The following experiences happened within the last 3 months:
Tried on a winter jacket at The North Face store, nicely designed, warm, and smooth. Went to a next door store that sold jackets with one-fifth of the price, but it was plastic-y, with rough hems and zippers that caught repeatedly.
Waited for an hour at a doctor’s office, ended up having a 10-min visit with the doctor, during which he gave his regular spiel (overheard him from another room) without ever addressing me personally or mentioning my name. The visit cost $70.
Got my car checked at the dealership. Greeted by a representative who introduced herself and addressed my name with a smile. Answered all of my questions in a calm, unhurried way, performed requested services, and sent me off with a handshake. Good job, Honda.
Visited a Greek restaurant during restaurant’s week. The place was busy and well staffed, but everyone was super alert and watchful over the customers. There was no slacker there–no one standing around spaced out having nothing to do. Everyone walked like they had somewhere to go, quickly. Used plates were cleaned and replaced, drinks refilled, boxes offered without being asked. Free valet service was offered to all customers, and they speed walked to get the car. All around efficiency–loved it!
Waited almost half an hour in a baggage-drop line at the airport with only 3 people in front of me. Despite the long line formed, one of the agents strolled off and disappeared into the back room, never returning until who knows when.
Read a journal paper that was meticulous in its problem definition, step-by-step in its explanation, and comprehensive in analysis. Edifying from the first read.
What made some of these experiences extremely pleasant? Excellence.
When a person, a company, or an establishment is excellent in product design, service, academically, or technically, they can command loyalty from customers and assign higher prices, and people would pay willingly and happily. I have visited many doctor’s office in my local area and to this day, I have not settled on one yet. Whereas with my car, since the first day I came to this particular dealership, there was no thought of going anywhere else. The one time I did, I was sorely, sorely disappointed.
Both establishments surely need to make money and serve as many customers as possible, but one tries to hide this from the consumers’ experiences and takes time to perfect their services, and the other doesn’t. It troubles me somewhat that the assembly line mentality is present in health care services more than my particular auto service provider.
Excellence matters, not only because it makes good business sense, but also because it enhances people’s experiences and brightens up their days.
The Moral Imperative to Be Excellent
Paul Kalanithi, in his book When Breath Becomes Air, reflected deeply on the moral imperative to excel in neurosurgery, where a millimeter-level error could result in an altered life and identity of his patient.
“As a chief resident, nearly all responsibility fell on my shoulders, and the opportunities to succeed–or fail–were greater than ever. The pain of failure had led me to understand that technical excellence was a moral requirement. Good intentions were not enough, not when so much depended on my skills, when the difference between tragedy and triumph was defined by one or two millimeters.”
“Neurosurgery requires a commitment to one’s own excellence and a commitment to another’s identity. The decision to operate at all involves an appraisal of one’s own abilities, as well as a deep sense of who the patient is and what she holds dear. Certain brain areas are considered near-inviolable, like the primary motor cortex, damage to which results in paralysis of affected body parts. But the most sacrosanct regions of the cortex are those that control language… If both areas are damaged, the patient becomes an isolate, something central to her humanity stolen forever. After someone suffers a head trauma or a stroke, the destruction of these areas often restrains the surgeon’s impulse to save a life: What kind of life exists without language?”
“I don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life–and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul–was obvious in its sacredness.”
Contrast his commitment to excellence with an incompetent resident he came across during treatment. Paul wrote,
“Meeting his obligation to me meant adding one more thing to his to-do list: an embarrassing phone call with his boss, revealing his error. He was working the night shift. Residency education regulations had forced most programs to adopt shift work. And along with shift work comes a kind of shiftiness, a subtle undercutting of responsibility. If he could just push it off for a few more hours, I would become somebody else’s problem.”
The difference? One saw his work as a sacred calling and another saw his as a job–a checklist of tasks to do and get by.
The Fullness of a Work
Certain professions have greater immediacy to life-threatening danger upon failure. How would you like to fly on a plane designed to survive 99.99% of the time? The number looks impressive, but 99.99% means 1 out of 10000 flights would fail. With about 100,000 flights scheduled each day in the US, this statistics is way too poor. Nothing less than 100% is good enough in aviation.
I would argue, however, that the life-threatening level is not the only measure to the importance of excellence. One’s work doesn’t have to implicate life and death to carry moral weight in society. Instead, most work makes a difference in other people’s lives, improving or deteriorating their experience and quality of life.
Yet more than avoiding liability, excellence brings joy. Encountering excellence in a good book, a great teacher, or an excellent service makes us happy. The task is not just done, but fulfilled–filled to the full. This goodness multiplies in the recipients of the work and propagates to others they would in turn impact.
