Does Excellence require Extravagance?
When Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, he was building on the revolutionary and fascinating ideas set forth in 1818 by Mary Shelley in her ground-breaking work Frankenstein. Where Shelley created a monster by stitching together random body parts, Stevenson took a different approach and decided to highlight the monster within. He helped popularize this concept of duality, especially as it related to the inner workings of a man or woman.
For those who don’t know the story or weren’t required to read it while in primary school, here is a short summary. Dr. Jekyll is for all intents and purposes a well-to-do middle-class citizen, admired and respected. One day, he is working on scientific experiments concerning personality, and he is affected. As a result, his inner “Mr. Hyde” is unleashed. While Dr. Jekyll is kind and gentle, Mr. Hyde is a murderer and a monster. Though the same man, these two personalities have stark contrasts in almost every way.
Since then, the phrase “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” has become synonymous not only with the story written by Stevenson but also for situations in which there is a sense of outward “good” and inward “turmoil” or vice versa.
One area in which I see Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde today is in our pursuit of excellence. Excellence is a worthy goal and an admirable characteristic to build within our selves, our families, and our organizations. That is hard to argue against. However, there are a few areas in which unchecked excellence can quickly teeter towards its dark side, into the Mr. Hyde. One of those ways is through extravagance.
Excellence is defined as the quality of being outstanding or extremely good. Over the course of history, many great leaders have penned their definition or thoughts on excellence. On excellence, Martin Luther King Jr. said,
“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
Rick Patino, when describing excellence, said it this way,
“Excellence is the unlimited ability to improve the quality of what you have to offer.”
These quotes and many others like it seem to show us the Dr. Jeykll side of excellence that so many of us admire and consistently share with our families, co-workers, or friend groups. We have quotes like this on our walls or on our fridges, in frames where we can look at them daily and be inspired to become the best version of ourselves. But in the pursuit of excellence, how do you ensure that you stay within the difficult to see guardrails of morality and not swerve ever-so-slightly towards the Mr. Hyde of extravagance masked excellence? While extravagance in itself is not always a negative attribute or pursuit, it is commonly defined: a lack of restraint in spending money or use of resources.
I do not believe that excellence and extravagance are siblings, or must always come hand in hand. Some of the greatest examples of excellence that I have seen have been gritty, unassuming, and under the radar. There does not need to be a direct correlation between excellence and extravagance. However, as leaders and learners, we must be aware that an unchecked pursuit of excellence can quickly derail into a pursuit of extravagance. Phrases such as “get the extra one,” or “just order a few more,” or “it doesn’t matter what it costs,” can easily get interwoven into the recognizable vernacular of excellence such as “do whatever it takes,” “push all limits,” and “better than it’s ever been before.” This becomes tricky because while the language sounds similar, the attitude and the execution is often not.
One of the greatest things about excellence is that it often pushes us to look deeper within ourselves, to push past our insecurities or doubts, to reach that new level or gear within our souls, stirred by the fires of wanting to give this task our absolute best. Excellence is 100% purposeful but is often a surprise when it is accomplished. Excellence thrives off the idea of doing something that we didn’t even know we were capable of doing. Extravagance on the other hand rarely encourages that inward probing but looks outward first to solve the problems at hand. Extravagance asks, “what else can be added externally to solve this problem?” Leaders who begin to rely on extravagance often forego the inner development that leads to true excellence.
Excellence takes time and is often a long hard path. Extravagance can create time by shortening the path. Excellence, if done correctly, is an inward accomplishment that spills over into the outward execution. Extravagance, if done incorrectly, is an outward demonstration desiring an audience and often covers up a less than excellent inward execution.
For leaders, there are many ways in which the pursuit of excellence can be deceiving and dangerous, but that should not and does not mean that the pursuit is not worth the effort. Anything worthwhile takes a long time. The great president Theodore Roosevelt, arguably one of the greatest leaders in American History said this,
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
There are two sides to every coin and as Robert Louis Stevenson so deftly pointed out, there is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde within each of us. Likewise, excellence will always have its shadows, the Mr. Hyde hanging out in the darkness waiting to emerge. It goes by many names, some of which change as time and culture continue to progress. One of those names is extravagance, and the more it is named, the easier it becomes to guard against.