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Excellence

November 3, 2010

Over the weekend, an International Herald Tribune story published in The New York Times caught my eye. It chronicled an interesting development in the English language and pondered what it could mean for our culture. As I watch the election returns roll in and reflect on other news of the day, I find it difficult to reach optimistic conclusions about what this semantic shift might signal.

In the story, Anand Giridharandas recounted a study of word usage in American published works that indicated the occurrence of the words “achievement” and “fun” rose by factors of eleven and four-fold respectively between 1810 and 2000 while the appearance of the words “excellence” and “pleasure” fell by fairly similar margins over the same period. As Giridharandas notes, explanations for such shifts are hard to come by and often involve myriad complex factors.

Nonetheless, I find it hard to ponder the rationale for such shifts even momentarily without noting the differences in the words and the meanings they connote. Excellence reflects internal qualities, especially of character, while achievement is usually conferred by others. We like to think of excellence as an absolute quality, while achievement can hardly if ever be considered without reference to some standard besides itself. Likewise, pleasure seems to suggest an internal sense of satisfaction with or appreciation of something outside ourselves. Fun, on the other hand, tends to imply something about the character of activities themselves not simply our experience of them and their intrinsic qualities.

It is hard to contemplate the results of elections these days without imaging that the winners and those who support them find satisfaction in their achievement while others, including some who voted for the lesser of evils, wonder why it’s so hard to find excellent candidates who reflect their values. Low voter turnouts and polls that suggest deep ideological divisions remain among the electorate suggest even those who take pride in the performance of their civic duty on election day may take little pleasure in the task even if as they revel in the fun of their favored candidates’  victory parties.

Civic virtues, like the qualities suggested by the waning influence of the words excellence and pleasure and the values they imply, still move us. This was evident today by thereaction of those who knew or simply knew of John D. Solomon to the sad and shocking news of his untimely passing at the age of 47. John was the author and force of nature behind In Case of Emergency, Read Blog. A fierce advocate for citizen preparedness, John was eulogized today by many, including FEMA administrator Craig Fugate who noted:

John was both an important ally and critic of emergency managers.  I always appreciated his willingness to offer candid assessments of where we stood as a country as far as preparedness, and respected his honest feedback about our work here at FEMA.  He pushed all of us to always do more to engage and prepare the public – and set the standard for what it meant to be part of our nation’s emergency management team.

John’s friend David Shenk broke the news of John’s death to the readers of John’s blog. He noted how immensely talented John was and how committed he was to the work of disaster preparedness. Readers of John’s New York Times obituary will note that his life was characterized by many stunning achievements. He clearly was a man who enjoyed life and the company of family and friends with whom he shared many fun times. As I reflect on my limited contact with John, however, it was the strength of his character and the pleasure he took in pursuing excellence and encouraging its pursuit in others that will remain with me as his lasting legacy.

I share the sense of loss at John’s untimely death and convey my deepest sympathies to John’s family and friends, especially his wife Abby and daughters Sara and Rebecca. I share too John’s commitment to building a more resilient nation and will do all I can to hold myself accountable for living a life of meaning and value by displaying and encouraging commitments to the civic virtues John embodied throughout his all too short life. Rest in peace, brother.

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