I would further submit that this is also the way to work happily. Excellence is never accidental, always intentional, effortful, and focused. And when it bears fruit, it’s extremely fulfilling.
The old adage says, Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might (Ecclesiastes 9:10). A truly wise saying.
“Where did the time go?” we often ask, and no matter the frequency of this conversation, it’s never boring, because we feel its truthfulness each time. Blink once, it’s Monday, blink twice it’s Thursday, and so the weeks, months, and years pass by.
Age, I hear, accelerates this experience, and I can probably agree. It took forever and a half to reach age 10 and another half to 17. But to the observing adults, my aging probably did feel fast. They certainly talk about the flying time with more intensity.
Mathematically, it’s been explained that the ratio of a fixed amount of time, say, a year, to the total length of our growing lifetime will only diminish, hence the increased speediness. It’s perfectly rational. I like rational. But, if the math is the real cause of the experience, how scary is that? It means life will only move faster and faster, like a runaway train that’s gone out of hands. Is there nothing to be done about it?
A Glimmer of Hope
Reading Oliver Sacks’ Gratitude and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air tells me that there may be a way out. Written when their authors were cancer-ridden—the first, a collection of essays written during Oliver’s last two years of his life and the second, written during the two years between Paul’s diagnosis and his death—both writings seem to know how to slow time down.
Faced with the finiteness of their lives, these authors mastered the art of living consciously (isn’t this why time feels fast—it goes by and we are not conscious of it) and thus put a break to the speeding train of time. The writing certainly feels that way, and in reading their words, my time too slows down.
Consciousness of time, I think, is the kindred subject that occupied both men, evaporating the near half-century gap between their ages. Linked to this is also the fierce quest of meaning and the evaluation of their lived years.
Confronting mortality, humankind is forced to reflect. What of my life? Has it been good, meaningful? Am I contented with who I am? And in reflecting, time is recaptured, somehow.
Whether intended or not, Paul and Oliver’s writings have this recapturing effects on me. Their sense of sacredness in the time they had left produced words that grace their readers with wisdom. Yet, is this gift only possessed by those close to death’s door? I’m not dying–not that I know of, at least–and I too am covetous of this consciousness of time.
Oliver’s last and poignant essay was titled “Sabbath,” published in the New York Times two weeks before his death last August, and one that was very important to him. As his days were closing, he found his thoughts drifting back to the Sabbath.
And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.
After abandoning his Jewish faith and heritage for decades, Oliver recalled one Sabbath celebration in 2014:
The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?
I wonder if the Sabbath was made so that humankind would live, in the deepest sense of the word, with consciousness of time. The gift of rest in the Sabbath surpasses the physical realm into the essence of life itself. This infusion is not automatic—I’ve lived Sabbath to Sabbath my entire life and I know that Sabbath too can be busy—but it is a space and time carved out to stop and reflect each week. Did I do well? Was I good? Did I do things that matter?
Robert John Aunamm, 2005 Nobel Laureate in Economics, said in an interview that Oliver mentioned in his essay,
The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful, and is impossible without being religious. It is not even a question of improving society—it is about improving one’s own quality of life. For example, let’s say I’m taking a trip a couple of hours after the Sabbath. Any other person would spend the day packing, going to the office, making final arrangements, final phone calls, this and that. For me it’s out of the question. I do it on Friday. The Sabbath is there. The world stops.
After the ceremony, Robert John told Oliver, “had he been compelled to travel to Stockholm on a Saturday, he would have refused the prize. His commitment to the Sabbath, its utter peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns, would have trumped even a Nobel.”
Peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns. What would it look like to live, entirely divorced from even the privilege of winning a Nobel Prize. It seems like Robert John estimated the prize very differently from most people; something else mattered to him more. Perhaps it was an understanding of ultimate things—what is the most important thing in life, what matters most, things we usually understand when death is nigh, when time is short.
Perhaps the Sabbath is like speed bumps, preventing life from being overrun by the train of time. It is a reminder to be conscious of time, like a balance by which everything is scaled against eternity. The things that exist in the Sabbath realm are the things that matter in eternity—they will always matter—like family, friends, love, reflection, peace with God and peace with self. Everything else can take a pause, irrelevant for one day.
I’m writing this at the entrance of a Sabbath. For the next 24 hours then, I’m going to live with consciousness of time.
 I’ll use their first names here to make the post more personal instead of academic.
 Read the whole interview with Robert John Aumann here.
What is learning? In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler defines it concisely as the process by which a mind passes from understanding less to understanding more. Here, he employs the terms “learning” and “understanding” to refer to more than gaining new information, but also wisdom and insights on certain timeless truths. This learning is not identical to schooling, since it covers a greater time span than conventional schooling years–a lifetime.
