Be Excellent

Margaret S. Wheelwright

 

Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional

January 22, 2008

 

 

I’d like to teach you all a useful little rhyme today, and if this is all you leave with from here, I will consider it time well spent. It goes like this:

 

                                    Good, better, best;

                                    Never let it rest

                                    Till your good is better

                                    And your better is best.

 

Let’s say that together and see how it sounds:

 

                                    Good, better, best;

                                    Never let it rest

                                    Till your good is better

                                    And your better is best.

 

Well done! That simple saying summarizes beautifully the pursuit of excellence, which I would like to speak about today. Many of you probably recall the wonderful talk Elder Dallin H. Oaks gave at the last general conference1. He spoke about “good, better, and best,” too, but his comments revolved around the quality of activities we choose to give our time to. My thoughts today will use this same phrase to consider the quality of our output as we strive to excel.

 

Have you ever stopped to consider that the pursuit of excellence is a principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ? It should even be a defining characteristic of members of His church.

 

Elder J. Richard Clarke has counseled and encouraged us to “accept the challenge to set a Mormon standard of quality, unique because of its excellence.”2 Today, I would like to reiterate that challenge and offer a few suggestions of how you wonderful students here at one of the Lord’s universities can accomplish this goal.

 

President Hinckley believes that striving for excellence is a God-given directive:

 

“The mind of man is the crowning creation of God, in whose express image man was made. The development of the mind is a companion responsibility to the cultivation of the Spirit, as set forth in the revealed principles of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.”3

And, in case that was unclear, he later rephrased that thought and got right to the point:

 

“Don’t be a scrub! Rise to the high ground of spiritual, mental, and physical excellence. You can do it. You may not be a genius. You may be lacking in some skill. But so many of us can do better than we are doing now. . . Don’t muff your opportunities. Be excellent.”4

 

Be excellent! But what does excellence mean, exactly? To “excel” means “to go beyond a limit.” I never really enjoyed, or even understood, calculus, but I know that going “beyond a limit” sounds really hard! College basketball coach, Rick Pitino, said that “excellence is the unlimited ability to improve the quality of what you have to offer.” Is it possible to improve infinitely? Well, right there is the Plan of Salvation, isn’t it? The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that we CAN improve infinitely, line upon line and precept upon precept.

 

I believe that the magical mortal ingredient of excellence is actually ATTITUDE, or, in other words, will not skill. My mother, who was a wise and caring teacher, often said that, as far as her students were concerned, she appreciated “I will!” far more than “I.Q.” A five-year study of many top US athletes, musicians, and scholars recently found that “drive and determination, not great natural talent, led to their extraordinary success.”5 One prominent self-improvement guru described that “drive” as “an absolute sense of mission,”6 and considered it to be the common thread of all outstanding people. That “sense of mission” is often coupled with a willingness to sacrifice. Excellent people understand that there is a price to be paid for success. And the underlying element, supporting both a sense of mission and a willingness to sacrifice, is faith, both a person’s faith in their self and his or her faith in the Lord. Todd Skinner, a world-renowned mountain climber, summed up this faithful drive toward excellence when he said,

 

“We do not change the mountain, we change ourselves. We cannot lower the mountain, therefore we must elevate ourselves.”

 

Sometimes we put limits on what we think we can do, but our capacity for excellence is far beyond what we might currently imagine. One important way to begin to see our limitless potential is to surround ourselves with excellence. Excellence is inspiring and contagious. That’s the reason why records are constantly being broken, and why a certain team, group, or family might seem to possess a disproportionate number of outstanding members. We might think it has to do with genetics, or even a performance-enhancing drug, but, more often than not, it’s nothing as simple as DNA or steroids. Rather, there is a Spirit of Excellence that can inspire and motivate us. When we surround ourselves with excellence, when we study it and expose ourselves to it, that inspiration and encouragement can eventually begin to help us disregard what we might have considered stumbling blocks to success: A lack of natural talent or skill, an absence of resources, less than ideal circumstances, or even past experiences or failures.

 

These two women did exactly that, and I want to share their stories with you as a way of inspiring you to reach a little higher.

