Excellence, top dogs, and underdogs

main.jpgI consider myself progressive, but in an attempt to understand opposing views, I read Science Left Behind by Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell. Instead of placing politics on a left-to-right spectrum, the authors used a triangle to distinguish between liberals, libertarians, progressives, and conservatives. The three points on the triangle were Freedom, which liberals and libertarians most value; Equality or fairness, which progressives most value; and Excellence, which conservatives most value.

Excellence, they said, was made of self-determination and personal initiative. Conservatives want people to be able to excel if they choose and think the best should win. They oppose too much regulation and like competition. At one point, the authors stated that, "We might even begin to make the case that progressives are engaged in an undeclared war on excellence itself."

As you may have guessed, their views lean libertarian. They’re more likely to believe in that legendary Invisible Hand than the reality of redlining and its repercussions. Still, this book was useful to me. I may believe that "we all do better when we all do better," and that epigenetics gives additional scientific weight to the burdens of growing up poor, but I was intrigued by the idea that excellence and fairness might be in opposition in some twisted Harrison Bergeron manner.

If we take that view seriously, then I am not excellent.  Of course not! I grew up poor and still have some poor-folk habits and ignorances, I have a handful of diseases that make me prone to fainting and fatigue, I have mental health issues in my family, and on top of that I’m a woman, and therefore liable to get pregnant. Pregnancy is not an optimal working condition, so that makes certain companies less likely to hire me. It may sound like I’m joking, but I’m really not

A more dystopian pursuit of excellence might entail squeezing maximum productivity out of a person, and selecting against those with health issues, those who need mentoring, those with rough backgrounds — Basically anyone “lacking.” But a more insidious pursuit of excellence means giving to the Amazons and Walmarts of the world because they are ubiquitous, convenient, and established. This results in cumulative advantage, also known as the Matthew effect, also summarized as “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

I recently attended a Grantmakers in the Arts meeting and saw this mechanism implied by the data presented. The GIA had set Racial Equity and Social Justice as an organizational priority, but noted that minority-led organizations tended to be smaller and underfunded. “Those with budgets greater than $5 million receive 55 percent of all contributions, gifts, and grants, even though they account for only 2 percent of total arts and cultural nonprofits,” they report, based on a Philanthropy at Its Best Report

Does that remind anyone else of those scary income inequality graphs?

I was reminded of my own few Give to the Max donations, where I tried to strike a balance between the big players (for example, Planned Parenthood) and the smaller fighters I knew and loved. I also thought of the failed or struggling minority organizations I’ve been involved with versus the healthier white-led ones I support. In my own life, I try to balance the convenience of Target with my love of nonprofit thrift stores, and I try to only drink lattes from independent cafes but I often forget to #buyblack. 

But in each of these dichotomies, I think either choice is excellent. The choice of the underdog may be unusual, younger, underappreciated, or off the beaten path, requiring a little extra patience or costing a few extra dollars, but I’ve never felt like I’ve lost anything by supporting them.

Plus, I can’t help relating to scrappy nonprofits, independent artists, and other underdogs. As an unconventionally-excellent person myself, anyone who’s given me a chance has either done so with an eye towards potential or an expanded view of excellence. Maybe the areas in which I’ve achieved conventional excellence (for example, I was an honor society/top honors graduate) are more impressive because of the extra work put in. Some people must fight and climb for achievements that others cruise right into, and that struggle can cultivate excellence.

Those who have given me a chance have believed in me and afforded me that extra patience and space. I tend to work with organizations that develop potential and nurture excellence, rather than expecting it. These are the spaces that are necessary to support other underdogs, especially the trailblazing ones. 


  • In what ways do you support underdogs?
  • In what ways do you support top dogs?
  • What do you consider excellence and does it differ from the norm?
  • Does your workplace have the right structures in place to nurture excellence?

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