Student Life

Cultivating Excellence

I am not a product of Christian education. I attended public high school and a college founded by Methodists that had not been meaningfully related to them for decades.

Despite this, all these schools were very Christian in one way—they stressed a Christian virtue that we hear next to nothing about in Christian school, culture, or churches today: the habit of cultivating excellence.

Throughout high school and college, the discipline of excellence was often stressed. Though the teachers did not typically use Christian terms, the message was clear—do not simply be busy; do not chase after good grades; do not seek attention; do not make excuses; do not waste time.

Instead, strive to be excellent.

When is the last time we have been called to the Christian virtue of excellence in our life and work? My guess is a long time, if ever.

For many of us, excellence is a large and difficult thing. This makes it intimidating, and today we tend to shy away from large and difficult things.

Others consider excellence to be the result of external things like privilege, wealth, or good fortune. This creates a sense of dislike for something that is viewed as implicitly biased or unfair. After all, resources are required for excellence to grow, right?

Both ideas are wrong. Excellence is not large, and it is not difficult to strive toward. It is also not tied to any of the external trappings that we are so focused on these days.

In Matthew 25:21, we are told to be faithful in the little things, and if we are, the larger things will be added to us. The Lord tells us how to move toward the habit of excellence.

We are not born with excellence and we do not have to struggle to achieve it. We can have great gifts and advantages and not attain it. Excellence is a discipline, a constant practice of doing the small things well. We need to master the small things until even more exciting opportunities come our way. Excellence is not a destination; it is a continuous process. 

The big challenge is developing discipline that points us toward excellence. Discipline is something that is not as popular in our day, but in times past it was considered the essential ingredient for success.

Today we view discipline as stern, austere, and forbidding. It’s hard. It’s not fun. It lacks a sense of positivity.       

But discipline, when properly understood and applied, is none of these things. Discipline is simply a habit we develop. Spending hours on Tik Tok is a discipline. An hour of scrolling through Instagram is a discipline. Working to beat a video game level is a discipline, too.

How hard was it to develop these disciplines? It was not hard, right? That social media discipline and the discipline of devoting hours to a video game was not stern or austere because we perceive a payoff that is worth the investment of time.

It’s the same with excellence. We should cultivate excellence because it’s a worthwhile investment of time on the road to a satisfying life.

How excellent are we when it comes to the little things that make up our day? Are our responsibilities fulfilled? Are we on time? Do we respond promptly to questions or requests? Do we meet deadlines? Are we engaged in our commitments? 

These are a handful of things, but there are many more that make up our daily lives. How good are we at being faithful in the little things? Back in the day, my teachers made it clear that success—that is to say, excellence—comes from getting the small things right, not the big things.

My teachers were correct, and later, as I became a Christian, I saw the fruit of this. It has led to a life of great experiences, unexpected opportunities, and contentment. Even in failure or imperfection, I can honestly say that I strove for excellence. Peace and contentment have always accompanied this pursuit.

In 2019, some students gave me a Red Sox hat they signed. It says,  “Dr. Underation, Thank you for the years of mentorship and teaching. Because of you we are faithful in the little things.”

Each of these students is enjoying their post-college life, and their employers recognize their dedication to doing the little things well. Now, they are growing into new, higher-profile responsibilities where they can master new little things.

This is the reward for cultivating excellence.

Categories: Student Life

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