 

I imagine you’ve all read or heard at least a little about the woman on the left. This is Helen Keller. Helen was deaf and blind but became a great humanitarian around the world, traveling and giving speeches about everything from her history to human rights. When Helen was just a toddler, she contracted a raging fever. The doctors of the time diagnosed this as “acute congestion of the stomach and brain” but, whatever it was, it robbed this previously healthy child of both her sight and her hearing. Her parents were heartbroken at what had happened to their darling baby girl. Incredibly, though, no one could take Helen’s determination and will away from her, and, by the time she was eleven years old, she could position her hand with her middle finger on a person’s nose, her forefinger on their lips, and her thumb on their throat and thereby understand what they were saying, all without hearing any sound from their throat or seeing any movement from their mouths.7

 

Helen went on to attend and graduate from Radcliffe University, the top women’s university of her day. Referring to her preparation to attend Radcliffe, one of her tutors commented that “her ambition and her confidence in her own power to master whatever she has once undertaken are two of her most marked traits of mind”.8  This same tutor, on learning she had passed the rigorous entrance exams, called her accomplishment “a triumph of ambition stimulated by obstacles”.9

 

And Helen herself said, just prior to her graduation, “There is nothing good or right which we cannot accomplish if we have the will to strive”.10 Helen Keller obviously possessed that will, that “absolute sense of mission”, required to overcome her obstacles and achieve excellence.

 

But she didn’t accomplish these things alone. The other woman in the picture, on the right, is her teacher, Anne Sullivan. And Annie’s story and achievements are every bit as remarkable as Helen’s. Annie was the daughter of two penniless Irish immigrants. Annie and her younger brother, Jimmie, both suffered with disabilities:  Annie was half blind from an eye disease, and Jimmie walked with a crutch because of a tubercular hip. When Annie was ten, her mother died, leaving her alcoholic and abusive father to care for the two children. Within a year, the two children were sent to the poorhouse in their small Massachusetts town. Living in the Tewksbury Poorhouse was a nightmare. There were rumors around town that the only thing the children had to play with there were the rats.

 

Annie and Jimmie clung tightly to each other. They were all they had in the world. Annie refused to allow them to be separated, as was the practice, so they were given a small bed to sleep in back in a dark corner next to what the residents called “the deadhouse,” the place where the bodies of those who died were kept while awaiting burial. This frightened the two children horribly but, as long as they were together, they would be alright. However, tragedy struck within about a year and Jimmie died one night from complications of a high fever. By the time Annie awoke, his body was gone, taken to “the deadhouse,” and she was alone.

 

Somehow, Annie survived the next few years by herself. Then one day, by sheer persistence and determination, she was able to convince a visiting authority that he should help her escape her awful fate and go to school. She succeeded and, within a year, found herself recovering from two eye surgeries and beginning school at the Perkins School for the Blind. At first, her schooling was even worse than life at the poorhouse. The students, and even the teachers, laughed at this 14-year-old who couldn’t even spell her own name. She recorded that she was actually “homesick” for Tewksbury!

 

But again, her persistence and determination paid off, and, a few years later, she graduated as the top student in her class. But her degree was certainly not the end of her pursuit of excellence. When she was 20 years old, a professor from Perkins asked if she would go and teach a poor handicapped child named Helen Keller. When Annie heard of Helen’s circumstances, she was positive she could not be of any use to her. She had no experience teaching a deaf or blind student, and certainly not one who was both! Fortunately for both of them, though, Annie needed the money so desperately that she took the job.

 

A short while after moving in with the Kellers, she wrote a letter to Mrs. Hopkins, back at the Perkins School. In it, she summarized her feelings at that point about helping Helen.

 

“Something within me tells me that I shall succeed beyond my dreams . . . I know that [Helen] has remarkable powers, and I believe that I shall be able to develop and mold them. I cannot tell how I know these things. I had no idea a short time ago how to go to work; I was feeling about in the dark, but somehow I know now, and I know that I know.”11

 

It wasn’t long before Annie was able to break through Helen’s dark, silent world, through a teaching method solely of her own creation. Twenty years later, after earning a college degree with honors, Helen spoke to a fascinated audience, saying, “The doors of the bright world are flung open before me and a light shines upon me, the light kindled by the thought that there is something for me to do beyond the threshold.12

 

Both Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan had so many doors closed to them but their desires to excel opened those doors and allowed them to step over and beyond those thresholds. Each of them was able to accomplish far more than anyone would have ever thought possible. Each of them literally changed the world.

