On the Pursuit of Excellence

Almost a decade ago, I memorized the following paragraph for the written portion of my black belt test:

“Mastery in one’s career and consciousness growth simply requires that we constantly produce results beyond and out of the ordinary. Mastery is a product of consistently going beyond our limits. For most people, it starts with technical excellence in a chosen field and a commitment to that excellence. If you are willing to commit yourself to excellence, to surround yourself with things that represent this and miracles (when we speak of miracles, we speak of events or experiences in the real world which are beyond the ordinary), your life will change.”

At the time, I didn’t truly understand what mastery was. Recently, I watched “Whiplash,” and I think I have finally grown to understand what I memorized so long ago.

“Whiplash” struck a chord in me. It was so much more than a guy finding success in drumming—it was about the pursuit of excellence at the cost of all else. When Andrew stumbled—head and hands bleeding—out of a car he just crashed to attend a concert he couldn’t afford to miss, I felt a mixture of disgust and admiration for his dedication. When he told Vanessa that he couldn’t be with her because he believed they were too different, I was both blown away by how insensitive he was and how focused he was in achieving his dreams. (Granted, I took a lot of issue about how females were portrayed in this film, but that’s another story.)

I won’t praise or condone Andrew for his dogmatic pursuit of excellence, but the movie made me think a lot about what I want out of my life and the lengths I am willing to go to make that happen.

“I’d rather die at 34, drunk and broke, and be talked about at a dining room table than 90, sober and rich, forgotten.” — Andrew from “Whiplash”

What I’ve realized through watching this film is that one of my core missions in life is to achieve mastery—not necessarily for fame or riches, but for myself. Through the pursuit of excellence and reaching a “flow” state in a chosen field, we can become fulfilled. And to me, happiness is derived from fulfillment. Therefore, the root of happiness is in the pursuit of excellence.

“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives—choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” — Aristotle



If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.   

 Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck

The desire for growth is so ingrained in our species that it has become the overarching purpose of all of our lives. Perfection is unattainable, but our journey from our current status to our visions of perfection is one of the most satisfying things we can ever do.

Once I realized that my whole life is a piece of art that I must meticulously craft with compassion, I began to see life as a process of beauty — a process towards strength and wisdom. When I look back on my life, I won’t care about the person I will be as much as the process that got me there.

Growth doesn’t have to be linear. It doesn’t have to always be in the perceived direction of “forward”; sometimes growth only comes from taking a few steps back or slowing down. But it does require us to be conscientious. It requires an admirable motive. It requires strength of will, resilience, and the ability to get up from setbacks.

Those qualities create the cornerstone of true wisdom and success. They are why — even with our ignorance, our indifference, and our false sense of superiority — I still have faith in the human race.