about myself. We never stop learning and we should never be afraid to ponder new ideas, to roll thoughts around in our minds, to voice our opinions and have healthy debate. We should never have the arrogance to believe that we know it all but we should remain open minded ready to receive inspiration from those around us. And for me that inspiration comes from my own children, the children in my schools, parents and my wonderful team. I firmly believe that I am a privileged soul to be in the role that I am and I embrace every day and the challenge and joy that it will bring.

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