DRMacIver's Notebook

Norms of Excellence

Norms of Excellence

I promised people a spicy notebook post, but I decided that actually it was rather rambling and didn’t achieve its intended purpose, also I didn’t want to write it in the end, so here’s a shorter notebook post that achieves its goals better.

I wrote before about the social obligation to be bad at things. One of the things that I have been working on recently is trying to figure out what the opposite looks like. What are some moral norms that promote excellence, and how do we embody them?

(Yes, I need to read some virtue ethics, no I haven’t read more than the SEP entry on it yet. Also this is as much a practice of ethics question).

I think this starts from some basic principles:

  1. You have to value being good at things.
  2. You have to be OK with being bad at things.
  3. You have to be OK with other people being better at them than you.
  4. You have to be OK with being better at them than other people.
  5. You have to build growth relationships.

The first two principles are ones I’ve written about before, they’re the desire and safety model: You have to want to be good at the thing, and it has to be safe for you to experiment and find out that you’re bad at the thing. That’s not to say that you can’t feel annoyed, or guilty, or other negative emotional responses to being bad at something, but those have to be bounded. Your reaction to failure should be “Oh, that’s annoying, I’ll do better” rather than a giant toxic shame spiral.

The others are more interesting.

When other people are better than you

If someone is better at something than you, that’s great. You can use them as inspiration, and possibly as a teacher, to improve.

I’ve been ragging on The Inner Game of Tennis a lot recently, but despite my complaints I got a lot of value out of reading it, so let me quote from my absolute favourite passage from it for you, from page 121 in the chapter about competition (a chapter which I unreservedly like):

[…] true competition is identical with true cooperation. Each player tries his hardest to defeat the other, but in this use of competition it isn’t the other person we are defeating; it is simply a matter of overcoming the obstacles he presents. In true competition no person is defeated. Both players benefit by their efforts to overcome the obstacles presented by the other. Like two bulls butting their heads against one another, both grow stronger and each participates in the development of the other.

If you value being better at something than someone else, you are driven to put them down - their improvement is your loss. If, however, you value being good at something, you should aim to build them up, so that they in turn can help build you up.

This sort of valuing being good without valuing better is, I think, the key feature to any norm of excellence, because it creates a positive feedback loop: When someone is good, everyone around them gets better, which causes them to get better in turn.

The other reason you have to be OK with other people being better than you is that it’s inevitable. There might be something you are the world expert at (and in fact, I would suggest that being the world expert at something is both much more achievable than you think and a worthy goal for anyone to pursue), but you’re definitely not the world expert at everything, and some people are just going to be better than you at things that matter in ways that you can never hope to catch up to. If you’re not comfortable with that, you cannot be comfortable with the world.

When you are better than other people

Being better at things than other people can often be quite emotionally difficult, for reasons that are largely moral in nature.

The first reason is simply that it’s often annoying when people are bad at something and you can see how to do it better.

I think undoing this is essentially a two step process:

  1. Decide what level you think it is morally obligatory for people to be good at the thing. When they are failing to adhere to that level, do something about it - point it out to them, help them get better, etc. (How much it’s appropriate to do depends on context and your relationship with the person).
  2. If people clear that level of moral obligation and you’re still better at it than them, get over it.

Examples where the first matter are mostly ones where skill level has an impact on other people. Someone who is bad at driving, or consent, has a significant chance of hurting someone else. Therefore competence is not merely a nice to have, it’s a moral imperative. But at some point there’s a diminishing return - the current median level of driving is probably too low, but but 90% level is probably fine despite almost everyone in the 90% level having someone who is better at driving than them.

The second is important too: A norm in which you are annoyed at people for not being as good as you utterly fails to promote excellence (as well as being a jerk move), because people are finite beings with differing priorities. If someone is not good at something, that’s their responsibility, and it may be because they don’t value being good at it as much as you do, or because they’ve spent their time on other things they value more. If you want to promote excellence in general rather than just in one specific area, you have to allow people to pick what they excel at.

The next major issue which comes up when you’re better at things than someone else is that they will feel bad about that (this would be less of an issue if everyone was a perfect adherent to the norm of being OK when other people are better than them).

This has been something of a problem for me, and is something I’ve been working on fixing this year: There are things that are widely valued in my social group that I am just very good at, and that other people who also value them are not very good at, and the fact that I am good at them makes them feel bad about the fact that they are not.

The easiest example of this is reading. I read a lot. People express a certain amount of awe at this, but it’s nothing mysterious. I read a lot because I spend about ten hours per week reading. I read moderately but not remarkably fast, so it’s possible I read about twice as much as you would if you also spent ten hours a week reading, but I read something closer to ten times as much as most people do. If I didn’t have other things I should be doing as well, I would happily (and easily) double that.

It’s perfectly OK to not read that much. You don’t have to be a reader at all. The minimum morally obligatory level of reading is zero hours spent reading books. But if you are someone who thinks of themselves as a reader, and attaches personal value to that identification, the fact that I’m spending ten hours a week reading books highlights the fact that they’re not, and that makes them feel bad.

Here is the uncomfortable but true thing I have had to learn this year: That’s not my problem.

There’s no way to sugar coat this: Being good at things will make your friends feel bad about themselves, and you have to be OK with that.

Conflict is Not Abuse and The Courage to be Disliked were very useful in helping me resolve a bunch of my emotional issues around this earlier this year. The two relevant concepts, which pair very well together, are the idea of “Separation of Tasks” and “Overstating Harm”. In short:

If you feel bad about your non-reading, that’s not under my control, and my attempting to control it does us both a disservice. If what I am doing for myself makes you uncomfortable, that is not me doing harm to you - and may even be helping you - and avoiding it is not doing you a favour.

“Causing someone discomfort is not causing them harm” seems particularly unintuitive, so here are two examples of causing someone discomfort that I find help untangle things:

Neither of these are harm, and neither of these are things that the person causing the discomfort is remotely culpable for.

That’s not to say everything that causes discomfort is fine, obviously. Many things that cause discomfort are bad and are morally culpable (if nothing else, being harmed is quite uncomfortable), only that discomfort itself is not evidence of harm.

In particular it is not to say that I should rub your face in the fact that I read more than you. That would be an obviously jerk move. But I should make no more than reasonable accommodations - ideally at your explicit request - about how to handle this, and holding myself back because it makes you feel bad is not a reasonable accommodation.

Additionally, and importantly, it’s not an accommodation that I think any of my friends would want, and by attempting to make it unasked I become unsafe for them to tell me how they feel.

Building Growth Relationships

I’ve talked about growth relationships before, but in short a growth relationship is one where everyone in the relationship gets better for the relationship, in the way that they want to get better.

These are key to norms of excellence, because how much you can help someone very much depends on the strength of your relationship. These writings are, ultimately, an attempt to help all of you reading them grow (in whatever way works for you), but they’re very impersonal: I’m casting them out into the world, hoping that they help.

A growth relationship helps everyone get better because you can help each other out more directly - you have higher context, you can invest more effort, and you can deliberately provide people each other a platform for becoming better.

As well as excellence norms requiring growth relationships, I think growth relationships are also a good place to practice excellence norms, so if these norms are at all appealling I’d recommend exploring them in the context of some of your close friendships and romantic relationships.