Excellence in a broken mirror

/ 21 January 2011

When I think back to my time at MIT I usually talk about MIT as a place that embodies excellence. Over time I’ve come to realize that excellence is an outcome, a marker, not a goal. You cannot strive to be “excellent” because excellence without a context is meaningless. Excellence is in the mirror broken, in how others see you.

What allowed MIT to be excellent was that it knew its purpose, it had a destination in mind:

The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.

The Institute is committed to generating, disseminating, and preserving knowledge, and to working with others to bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges. MIT is dedicated to providing its students with an education that combines rigorous academic study and the excitement of discovery with the support and intellectual stimulation of a diverse campus community. We seek to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.

It never felt like MIT was trying to be the best, it seemed to become the best by living out its dedication to improving the lot of others. Efforts like OpenCourseWare were not done to position MIT to dominate an online education market, but because they would help MIT faculty communicate with each other and help institutions around the world prepare even better students to come to MIT for further study. Every voice was welcome to contribute and those that offered solid, actionable ideas were invited to greater collaboration and access to decision making. It was an extraordinary environment with its own dark sides but a consistently excellent outcome.

One of my disappointments at the University of Minnesota was its strategic planning effort. After significant effort and input from the whole U community the administration put forward a goal for the institution that amounted to: we won’t just be big, we’ll be good. Here’s how retiring U president Robert Bruininks put it on his home page:

Our vision is to improve lives through the advancement of knowledge, and our strategic goal is aspirational, audacious, and, I believe, achievable: to become one of the top three public research universities in the world, with a deep and abiding cultural commitment to excellence in everything we do, across all our campuses, research and outreach centers, and offices statewide.

While the U had a perfectly fine mission, all energy focussed around this new goal: “Become one of the Top Three Public Research Universities in the World.” I always wondered, top three at what? Indeed, energy was spent trying to determine by what metric we’d measure our success. Instead of focussing on being great, the U needed to find its reason for being at all, its calling, and live that out fully.

Lately I’ve had reason to look closely at Carleton College, a small college in the area. Its mission is quite different than MIT’s, but equally clear: to provide an exceptional undergraduate liberal arts education; to prepare students to lead lives of learning that are broadly rewarding, professionally satisfying, and of service to humanity; to be a collaborative community that encourages curiosity and intellectual adventure of the highest quality. Yes, Carleton also wants to be the best at what it does, but it puts what it does front and center in the minds of faculty, students, and staff, not the aspiration to be number one. Guess what, Carleton has a reputation for excellence.

This topic came to mind again today through another context altogether. This week Steve Jobs stepped away from Apple for another medical leave, so many have been dwelling on what makes Apple successful and whether that success can be sustained without Steve. I think it can, as long as Steve has succeeded in driving his dedication to thinking ahead of users, delivering quality, and always valuing simplicity and beauty in design into the Apple culture. Under Steve, Apple has never put market share first, though they’ve been happy to enjoy huge shares in some new markets. As a reader of the Daily Dish puts it:

Apple reaches for greatness without apology. Market share and profitability are important only as outcomes. They are not its purpose, which is to achieve the “insanely great.” It is as if they are on an ongoing Grail quest. …

Yeah, it’s just some metal, plastic and silicon. And, yes, Apple makes a lot of money. But those two observations miss completely the point of Apple. It’s about inspiration, hope and an embrace of the future and humanity’s place within it.

What are we each called to do? We can’t just focus on being our best, we have to live our lives in a context, we have to be part of something to find a life that is “broadly rewarding, professionally satisfying, and of service to humanity.”

This week we lost someone who knew how to do this. Take a few moments to look at the life led by Sargent Shriver, the people he touched, the things he believed in. He advised Yalies in 1994 to break mirrors. “Shatter the glass. In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor and less about your own.”


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