On dit que one of the most important lessons to learn before you reach 10 or 11 is to know that excellence only comes from application. Malcolm Gladwell is famous for codifying the rule that you can only achieve excellence by putting in those 10,000 hours. This sort of ex-cathedra opinionating makes me feel queasy because I have baggage. My poor father was always on and on at me to “concentrate“ but I never could sit down and practice the berluddy piano, never stick at my coin “collection”, never finish reading Pickwick Papers. It was obvious to me, my family and my teachers, that I was not about to achieve excellence. Although I want better for our children, and wonder when they are about to manifest their own version of excellence, I've been careful not to 'help them' crank up application to achieve this.
Two things I have chosen to embrace as an adult have helped me develop me a position on this. And even as I write, I realise that I never really chose the piano, the coins or Dickens as a child: they were sort of surrogates for actually applying myself. About 30 years ago I enrolled in a book-binding course to put some spine into the rough-handled collection of second-hand books I’d picked up at yard-sales during our American years. My teachers, fine craftsmen and enthusiasts, were frequently at me to go beyond the workaday robust library style bindings that I was making week after week. And, to please them, I did create a couple of rather good leather and gold bindings with marbled end-papers. But my real happiness was, over 3 or 4 years of Tuesday evenings, putting a few dozen old books back into a usable state.
I’ve also devoted a lot of time (maybe One,000 hours?) to samba (Weds) and djembe (Tues) drumming. One Wednesday, the biggest of the samba teachers gave us an earful about how beginners must realise that even the best drummers in the group need to achieve their own goals; that tyros shouldn’t pester the “effectives” too much with requests for help when we were all in the process of becoming better Sambistas; that even the best percussionists needed space to apply themselves to achieve excellence. Naaah, I said to myself; I don’t want to become an excellent sambista, I just want to hang out and do a bit of samba.
That was very liberating. And you know, I did get better. My bindings got more symmetrical, my drumming got less ragged without me striving for excellence. It’s okay not to be centre-forward and I like to see my scientific career
as having providing the infrastructure to help others make their great
leaps forward. As an evolutionary biologist I find that quite comforting. To succeed in life you don't need to be The Best, you just need to be good enough. The accident that Darwin happened to live in an age of galloping capitalism has informed our understanding and especially our metaphors of how the natural world functions. "Nature red in tooth and claw", "the survival of the fittest" rather than the survival of the fitter. But I don't think that success need be defined as being better than your neighbour, just "good enough". I am happy seeing my girls achieve the ordinary. Just by being, they flourish.