The search for excellence | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 04, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:34 AM, September 04, 2019

The search for excellence

Why does it elude us?

More than two millennia ago, Aristotle, the great thinker and philosopher of the Socratic tradition prophesied, “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” In light of this hypothesis if we ask ourselves, “are we putting in the best we can in everything we do,” the answer most of the time is a mediocre “meh”. What then has happened to the habit of seeking excellence? Are we tired of living, are we too settled in our comfort zone, are we resigned to the inevitable? Shall we do some Socratic soul searching?

Excellence in the mundane is epitomised by the Japanese “tea ceremony” where even a simple stroke of the tea stirrer is choreographed. For someone not familiar with this epic cultural ritual from the land of the rising sun, the whole thing may appear too contrived and even absurd. But watch it a few times on YouTubes if you are not lucky enough to see this up close in person. And soon you begin to relish the “painstaking attention to detail” in each move, each gesture, so much so that even if you are a boorish foreigner experiencing it for the first time, you automatically get drawn into the spirit of the ceremony and spontaneously respond deferentially as you pick up a simple tea cup and drink a bitter, unsweetened black tea, believing it’s manna from heaven.

The Shakers Christian community of the 19th century in New York State, USA, designed their furniture with care, believing that making something well was in itself, “an act of prayer”, and this slavish attention to perfection gave the world some of the most beautiful furniture and artefacts. A simple rocking chair made by the Shakers combined form and function in such captivating manner as to evoke a feeling of “excellence” in any beholder. Some Shakers antique furniture pieces today command prices in tens of thousands of dollars. Such excellent craftsmanship was the result of Shakers artisans giving their heart and soul into making chairs that were “fit for an angel to sit on”. Such “unrelenting dedication” is the hard-to-find ingredient that begets excellence as an outcome in any human endeavour.

After cyclone Sidr left a trail of devastation in the southern districts of Bangladesh in 2007, I was part of a group of volunteers from our family—cousins, nephews and nieces—organising a relief run through some of the worst hit areas of Patuakhali. As we were gathering survival food packs, I was tasked with getting cakes of “gur”—unrefined natural molasses made from sugarcane juice or date tree syrup—from the market. It was late in the afternoon, almost dusk and as I ran up and down the length of the whole bazaar, I couldn’t find any store that sold gur cakes in the kind of quantity I was looking for. As I was about to give up and opt for factory-produced refined sugar instead, I caught the glimpse of a white dhuti-clad middle-aged man with naked torso, carrying on a pole two large containers of sweet-smelling “akhai gur” over his shoulders, who stopped in front of his store. I shall never forget the punctuated ritual he performed with the “full devotion of a spirit possessed” as he put his wares down and sat on the matted-fibre floor of the shop in a lotus position. Finally, he opened his eyes and looked at me with his hands held close together in the Hindu welcome sign, while I looked on in amazement at his perfectly symmetrical posture and arrangement of the containers on either side. The spartan beauty of the shopkeepers opening ritual was as close to perfection as the hemispheric cakes of gur I picked up.

Thus excellence requires “painstaking attention to detail”, “unrelenting dedication” and “full devotion of a spirit possessed”—qualities that defy easy description and are even harder to inculcate. How are we then to attain excellence in everything we do? Do we become rule-obeying monotonous worker ants in the bigger scheme of things? If not then, how do we find the energy and motivation to work with spiritual devotion?

To answer these questions, one must sincerely probe his or her purpose in life. If a clear-cut purpose eludes some of us, then we must continue to try to find perfection in the form and substance of our work. Oftentimes we discover ourselves in our work and it helps build our character in the process. A couple of months back, the founder chairman of India’s mega IT services firm, Infosys, was in Dhaka as the keynote speaker at The Daily Star Business Awards. On a side meeting with a handful of ICT entrepreneurs and executives, the legendary IT entrepreneur emphasised on “competency, character and commitment” in achieving excellence as a professional. These three C’s have to be imbued with the three D’s (details, dedication and devotion) expounded earlier to attain the singular E for Excellence. Therefore, in an Einsteinian mathematical elegance I declare that E=3C(3D)! Q.E.D.

Habibullah N Karim is an author, policy activist, investor and serial entrepreneur. He is a founder and former president of BASIS and founder/CEO of Technohaven Company Ltd. Email:

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