Thursday, September 20, 2012

Making Excellence a Habit

"Yesterday's home runs don't win today's games." - Babe Ruth

I just finished teaching a course, finalizing and submitting the grades just this evening.  It was a fun course to teach, but all courses are fun to teach if you approach them with the right attitude.  I'm proud to be able to brag that I'm often rated as one of the best teachers on campus--but then again, I should be.  I'm the Dean.  I teach the teachers.

Still, as I read over the students' comments on the informal survey I took the final night, I was pleased at all the positive ones.  I was even more pleased at the students' excellent performance on the final exam.  Clearly they learned, and clearly they enjoyed doing it.

That said, none of their comments involved the previous time I taught that course, and the reason for that is obvious: none of the students knew how I taught the class the time before.  None of them would have cared if they'd known.  In teaching, every course is a new attempt, a fresh canvas upon which to create the designs of increased cognition.  And as in baseball, yesterday's home runs don't win today's games.  True, I learn something with every iteration, and I bring past learnings into every current course I'm teaching.  That said, though, nobody in the classroom at that moment cares how much I've learned in the past.  If I'm not swinging for the fence with each new class period, I'm not doing my job.

Writing is kinda like that too, especially considering the weight of a novel.  It takes hours--days, even--to read one, and in that long period of time the reader is evaluating the novel for its own qualities, not those of the author's previous work.  True, there are some readers who will read the entire series and comment on the stronger entries versus the weaker ones, but that's like talking about the various years and posts in the Bambino's career.  The fact is that while Babe Ruth was playing, people expected every night to be a great one.  Similarly, while you're writing, people expect every novel to be a great one.

Then again, the same principle applies to every endeavor I can think of.  There are a small set of restaurants in our area that we frequently--well, frequent.  We'll sometimes try out others, of course, but we make a habit of going to a few.  Why?  Because they're always excellent.  The food is good, yes, but more importantly the service is impeccable.  Price per plate doesn't seem to have a lot to do with it; a couple of their menus are in the $10 per person range while another is a steak house that charges a fair amount more for its cuts of beef.  But the price you pay is immaterial when it comes to whether or not an establishment makes you feel like a welcome guest or a burden to be served, and the kings of that world are the ones who make us feel like welcome guests over and over and over, consistently slamming the ball out of the park on every visit.

Consistency, then, is vital no matter what field you're in.  But consistency isn't enough; it's possible (and even fairly easy and frequently accepted) to be consistently mediocre.  It's not just consistency that makes you a superstar, it's your habit of excellence.


PS--woo hoo!  another opportunity for a sports metaphor.  And an art metaphor too.  Of course, you can't be a panda (that last for my friend Greg).

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