A Note on Excellence and the Pursuit of Happiness

An American client working at a German company reflected with me last week on an insight she had come to about working and living in Germany.  What surprised her was how many quietly competent people she encountered around her.  The surprise was less about the competence, than about how excellence happened quietly, as a matter of course.

There is a cultural characteristic that I too experience in German business of preferring substance to stardom. In this largely decentralized country, one travels to small towns spread out through the countryside to discover one world-class small and medium sized enterprise after the next, snuggled away in the hillsides of the Black Forest, along the banks of the Rhein, or at the foothills of the Alps around Munich (to name just a few). These companies have grown and thrived through a passion for quality and excellence in what they do, often over generations of family entrepreneurs.  It is a joke among the Swabians, where Daimler has its roots, that success is not worth mentioning (it is just the result)—it is the practical problems that require our attention! They also have a reputation for being critical and impatient with fluff. It is not about the show, but about long-term development of the company through excellence in products. Respect is gained by being a reliable partner by being good at what you do.

I wonder whether the pursuit of happiness in the US and in many cultures which have followed its example, is not an adolescent fantasy. The go-getter attitude of the frontier was a liberation for emigrants from the dead weight of feudal and religious Europe and Asia, in which the lack of a meritocracy and fair rules made climbing the social ladder through work and creativity most unlikely. The American image as the land of opportunity was a beacon unto the oppressed masses of the world.

But times have changed and values need to shift again. Americans grow up with the Horatio Alger stories of unlimited social mobility for everyone, which, tragically, no longer work. Much more, it strikes me that the myth of stardom and grand success which the stories engender today undermine the striving for mastery, and with it a deeper, more sustainable satisfaction that characterize cultures of excellence.

The crash of the financial system has in part exposed the consequences of the striving for business stardom, with its focus on short-term success through the search for “thin” value. Perhaps it is time to focus more strongly in our businesses again on mastery in the production of genuine, “thick” value (many Germans, too, got caught up in the hype and are paying the price).  What we need is a culture of learning for long-term satisfaction. In the process we will hardly lose our freedom to celebrate and enjoy the happiness of the moment. The deeper flow of being good at what you do, and of living in a society where that is valued—and it pays off!–makes the pursuit of happiness seem like an unnecessarily stressful and futile operation. Cultural maturity, I can report, brings with it its own deeper and sustainable joy.

One thought on “A Note on Excellence and the Pursuit of Happiness

  1. I feel that America has developed its own ‘royalty’ and ‘nobility’ who have become no better than the feudal lords of yore, and unless they go back to their roots they will face even more ills. Likewise their pursuit of happiness – in itself a nebulous and multi-faceted concept – is doomed. It is both highly unsustainable and focused on short-term monetary gain to the neglect of other, more meaningful things.

    I have long admired the northern Europeans, German and Scandinavian especially, for their dedication to excellence and no-fuss, no-nonsense approach. Between a German or Italian carmaker, I know whom I’d choose. 😉

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