Excelling Every Day Is Easier Than You Think

By Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

September 2023 EDITORIAL
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ANYONE WHO HAS achieved something they are proud of, when revisiting the memory of it later in life, tends to feel a warm and tingling sensation of “Wow, did I do that? Was that me?!”

Much can be gleaned about ourselves from this simple common phenomenon. Firstly, one cannot always excel, in the normal sense of the word. Excelling requires a sustained and focused period of investment in attention, energy and time—below the level of excellence, some safe distance away from the cutting edge.

Let me use a car analogy. Anyone always driving at top gear is going to crash sooner or later. At the same time, anyone never attempting to go into top gear is not going to excel anytime soon. The notion that moving at lower gears is not a goal in itself but, in essence, a preparation for the right time and place to shift into top gear, is what makes excelling a personality trait. Conversely, moving at lower gears with no ambition to shift to top gear, or even no sense that there is a top gear, in fact, defines mediocrity.

Excelling, therefore, is an attitude more than anything else. It is but an appreciation of the existential fact that one has to flourish at fourth gear most times in order to be able to shift to top gear some times.

Needless to say, you can go into top gear most easily if you keep yourself functioning well at third or fourth gear as a matter of daily course.

Secondly, an individual can excel in many areas throughout his life. So, when you are awed by your own past achievements, be reminded that excelling at anything at any one time also means that excelling is temporary and specific, the result of sustained effort. There is no reason for a person to be an expert in only one skill and identify himself as that the rest of his life. What is a human, if not the most flexible of creatures?

We Are Renaissance Persons, If We Want To Be

The Renaissance Man, I am sure, is actually the default for humanity. Anyone is going to be good in anything they set their minds to do. They get better every day at it. No big deal. It is when you work at something that you feel unmotivated about, something that you do to avoid something worse, that excelling is not on the agenda. Do that long enough, and you become mediocre. You might even hate others for excelling.

Thirdly, excelling is as much a challenge to yourself as it is to the rest of the world, probably more so. Who decides what to excel in, and compared to what? At the personal level, excelling is basically for myself and my immediate social circle. At the other end of the scale, excelling is to awe the world.

Excelling as a daily affair is thus possible at the personal level. Be nicer than you were yesterday, or than you ever had been. That’s excelling.

Have a discussion with your kids instead of admonishing them like you may tend to do by default. That’s excelling.

Read a good book instead of social media snippets like you almost always do. That’s excelling.

Cook a thoughtful meal for your family instead of ordering in as an easy and daily solution... That’s excelling.

Come to think of it, the Eightfold Path is not a bad idea, knowing how difficult it is for most of us to excel on a daily and personal basis without expressed guidance. The ancient Indian wisdom proposes correct action; correct speech; correct livelihood; correct effort; correct mindfulness; correct concentration; correct view and correct intention.

If you read “correct” in all of these more as an imperative than an adjective, then you would, in a profound yet obvious way, be proposing excellence in your daily life. “Correct” would suggest “Improve”. Surely, daily improvements are small excelling steps.

Kungfu All Day

Nothing fascinates me more than when I discover similar everyday wisdoms from totally different parts of the world. I may have shared one of these in this column many years ago, but allow me to reiterate it since it ties in tightly with what I am talking about now.

The English word “exercise” is interesting in that it applies equally as a verb to something being done as training and something being performed for real. In having that nature, the differentiation between the two in practice is minimised, even rendered non-existent.

I may already be good at bicycling, but whenever I bicycle, I am both maintaining my skill to bicycle and, at the same time, trying to get somewhere on my two-wheeler. I train and I perform. When I sing in the shower, am I training or am I performing? In the end, what is the difference? A young child walks. He is training, he is performing. He is excelling.

The same notion can apply to anything we do. This brings me to the Chinese concept of “kungfu”. The word does not apply only to the martial arts, which is the normal Western understanding of it. It applies, in fact, to all skills. When I say that your kungfu is good, be it cooking, gymnastics, speech-making—or martial arts, I am pointing out that the hours and energy you put into exercising that skill is obvious to the observer. To the observer, your level of performance and your dedication to the training to get there are one and the same. Just like the word “exercise”.

In the end, it all boils down to your ability to give meaning through action. Moral and mindful effort makes for an excellent—and excelling—human being.

Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: wikibeng.com