The wisdom of excellence

The wisdom of excellence


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Delivered on Aug. 28 during the unveiling ceremony for the Summa Cum Laude Honors Tablet at the SU Robert B. & Metta J. Silliman Library

“Excellence” as a word grew out of two Latin roots ex meaning “out of” and cellere “to rise high,” or “to tower above,” that is, to tower above the ordinary and the mediocre.

Many have sought to define “excellence”-— from the philosopher Socrates in 5th-century Athens, to great modern personalities as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

It is interesting to note, however, that there is a connecting thread in all their views of excellence, and it is that excellence is neither an inherited virtue, nor an innate quality, but something acquired and developed, and therefore, possible to achieve.

Aristotle, who was a student of Plato, who in turn was a student of Socrates, described excellence as “an art attained by training and habituation.” Thus, it is the result of systematic and sustained effort.

Some 300 years later, the Roman lyric poet Horace said: “No man ever reached to excellence in any one art or profession without having passed through the slow and painful process of study and preparation.”

Therefore, excellence requires determination, patience, persistence, discipline, hard work, and a commitment to the highest and the best.

As someone has anonymously written: “Excellence is the result of caring more than others think is wise, risking more than others think is safe, dreaming more than others think is practical, and expecting more than others think is possible. It is the commitment to high quality performance that produces outstanding results of lasting value. Excellence is believing in continuous improvement and never being satisfied with anything being less than it can be. It is quality as a way of life.”

Excellence is choosing the right things, and then doing them right.

The famous American professional basketball coach James Riley defined excellence as “the gradual result of always striving to do better.” Riley knew what he was saying; he was a coach of champion teams.

My most favorite definition of excellence, however, comes from the American educator, public official and political reformer John W. Gardner, who defined excellence as “doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.”

Whatever ordinary thing we are doing, whether it is studying, or working for a living, leading an organization, doing research or routine administrative work, or simply doing household chores, tailoring, embroidery work, cooking, and the thousand and one jobs that common people do everyday, we do excellent work when we do the ordinary things we do extraordinarily well.

Excellence is intended, and is possible, both for the high and the low.

John W. Gardner warns us that “the society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy simply because it is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water”.

Mediocrity is everywhere. It is only excellence that can teach us profound and original insights by pointing to the exemplary. And one does not have to have a special license or a postgraduate degree to attain excellence.

As a former IBM president put it: “If you want to achieve excellence, you can get there today. As of this second, just quit doing less-than-excellent work.”

Why do we need to strive for excellence? For me, the best answer is a quote I learned from my wife, who got it from the 18th-century English nobleman the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, who said: “Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.”

The China missionary and Nobel Prize winner in Literature Pearl S. Buck also pointed to excellence as, in fact, “the secret of joy in work” To know how to do something well is to enjoy it.”

Indeed, knowing that you have done excellently is real satisfaction, pure joy, and a true sense of achievement.

In the final analysis, it is only excellence which has a cutting edge, a forward direction, and a purposeful impetus. All our advances and discoveries in science, all profound philosophical and theological reflections on the meaning of life, all correct understanding of what is true, what is good, and what is edifying are the results of excellence.

All forms of progress, whether material or human, owe their attainment to excellence. Only excellence empowers us to reach the highest, or enable us to take the longest step forward.

More than this, excellence tells us what is humanly possible, and therefore, what we can possibly achieve. The late Martin King Luther, Jr., once said: “”All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”

In related terms, the Lutheran theologian and World War II martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer had earlier remarked: “The strong possess a characteristic excellence which enable them to identify momentous issues and make a decision about them. The weak are always forced to decide between alternatives they have not chosen themselves.”

When I look back over my life, I recall vividly one decision which changed my life thereafter. I had been a transfer student from UP-Diliman when I first came to Silliman in October 1958 for one more semester of pre-theological Arts studies.

I had heard that Silliman was just as good as UP; I came with fear and trembling, but I tried my best. After that semester, I went home for the summer vacation, expecting to return in June as a junior theology student.

Toward the end of April 1959, I received my grades from the Silliman Registrar, then Dr. Raymundo R. Dato. Quickly opening the envelope, I found 2 A’s and 3 A-‘s. So, … I said to myself, but without finishing the sentence. I was then 19, and I did not know what to do with my life. But I knew that wherever the future would lead me, I would have to do my best, make the best account of myself, whatever may come.

After a minute of reflection, I told myself: “God has led you from UP to Silliman. When you go back to Silliman this June, let’s agree. A, 4.0, for everything! For every quiz, every long exam, every paper, every assignment, every class report, and also in your best aspirations, in your relationships with the right people, in your values, in your understanding, in your commitment to God, in your dedication to service — in everything, 4.0!

It seemed a big order, and it was! One part of me said: “But you have 3 A-’s; you can’t do it.” But another part of me said: “But you got 2 A’s. Two honest A’s! That is the more important thing. You can do that again, for is there any reason why you cannot? It is possible to get all A’s, if you work for it, if you have guts enough to try it!.” I don’t know how long I remained standing where I was, but that moment, when I was 19, changed my life forever.

In June 1959, I returned to Silliman with this resolve, this commitment to excellence, this dedication to honest work and to the highest scholarship. Since I did not have a scholarship (this came only beginning the following year), I had to be a working student.

During my junior year, I worked for four hours a day Monday to Friday in the Silliman University Press. Not retreating from challenging pursuits and co-curricular activities, in my middle year I was president of both the Silliman CYF and the Silliman chapter of the Student Christian Movement of the Philippines; and in my senior year, editor of The Sillimanian.

I read all my textbooks as soon as I got them, studied parallel reference books on aside from the assigned readings; gave myself practice examinations that my professors would find hard to pass, and submitted on time two term papers instead of just one (because there is so much to learn from the library, and I was privileged to have great teachers as Dr. Gowing, Dr. Elwood, Dr. Lauby, and others, from whom I could learn the most during my remaining semesters at the College of Theology).

Because I did every required task at the first opportunity, in the end, I still had time to see two movies a week and to have time outside Channon Hall with a very special friend, now my wife, five evenings a week after library hours.

But honors are rewards for what we did in the past, not for what we still need to do in the future. The person who rests on his laurels lives behind in the past. We need to continue to forge ahead, to follow and apply the same attitude, the same resolve, the same commitment, and the very ways of doing things that had served us well in the past, to do honest work, not pulling down nor unjustly impeding anybody in our search for success — all this so that we can achieve more and be of greater service to others in the future.

Everything that we are, everything that we have, is from God who has a mission in this world, and is at work in this world, and who calls all of us to participate in his work in the best way we can, according to the talents and abilities that God has given us.

This was the great lesson I learned from Silliman. This is the same lesson I have shared with my wife, two daughters, two granddaughters, brothers and sister, nephews and nieces, students, colleagues, and friends who care to listen.

The contemporary writer Ralph Marston, an earnest Christian and publisher of the Daily Motivator, recently said: “Don’t lower your expectations to meet your performance. Raise your level of performance to meet your expectations. Expect the best of yourself, and then do what is necessary to make it a reality. …. What you do today can improve all your tomorrows.”

T. Valentino S. Sitoy Jr., Ph.D.

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