Tuesday, June 21, 2011

If You Have a Fast Race Horse, Don't Slow Down

Horse racing’s Triple Crown – the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes, finished up a week or so ago.  There was no Triple Crown winner (meaning a horse that wins all three races), and there hasn’t been one since 1978.  It’s become one of the rarest feats in sports, and only 11 horses have ever achieved it.  Probably the most famous Triple Crown winner was a horse you’ve most likely heard of: Secretariat.

I was finally able to watch the recent movie about this famous equine (titled simply “Secretariat”) while on a flight the other day.  I had been looking forward to seeing it, because I didn’t really know the story.  I knew that Secretariat was a Triple Crown winner, but that’s about it.  The movie was fine.  It’s a Disney movie, so the character lessons were very straightforward, the heroes were heroic, and the villains were dastardly.  I think the general viewer would walk away from the story of Secretariat with another reminder that one should never stop believing in their dreams.  Good lesson.

I saw something else. 

The ending surprised me.  Of course, since Secretariat is a true story, I knew that he would win all the races and thus win the Triple Crown.  That wasn’t the surprising part.  To me, the surprising part was the final race. 

All the dramatic pieces were in place for the final race, the Belmont Stakes: the champ (Secretariat), the unlikable challenger (a horse named Champ, trained by an arrogant blowhard), and history on the line.  The typical formula (see Rocky or Remember the Titans) for these kinds of stories is that the hero fights the battle of his life, appears defeated, only to valiantly battle back to barely win, sending the crowd into a frenzy.  That wasn’t the case with Secretariat.  He blew the doors off the competition and won by thirty lengths.  It wasn’t close at all.  The outcome was decided almost immediately after the gates opened.

And I found this to be refreshing for some reason.  Secretariat was clearly the best horse at the time (and has since been called the best racehorse ever), and he knew it.  He flew.  And while I can gain satisfaction from the underdog stories (see the 2011 Dallas Mavericks), I learned that I could find equal satisfaction in watching a truly special champion just do all that he was capable of.  Without apology.

Relate this to fraternity and sorority life.  On most campuses, there are chapters that are the Secretariats of their Greek system.  They have all pistons firing, and are leading the pack in service, academics, recruitment, etc. 

Our underdog mindset sometimes wants us to tell these groups to slow down.  To let others catch up.  The Secretariats can take so much of the spotlight that they can become tiresome.  It’s like dominate sports teams.  We can get tired of their success, and thus want to see others take a turn.

Slow down Secretariat!

I may be na├»ve about this, but I believe that most of the time, groups that are successful and groups that struggle do not get to those points by accident.  However, our underdog mentality can drift into dangerous territory – fairness.

It’s not fair that some fraternities or sororities are at the top, while others can’t seem to get there!  Every group deserves that success!  There must be equality!

Slow down Secretariat!

Of course, this isn’t a perfect analogy.  There isn’t a race we’re trying to win.  Sometimes, environmental factors can play a role.  Our groups at the top aren’t perfect, and shouldn’t be treated that way.  Caring about the plight of others is a value we hold dear.  I understand all of that.

And yet, I believe that sometimes we actively try to slow lead horses down to the rest of pack instead of expecting the rest of the pack to catch up to the lead horses. 

Slow down Secretariat!

And I don’t think the answer is for the lead horses to stop and try to teach the rest the secrets to their success.  Besides, the secrets are most likely very obvious: focus and hard work.
I think the answer is to just let the lead horses run, in all their glory, for all to see.  If they deserve the award – give it to them.  If they win the competitions, congratulate them.  If they have the highest GPA (again), praise them far and wide.

After all, what you reward is what you get.  What you praise and acknowledge sends a loud and clear signal about what you value.  It may make others cringe with frustration or envy.  It also leaves them with a choice – stay behind or raise their game.

It's not selfish to want excellence.  The greatest service that the high-performing fraternities and sororities can provide to their communities is to remain high-performing. 

For the members reading this, if you have a racehorse that can win by 30 lengths, ride it for all it can give you.  But, a little humility doesn’t hurt either (see the 2011 Miami Heat). 

I will probably still always root for the underdog.  It’s a much more compelling story.  There is so much to learn from the grit and determination of someone who defies the odds.  However, I’ll keep it as my goal to also appreciate shear brilliance when I see it.  My enjoyment in the underdog should never give me reason to deny anybody or anything the chance to show their true excellence.

Go Secretariat!


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Calvin and Hobbes on Excellence

Continuing a summer theme, some thoughts from Calvin and Hobbes (and me) on striving for excellence...

Do our expectations and standards sometimes allow for us to celebrate mediocrity?  If so, what kind of effect does this have on our groups?  Does excellence begin to mean "good enough?"

Does our propensity to always want to dress up our work result in us caring too much about how we show excellence, and not on how we achieve true excellence?

What is the motivation to be excellent?  Are we so worn out by those underachieving, that we ignore those doing just enough to get by?  What's the better use of time: helping a low performing group perform, or helping a performing group achieve excellence?

And my favorite...can excellence truly be relative?  And if so, is their danger in that?

Just some thoughts from a truly excellent comic strip (thanks Mr. Waterson).