Thursday, May 25, 2023

The Cost of Excellence

 “Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives - choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”    ― Aristotle

            “The best is the mortal enemy of the good. -- Montesquieu

Photo: Pixabay

Bias Part III

In the relentless pursuit of quality standards, and competing to express them, we automatically show our bias against anything but best-in-class.  If we pursue the top nominee for “Best cat breeds for catching mice,” then we must discriminate against less talented mousers.  If we look only at top colleges, we ignore all other options.  We also daydream about absolute top quality in marriage partners, homes, career, and car – the top big-ticket decisions in a lifetime.  It would be rare for anyone to achieve top quality results in all these categories, which is what even the very successful can’t manage to pull off. 

While working or waiting for ideal opportunities, there are many more decisions that are fated to yield less-than-stellar outcomes.  Rarely do all big-ticket criteria align for the perfect world we hold in our heads.  Aristotle championed the excellent while also promoting the Golden Mean as the avenue to avoid the extremes of the excellent and the abysmal.

In practice, though, of course, people can’t perform at their best or fit the top ten criteria for everything, from driving to cooking, singing, organizing, playing bridge, managing their portfolio, or giving presentations.  We do below-best most of the time, and that has consequences across the board for quality of life and reputation. “Anything worth doing, is worth doing well.”  True, but we don’t always choose to pay for that option.  The costs of operating at that level are too high.  Or we must concentrate on one area of life at the expense of others.  The cognitive strain exacted by excellence means we only apply high effort selectively.  On his site, Robert Ferguson notes that for the Forbes 500, Excellence is the third most popular core value—after Integrity and Respect.

Social scientist Herbert Simon articulated the cognitive limits to effort and focus in studying complex problems with high demands.  When things get too complex or hard to evaluate, we default to “satisficing,” making efforts good enough for the situation and its goals to get the job done, even if the outcomes are not top-ranking.  Satisficing sees that the job is taken care of but doesn’t impose a mandate for excellence.  This measure departs from the classical Rational Man theory of economics that assumes people know what they want and the logical price they are willing to pay for it for any given choice—like college. Too often we are dealing with incomplete information, with limited resources and energy.  In everyday situations, entropy rules over excellence.

In engineering and economics, this situation is called “theory of second-best.”  No system operates in all its parts and dynamics at top efficiency all the time, and any aspect that isn’t fully operational impacts the effect of every other aspect of the system, as in welfare economics entitlements. There are too many errors to make, and few ways to be top-notch, compared to hundreds or thousands of chances to be less than that.  A basic human brain problem is that there are two brains: we make decisions and take action both on the rational and the non-rational sides—the reason cognitive economics began to study both, venturing beyond the Rational Man theory.

Diversity programs in all sectors of society are dedicated to breaking down the hierarchy of success by insisting on making the successful better represent subset groups within the culture.  To diffuse class envy and inequality, Santa Monica High School in California has closed down its honors program in English in a radical move against excellence based on merit achievement.  As amazing as this sounds as a solution within an academic institution devoted to developing minds to their fullest extent: it is a logical step under the assumption that the top ranks of students express privilege based on unequal advantages such as educated parents in homes full of books.  SAMO’s home page declares its mission as “Extraordinary achievement for all students while simultaneously closing the achievement gap.”  This noble confusion might be rephrased as “Get great, but not too great to be unequal.” 

On another front, Congress is debating a “Worst Passengers” list, a nationwide no-fly blacklist to bar unruly fliers.  “But in a perfect world, who else would be prevented from flying?  Chatty or entitled passengers? Babies?“ (Elliott Advocacy).  The no-fly list is of cultural interest, because it reflects our collective ideas of profiling bad actors.  The nature of close quarters at high altitudes makes this profiling critical as compared to issues on the ground. One would think that suspected terrorists would come first, followed by anger-management failures, then on to the unruly.  Alcoholics, drug addicts, spastics, mental patients, maybe even the anxious and depressed could follow.  Babies and their behavior included.  Comfort animals other than dogs.  And yes, hygiene-compromised passengers as well.  This could become a long and inclusive list.  Any condition that promotes “disruptive” behavior would be eligible, and that, when you think about it, is a widely distributed trait: anyone who fails to fit “normal” parameters.  Exactly like high achievers, just at the other end of the scale.  

Excellence and the competition for virtuosity is the root cause of inequality.  Any effort to separate people based on merited achievement creates an obvious rift: the top 1% versus everyone else, as in the extreme wealth curve.  Sifting for criteria, either competence or character-based, is a discriminatory act.  This happens constantly at all levels of behavior, within our own actions and in the way we think about and judge others and their origin groups.  How are we to reconcile Excellence with Equity?

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