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Defining Excellence

by Barbara Anne Radtke

A friend, just entering midlife, gave me a call recently. She had made several life changes and was struggling with the reality of her new life and work-life balance. She was hard on herself. The question she pondered was: Should she give up something in her schedule like her volunteer work or should she settle for being less than excellent in what she did? “I am not a perfectionist, but excellence has always been important. Do I need to give up excellence?” she asked somewhat sadly. My friend defined excellence as being the best in whatever it was she was doing. Like so many of us, competition and comparison motivated her. Her measure was coming in first, however “first” was determined. I suggested that maybe she needed to re-define excellence. I once did.

My first lesson in re-thinking excellence was watching the Summer Olympics as a kid. Sometime, either during the Olympics in Melbourne and the one in Rome, my mom and I were watching track and field events. Competitors for the decathlon were occasionally featured. Since I had never heard of a decathlon before, Mom explained: “’Dec” comes from the Latin word for ten. A decathlete participates in ten events. He doesn’t need to win each event, but he has to be good enough in each that when he finishes he has the highest score.” This type of competition appealed to me. When my dad got home from work, I announced I was going to be a decathlete. To his credit, Dad never said: “Girls cannot be decathletes,” which at the time they could not. Instead he said: “I’ll help you.” Never a big one for sports, as the years rolled by, I pursued other interests. I did grow up thriving on competition, though. Over time, I began to apply the lesson of the decathlon to understanding what excellence meant in my own life. It took me a while, but, instead of measuring excellence as coming in first especially in every, single pursuit, I measured it by assessing my performance across the myriad activities required of me. My goal: a life well-lived.

By the way, many years later, on a Father’s Day, participants in a Sunday worship service were invited to volunteer a story about their dad. I told this decathlon story. When I saw Dad later in the day, I told him what I had shared with the congregation. Instead of looking pleased, a look of distress crossed his face. “I never helped you,” he said. I replied: “Of course, you did, Dad. The ten events were just not in sports.”


by Kathy Hendricks

I love the story about your father, Barbara, and his open-minded approach to girls in sports and honoring your dream. His reaction to your Father’s Day tribute is telling. So often parents have no idea about the impact they make on the lives of their children. It’s wonderful that you were able to affirm all that he inspired you to do and to be.

I also appreciate the gentle nudge you gave your friend in redefining excellence. It’s not easy to do in a culture that thrives on winning and in which second place merits little attention. My Facebook page is turning up lots of videos of Simone Biles as she re-enters competition. Her magnificent leaps, flips, twists, and turns are truly breathtaking. Just as admirable, however, is the way in which during the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo, she had the courage and the self-awareness to acknowledge her limits. She showed us all that excellence is as much about what we can’t do as well as those things we can. No one stays #1 forever and yet that does not lessen the impact of their achievements. And, as you experienced, a dream at one point in life can morph into something quite different as we discover our true strengths and our greatest gifts.

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3 commentaires

Janet Schaeffler
Janet Schaeffler
23 oct. 2023

I just began reading a book which might also shed some light on this, for your friend, Barbara - From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life by Arthur C. Brooks.

23 oct. 2023
En réponse à

Janet, it sounds really interesting. I am finding so many treasures in the second half of life!

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