Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Excellence

The question is occasionally asked (such as by Hugh Nibley) where the Mormon excellers are. Where are the Latter-day Saint Nobel winners, the LDS Michaelangelo, the LDS Usain Bolt.....? The concern is then usually expressed that the LDS are too satisfied with kitsch, with mediocrity, etc. The riff then generally abuses some poor popular LDS artist, like Kapp Perry, or Kinkade (who doesn't appear to be LDS but seems to appeal to a lot of members).

I've never enjoyed this motif much. I have a slightly different theory that was well expressed recently by Steve Sailer who was answering a question of Tyler Cowen's: what are the odds that the most talented basketball player is actually playing the sport? Among his response, he writes:
Then there’s the question of whether being a screw-up in most of the rest of your life might be considered a talent. Would Bobby Fischer have been Bobby Fischer if he was good at other things? As an exercise, consider Vladimir Nabokov, who for a number of years was crazy about chess (or at least chess problems). Nabokov had the energy, determination, intelligence, ability to hold many things in his head at once (think of the architecture of Pale Fire), competitive streak, and so forth to be a top chess player. But he had other things to do with his life, such as entomological research and writing great novels. Fischer didn’t.
As I've blogged earlier, the Church puts a lot of emphasis on balance. It has to - living the religion adds a LOT of extra stuff a person's life and if we don't learn how to balance competing demands, we go crazy. And what do Church authorities say? "No other success can compensate for failure in the home" and "The most important work you do will be within the walls of your own home" are some of the better-known quotes. Pres. Hinckley reminded folks that this is not an excuse to short-change your employer, but that the long-run priority of responsibility is 1) family; 2) work; 3) church; 4) self.

To be Bobby Fischer or Michaelangelo or any of a number of other truly outstanding people in their fields requires sacrifices in the other areas of a person's life. With the lack of balance and the excessive focus on self promoted by the modern corporate-artistic structure (ooooh, look at the economist try to sound like a sociologist!), it's little wonder so many turn to self-destructive behaviors. It's also little wonder that people who have achieved some level of balance in their lives and put first things first don't end up spending the 100 hours a week at work that it takes to become top.

Yes, we should seek to excel. Elder L. Tom Perry said to BYU students: "I hope that you do not plan to be just common but that you plan to excel. There is no place in this world for mediocrity; we need to strive for perfection." We also need to have a more balanced, holistic, inclusive definition of what excelling is.

[I haven't run this by Joy, but I can guess her response to the motif would be slightly different: our criticism of the heartfelt, Spirit-inspired work of others can prevent us from feeling His influence in our lives and closes the doors to our own inspiration while we are so busy judging other people.]

2 comments:

tami said...

I enjoyed this post. Josh and I discussed your ideas for quite awhile on our drive home today!

Thomas Kinkade? LDS? I did not know that. And it is unfortunate.

D. Watson said...

Well, since you ask, I looked around and I don't actually see any evidence of Kinkade's religious status, here or anywhere else. I admit being guilty of just following the rumor on that one. I'll have to add a word or two to the post.