 

1 Corinthians 1:27 reads, “. . . God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.”

 

At times, each one of us feels like we have reached a closed door. We feel weak and incapable of opening the door and stepping over and past its threshold. But the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Plan of Salvation, teaches us and encourages us to do precisely that. Our individual pursuits of excellence can unlock, even fling open, those doors, and expose us to that bright light Helen had seen, the reality that there is something more we can do!

 

Let’s consider a simple diagram that may help clarify the pursuit of excellence. If we divide a triangle into three sub-sections, the supporting or base section can represent faith. Living in faith and righteousness is at the core of achieving excellence. Consider these scriptures:

 

“All things are possible to him that believeth.”13

           

“For with God, nothing shall be impossible.”14

           

“Seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”15

 

Faith, believing in our own potential and believing that God can and will help us, is crucial to “crossing the threshold,” or going “beyond the limit.”

 

Elder Dallin H. Oaks has counseled, “Your faith will sustain you and give added meaning and increased accomplishment to your secular studies if you will live to deserve the blessings of the Lord.”16 Living faithfully and righteously is how we live to “deserve the blessings of the Lord.”

 

Remember the Stripling Warriors? We read in Alma that “they did obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness.”17 Do you remember the excellent outcome of their big battle? Every single one of them was injured, but not one died. Now that is going “beyond the limit.” They deserved, or had earned, the blessings of the Lord.

 

One of the greatest blessings of the Lord is the gift of the Spirit. 

 

“When we invite the Holy Ghost to fill our minds with light and knowledge, He . . . enlightens and enlivens the inner man or woman. . . We feel strengthened, filled with peace and joy. We possess spiritual energy and enthusiasm, both of which enhance our natural abilities. We can accomplish more than we otherwise could do on our own.”18

           

I know without a doubt that when I am living in faith and righteousness, when I deserve the Lord’s blessings and the company of the Holy Ghost, I can do so much more than I could possibly do on my own.

 

I am currently enrolled in a family history course at BYU–Hawaii. Those who know me well know that I am “technically challenged.” For several years, I have been afraid to become involved in much of the newly developed computer technology that is so prevalent in genealogical research today. Through attending this class, however, I have begun to feel enlightened and empowered. I know that this is the Holy Ghost helping me learn. I am gradually overcoming my computer fears because I have faith, coupled with a strong and righteous desire, or will, to do family history research.

 

Annie Sullivan lived in faith, too. Though I know nothing of her religious beliefs, I can tell from reading the excerpts of her letters that this was a woman of faith. She said she had no idea of where to begin but “somehow I know now, and I know that I know.” I believe she was led by the Spirit on how to proceed to teach Helen.

 

The left portion of our triangle diagram represents that “sense of mission,” or will to succeed. This requires us to set goals. We all hear a lot about goal setting, especially in January, but let me point out that the surest way to miss your mark is to not even have one. And by setting that mark just slightly out of reach, slightly beyond our current ability, we learn firsthand that there is always room for improvement. We develop humility as we realize that we can always do a little better, especially with the Lord’s help.

 

Annie and Helen were world-class goal-setters. When Annie set her mind on finding a way out of the poorhouse and into a real school, she determined to do whatever it took, even if that meant literally throwing herself at the feet of a man of power and position. When Helen informed her parents that she would begin studying to pass the college entrance exams, they thought she had lost her mind. “Impossible!” they said.

 

Of course, setting a goal isn’t enough. We then have to make it happen. We should adopt President Kimball’s motto as our own and “Do it!” This is where the right side of the diagram comes into play: Sacrifice. Sacrifice means giving up something good now for something better in the future, and that is exactly what the pursuit of excellence is about.

 

Since Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, mortals have been required to sweat. President Benson counseled us to “Work, work, work! There is no satisfactory substitute.”19

 

Often, the difference between “work” and “hard work” is not as much as we might think. Champions don’t win by running twice as fast, or scoring twice as many points as their opponents. Usually they win by just a fraction of a second, or by just one extra goal. If we were to work just a little harder, say 15 minutes a day, over the course of a year, we would have worked an extra 91 hours!

 

Of course, hard work usually requires sacrifice.

 

Two secrets to hard work are to pay attention to the details and to form good habits. General Colin Powell recognized this when he said, “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.” And Aristotle could see thousands of years ago that “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

 

By combining these three keys to excellence, living in faith and righteousness, setting goals to solidify our will or “sense of mission,” and sacrificing through hard work and attention to detail to reach those goals, we will be able to eventually succeed in whatever we are pursuing, but the eventually part can be discouraging. Patience will be critical. Remember, “the view of a champion, and the glory that surrounds him, must never be overshadowed by the long process of becoming one.”20 We love our instant messaging, we require instant relief, and we pay big money for instant satisfaction, but excellence does not come instantly. Persistence and patience are required.

