Thursday, March 7, 2013

Outstanding Trumps Average

I recently read an article whose focus was higher education.  Since I am affiliated with a higher education institution, I was interested.  Since I am much closer to the end of my career rather than the beginning, bad news obviously should affect me less than others. While this is good for me, it is a lousy outlook and, I would argue, is hardly a spiritual way of looking at things.
           
The article focused on the increasing cost of higher education, i.e. a college education.  As any college student will tell you, or the parents helping pay for college costs will say, the cost of a college degree is steep and getting steeper.  The looming question is where and when will folks say, “enough?”  Of course, I don’t think colleges will go out of business (although some might), but the game may be changing.
           
As one who is interested and involved in innovation, the corollary question is how can college education be done differently?  Can we do the same thing at less cost?  Or is there a more radical model that will allow learning to occur for students differently than the way it is being done?  There are emerging, alternative models.  Some find this fascinating and others see them as quite threatening.
           
One such model emerging is called MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses).  This clearly is a technologically driven way of educating.  But the real issue is this: these courses are being taught by the very best faculty from well-known institutions like Stanford, M.I.T., and others.  And even more threatening to some schools is the fact that these courses are free!  Now if you are used to getting paid to teach, this gets your attention.
           
The recent article by Thomas Friedman is not the real point in my reflection here.  But the last line of his article caught my attention and seemed applicable to so much more than higher education.  Friedman ended his article with these words: “When outstanding becomes so easily available, average is over.”  I am sure I gasped when I read those words.  Let’s take a close look at that sentence and what it implies about life and, perhaps, about spirituality.
           
It is clear to me two things are being contrasted in this sentence, namely the “outstanding” and the “average.”  Friedman is exactly right to say when the outstanding becomes so easily available, at that point the average is doomed.  This is exactly right when we are dealing with a competitive context.  In sports and in business outstanding routinely beats the average.
           
When I bring the idea into the arena of spirituality, I am tempted to relax because I don’t see the world of spirituality to be a world of competition.  I really don’t see religion as a numbers game.  If there are more Christians than Buddhists, then Christians win!  But maybe my relaxing is unfounded and, therefore, unfortunate.  I do think spirituality is a non-competing undertaking.
           
But I do not think that makes it ok to settle for average.  Let’s assume that one function of my spirituality is to provide meaning and purpose in my life.  I can’t imagine any person saying in effect, “Actually I prefer to have an average meaning and purpose in my life when I know I could have an outstanding one.  Thanks, but I choose average!”  I know I would choose to be outstanding.
           
However, I realize the idea of spiritually “outstanding” might be misunderstood.  I might think outstanding means spiritually professional---like a monk or priest.  And I know I don’t want that, so I settle for average.  I don’t think outstanding means “professional.”  I prefer to see outstanding to mean to the best of my abilities with myself all into it.  Furthermore, this assumption is grounded in who God is and what I think God wants for each one of us.
           
The creation story is important for me.  In that Genesis account we are told that God created us in the image and likeness of the Divinity.  We are the icons of the Divinity!  We were created for a purpose and that purpose is to live godlike lives.  This means to me that we are designed for love---to love and be loved.  As lovers of God and, I contend, lovers of each other, we are supposed to be in the world making the world into a kingdom of peace and joy.  If we do that, we will pull off the most meaningful and purposeful mission possible.
           
I don’t think for a moment that God had in mind average creatures for this kind of work.  I am confident that God needed outstanding spiritual women and men to engage and execute this special, spiritual task.  However, too many folks resort to being average or, sadly, less than average.  We tend to our own petty agenda and dilute or delete our spiritual task.
           
I use these reflections to renew a commitment to become outstanding.  It is within my capacity and your capacity, too.  Kingdom work is a noble work of dignity and worth.  Anything less than my outstanding effort is not acceptable.  With some effort and God’s grace, I know that outstanding trumps average.  And that’s good.




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