Why excellence need not be a dirty word

LIMITING: All too often, a backlash against perceived elitism dampens the quest for excellence. Picture: Shutterstock
LIMITING: All too often, a backlash against perceived elitism dampens the quest for excellence. Picture: Shutterstock

Elitism is something that has become socially outlawed, as it erects barriers for equitable accessibility to career and life opportunities and results in the domination of society by a socially created "elite class" of citizens that guard entrance to its ranks like a king guards his crown.

Florence King defines elitism as "a love of excellence and superiority". Our war on both has resulted in reducing our focus to the lowest common denominator.

Now don't get me wrong, my saying this doesn't mean that I am an elitist. I don't believe an elitism that bars equitable access to its ranks is a good thing - and by its very nature this is what elitism does.

However, the fallout from this social war waged on the concept has resulted in an unfortunate side effect.

When I was working as a recruiter, the executive team was doing a tour of the country, visiting all of the branches to talk with staff and learn about their experiences of the company.

I remember sitting down with the chief operating officer in the conference room and he asked if I had any comments about how the company was operating.

I told him my biggest frustration was having to redo interviews and reference checks for candidates because they were so poorly written that I wasn't OK with sending them out to corporate clients with my name on the submission.

I suggested the company invest in some training for recruiters to improve its approach for these reports, with the goal of providing the clients with a more professional candidate summary.

However, this suggestion was met with, "oh, we focus on the lowest common denominator. As long as they are hitting the base minimums, it's fine."

As a result of that meeting, the company did decide to utilise my "apparent writing ability" to get me to rewrite all governance policies on top of my existing work and on my own time.

Serves me right for suggesting we challenge staff to continuously improve, instead of accepting substandard work that was presented directly to our clients as representative of the company.

And to be honest, my expectations weren't high to begin with.

However, I think Florence King was wrong.

Elitism isn't a love of excellence and superiority. It's the belief that only a certain group of people are capable of excellence and superiority.

We seem to mistakenly rebel against the idea of being capable of either for fear of being labelled elitist and castigated by society for our success.

Instead of just rebelling against genuine individual "superiority", we need to work towards breaking down the actual barriers to accessing pathways to achieving it - and encouraging people to aim for it.

Even writing that word, superiority, makes me feel uncomfortable, but the fact remains that some of us are better at some things than others.

And this is OK. This sense of competition can be healthy when it's utilised effectively within society.

When work that doesn't really measure up is accepted by adjusting the yardstick, we have a flow-on effect where people don't yearn to be better because sub-standard work is still given a participation trophy.

US gymnast Simone Biles is a good example of this. It was reported that she was being penalised for being able to do a Yurchenko double pike in competition, the first woman in history to perform it.

The move is "ultra-dangerous" and thus has been given a relatively low starting score, believed to be to discourage gymnasts from attempting the move.

However, Biles responded by telling The New York Times: "There's no point in putting up a fight because they're not going to reward it ... so we just have to take it and be quiet."

The danger of catering to the lowest common denominator is clearly not just swimming in mediocrity, but also in discouraging greatness full stop, for what's the point?

Tall Poppy Syndrome needs to go: we need to accept that we aren't all going to be excellent at everything and find a way to be OK with that.

We also need to accept that "excellence" comes in different forms and stop ranking society based on preconceived, outdated ideas of importance.

Is wealth really the best yardstick for valuing a person's contribution to society? I would argue not. Vigorously.

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocate at impressability.com.au. Twitter: @ZoeWundenberg

This story Why excellence need not be a dirty word | Zoë Wundenberg first appeared on The Canberra Times.