If He makes me a goblet, I become a goblet,
If He makes me a dagger, I become a dagger,
If He makes me a fountain, then I shall give water,
If He makes me rain, I’ll bring forth the harvest,
If He makes me a needle, I pierce the body,
If He makes me a snake, I’ll produce poison,
If He makes me His friend, I shall serve only Him.
-Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi
There’s something to be said about excellence. It is all but worshipped in our current society, justifying not only the worth we give people in our estimation of them, but oftentimes also their social status, and the material worth they are allowed to possess. That someone is a genius, that they are innovative, that they are exceptionally talented; these are the markers, the justifications for their control over other people, their maintenance of a position that excludes others. All in all, it would be fair to say there is an excessive focus on excellence, so much so that it has become a clear commodity- a commodity whose value is inflated, and whose inflated value invites copycats and bandwagons (unless you believe all the “rags to riches” stories told by billionaires who neither started from “rags” nor had any contribution in the design or implementation of the products they simply marketed).
But there is something to be said about excellence when it comes to collective planning. Before even going to a community level, for someone who has some talent, some innate ability to become exceptional in one useful skill, it seems a waste to spend ages training their other skills. The 100 hours spent to be passable on one skill, could have been spent to become exceptional on another. When this is brought to a collective level, the 100 hours spent to make one individual passable in a skill could be spent on 4 exceptional individuals who only need 25 hours each to reach the same level of competence.
So it would seem foolish, both for one’s own good and for the good of the people around oneself, to occupy a position that you are not capable in. Indeed- if you have exceptional talents, it seems a waste of time to try and develop yourself into anything other than that. If exceptional talent is in reach, why spend time on anything else?
But what this misses, and what indeed the worship of competence misses, is that these “skills”, the “excellence” of any individual, is only meaningful from the perspective by which we evaluate it. And on both an individual and a collective level, this tends to be whether the skill can offer some help to people. That is- the excellence is best measured by the fulfilment of an end, of a task. Excellence for excellence’s sake is merely a loophole by which to train individuals beyond the strictures of the current set of tasks, so that they may be prepared for harder battles in the future.
Taken in this way, the task is not to become the sharpest dagger, but to “become a dagger” when one is made to be a dagger by life, by their own motivations, by those around them whom they care about. The task is to see what is necessary, to see one’s own capabilities, and to see one’s own desires- and to mould oneself in the intersection of these three. Part of that may be lacking in terms of capabilities- but to become capable at something with no need, while neglecting the necessary tasks at hand, is to work extremely hard towards unhappiness.
Indeed, the reality is that while there are other tasks still to be done, tasks that aren’t anyone’s exceptional talent, then they have to be completed before one can focus on their own aptitudes. And oftentimes, the discovery and development of these aptitudes relies on the completion of prior tasks in which we are in no way exceptional or even relatively competent. To learn these, however long it may take, is essential to our ability to focus on the exceptional afterwards.
So yes, if another is exceptional where you are passable, make way for them- “He” has made that person the fountain, and so you must not prevent them from giving water. Yet if there is no fountain, if the people go thirsty, then step up. Be the fountain to the people around you, be an example that they can follow so that they can take over this task. As much of a tragedy it may seem to be moulded by life into something other than one’s initial aspirations, it is more of a tragedy to ignore the needs of all those around oneself, and to force your being onto the world, carving out a space for those aspirations by crushing the hopes and wishes of others. Instead, where each of us can support the others in blossoming, there we will find a haven of our own making, within which we can flourish without conflict.
I need to add something here, though. With this I’m not calling for us to look only to our immediate surroundings, to force ourselves to be what those closest to us want. What is important is to measure our excellence by what is needed, what is important, understood through the filter of our own estimation. What is needed might, and often does, transcend the immediate, local needs. The problems we face in our everyday might be caused by bigger, systemic issues that can’t be dealt with on the local level. And if you have the talents, the skills, the position, the aptitude- the excellence to deal with this larger-scale issue, then it is not an act of inconsiderate self-worship to build yourself up to deal with this. It is picking and choosing the battles- seeing what is necessary, and stepping up as the excellence. Overlooking the work of the fountain to do the work of the rain. If this is how you are made, if this is your calling, then there is where you must apply yourself- for your own sake, and for the rest of us.