A process from understanding less to understanding more implies that there is a certain inequality between the mind of the learner and the source of insight, at least at the beginning. (Since Adler is writing specifically about books, the source of insight is the mind of the book writer.) The writer must have something that can increase the learner’s understanding. Learning then is the closure of that gap such that the learner’s understanding approaches the author’s.
First, there is initial inequality in understanding. The writer must be “superior” to the reader in understanding, and his book must convey in readable form the insights he possesses and his potential readers lack. Second, the reader must be able to overcome this inequality in some degree, seldom perhaps fully, but always approaching equality with the writer… In short, we can learn only from our “betters.” We must know who they are and how to learn from them.
Following this premise, a book that is completely understandable to a reader–meaning its intelligibility is equal to the reader–cannot enhance the reader’s understanding.
There is the book; and here is your mind. As you go through the pages, either you understand perfectly everything the author has to say or you do not. If you do, you may have gained information, but you could not have increased your understanding. If the book is completely intelligible to you from start to finish, then the author and you are as two minds in the same mold. The symbols on the page merely express the common understanding you had before you met.
If that initial inequality between two minds is needed, then a learner must first get to that stage of awareness before learning can happen. She must know that she understands less that she should or would like. How does one get to this place?
One way is another person telling her that she needs to learn, like in the case of a child when her parents tell her why she needs to go to school. Another way, among many others, is by an encounter with a piece of information or a situation that awakens her interest and curiosity.
This awareness, though, is more than factual, because it takes a degree of humility and curiosity to go from knowing that she needs more understanding, to admitting it, to subjecting herself willingly to another mind. It is not uncommon to refuse to understand something one doesn’t care about.
Yet another aspect to this learning dynamic, a twin to the concept of humility, is admiration–the first lowering oneself, and the other exalting another person. Take the case of a man who thinks he’s superior than anyone else, and has no need that anyone should teach him. Factually, many are more enlightened than him, though maybe not all, but in some subjects. But because of his perception, he exempts himself from the need to learn from others. It’s hard to learn from someone you don’t respect and admire.
In this sense, learning is not simply a mental operation, it is also relational. The learner must always think that someone must have something better.
The Role of Awe
Take away admiration and there will be no learning. Interestingly, there’s much emphasis on critical thinking as the substance of intelligence in modern education, rightly so, because it is very important to examine the truthfulness of any knowledge that we encounter. But this is not the only mode of learning. In critical thinking, one is comparing what she perceives to the principles that already exist in her mind. The subject matter is being examined in a framework, and that framework must have already been in place. It requires the presence of other knowledge in the mind and thus cannot be the beginning of learning. The question then is, How did that first knowledge get in?
In his insightful book, Man is Not Alone, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that awe is necessarily the beginning of knowledge.
Standing eye to eye with being as being, we realize that we are able to look at the world with two faculties–with reason and with wonder. Through the first we try to explain or to adapt the world to out concepts, through the second we seek to adapt out minds to the world. Wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge… to doubt is to question that which we have accepted as possibly true a moment ago… But if we must know in order to question, if we must entertain a belief in order to cast doubt upon it, then doubt cannot be the beginning of knowledge.
Again, Heschel describes the difference between learning by awe and learning by critical thinking.
Wonder goes beyond knowledge… We are amazed at seeing anything at all; amazed not only at particular values and things but at the unexpectedness of being as such, at the fact that there is being at all… Even before we conceptualize what we perceive, we are amazed beyond words, beyond doubts… When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question.
The first instances of learning, when the learner is subjected to such wonder that she is filter-less and ready to receive whatever comes, take place because of awe and admiration. Much of this happens to us during childhood, where everything was a wonder. Yet is that the only period when this can take place? Are we to abandon this mode of learning as adults? If we were to commit to a life of learning, the answer to this question must be No.
Esteem Others as Better
Those familiar with religious literature would perhaps be familiar with this injunction:
…in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Phil 2:3
There’s much wisdom in this exhortation, especially in the context of learning as a lifestyle. If learning were to be a livelong pursuit, then a continual attitude of humility is required, since one must always seek to recognize what she hasn’t understood yet. She needs to retain awe and admiration in life, to find her “betters” and learn from them.
This attitude says that one can learn from every single person, though younger, less experienced, no matter their status or cultures in society. It’s not blind admiration, but a mentality to glean wisdom from all circumstances.
The person that admires the most, I think, learns the most. My recommendation to you, then, thinkers, is to carve out space and time for wonder, awe, and admiration in your learning journey.