 

We will experience setbacks, but they are one way we learn to improve. Remember that past failures do not predict future successes. My mother-in-law, Ann Coulam Wheelwright, firmly believed that failure was never in doing but only in quitting. With her, quitting was never an option. She considered failure as simply the price of growth and development and a chance to reflect, regroup, and then proceed with renewed vigor. The great painter, Whistler, once advised a friend to “hang on the walls of [his] mind the memory of [his] successes. . .”21 We can do the same and thereby find the endurance to keep trying and keep working until we reach our goals.

 

The Lord wants to help us reach those goals. He wants to reward us for our faithful living, and He wants to bless us for our righteous sacrifices. This is where grace comes into the picture. Grace can be simply described as the Lord making up the difference, after all we can do. And grace is what will take our best efforts to a higher level, what will make it possible for us to go “beyond the limit,” or over and far past the threshold of what we assume is possible. Grace is the Atonement at work in every aspect of our lives, including the pursuit of excellence.

 

Helen Keller said, late in her life, “When we do the best we can, we never know what miracle is wrought in our life, or in the life of another.”22 Her dear friend and teacher, Anne Sullivan, certainly did her very best for Helen, and Helen knew firsthand what miracles had been wrought in her life because of it. And therein lies the real secret to the pursuit of excellence. When we do the best we can, we never know what miracles the Lord will see fit to bless us or someone else with because of our desire to excel.

 

President Hinckley has said:

 

“My plea is that we constantly take the position that every one of us can do better than we are doing now. We are in a constant search for excellence. That search must be continuous and never-ending. It must be consuming and unrelenting. Happily, such a lofty and crucial pursuit does not require genius. ‘What can I do better today so that the Lord can bless me?’ We must not sell ourselves short. We must make a little extra effort. We would be wise to kneel before our God in supplication. He will help us. He will bless us. He will comfort and sustain us. He will help us do more, and be more, than we can ever accomplish or become on our own.”23

 

I am so grateful for all of the miracles the Lord has blessed me with in my life.  I know that He lives and that He loves me and He loves you.  I know that with His help and direction our lives can be filled with experiences and opportunities far beyond our mortal abilities.  The Atonement is real and blesses each one of us when we allow it to change our hearts and our minds.  I know that through His grace He will make our good better and our better best after all we can do.  I am so grateful for that knowledge and assurance.

 

I pray that the Lord will bless each one of you in your striving for excellence, that, as President Hinckley has urged, we will all have this as a continuous and never-ending desire in each of our lives. 

 

And I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

 


1 Dallin H. Oaks, “Good, Better, Best,” Ensign, Nov. 2007, pp. 104-8.

2 J. Richard Clarke, “The Household of Faith,” Ensign, Nov. 1980, p. 82, emphasis added.

3 Gordon B. Hinckley, “Come and Partake,” Ensign, May 1986, p. 46, emphasis added.

4 “The Quest for Excellence,” Gordon B. Hinckley, Ensign, Sept. 1999, p. 2.

5 L.A. Times, 17 Feb 1985.

6 Zig Ziglar

7 Dash, Joan. The World at Her Fingertips: The Story of Helen Keller, Scholastic Press, 2001, p. 49.

8 Fingertips, p. 88.

9 Fingertips, p. 92.

10 Fingertips, p. 117.

11 Fingertips, p. 37.

12 Fingertips, p. 118, emphasis added.

13 Mark 9:23

14 Luke 1:37

15 D&C 88:118

16“Strive for Excellence,” Dallin H. Oaks, Ensign, Dec. 1971.

17 Alma 57:21

18 “Quench Not the Spirit Which Quickens the Inner Man,” Elder Keith K. Hilbig, Ensign, Nov. 2007, p. 38.

19 Benson, Ezra Taft, The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, SLC: Bookcraft, 1988, p. 200.

20“The Principle of Work,” Elder F. D. Stanley, Ensign, May 1993.

21 As quoted by Sterling W. Sill, “Great Experiences,” Ensign, June 1971, p. 43.

22 www.WomensHistory.about.com

23 Hinckley, Gordon B., Standing for Something, Three Rivers Press, 2001, p. xi.