The Psychology of Excellence

My son, who is 9, shared his homework with me a few days ago and asked, “Am I done?”

I looked at it and smiled. He’s really a very good kid (my extreme prejudice, of course). He’d answered every one of the questions on the sheet of paper. The answers were pretty short, but they would have been just fine. I considered congratulating him for finishing and leaving it at that.
That would be the easy road, and it would reassure him that he had followed the written directions and had, in fact, completed an assignment. And that’s no small thing for a 9-year-old just starting to get real homework.

If I’d done that, though, I wouldn’t have been doing my homework as a dad. Because what I intuited that my son was really asking wasn’t so much whether he had left any blanks on the sheet, but whether homework required anything more of him than that.

It was more of a discussion, but it was one worth having. “You’re done if you think that the answers you wrote are the best answers you can possibly write,” I said. “If that’s true, you’re set.”

He looked at the sheet, then looked at me.

I tried not to look judgmental and I really didn’t feel like passing any verdict, anyhow. The answers he’d written were good. But that wasn’t the point. The point was whether they were his best effort.

He smiled and shook his head. “I could make it better.” He took back the paper.

The edit didn’t take more than fifteen minutes or so, but the work was, indeed, better. And my son looked proud of putting more into it.

“Your teacher will appreciate you trying as hard as you can,” I told him.

There’s a lesson here for all of us—myself included.

Among the immeasurable and miraculous traits that human beings possess is an inherent capacity to resonate with quality and excellence. Some sort of scale of purity or truth or devotion—call it what you will—is hardwired into our brains or souls or both that can distinguish when someone is committed to, and passionate about, delivering his or her very best and when someone is settling for anything less (and asking us not to notice).

This scale of quality, excellence and commitment operates unconsciously. People may not even know exactly why they gravitate toward a particular work of art or a business plan or a professional sports team or a candidate for office. But one of the ingredients we humans can assess is that mystical, immeasurable, miraculous element of love for one’s work and oneself and one’s audience or customer or electorate. We know inherently, instinctively whether it is present in a person and that person’s creations and work product—or not.

J.D. Salinger wrote about this more eloquently than I. In his spectacular novel Franny and Zooey he describes a scene in which Zooey is explaining to his sister Franny why she needs to be an actress and pour herself into her work with passion, abandon and complete commitment.

Zooey’s explanation harkens back to when all the children in the family used to participate in a quiz show on television. The eldest son, Seymour, was always bugging the other kids to give everything they had to the competition. This what Salinger wrote:

I remember the fifth time I ever went on ‘Wise Child . . .’ Seymour’d told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door . . . . I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn’t going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn’t see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady. I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but he had a very Seymour look on his face, and so I did it. He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat lady every time I ever went on the air again—all the years you and I were on the program together, if you remember . . . . Anyway, it seemed clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense . . . . There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that secret yet? And don’t you know—listen to me, now—don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”

I have nothing to add. The writing and thinking is too stunningly powerful, too full of quality, to mess with it. That’s the point.


Dr. Ablow is the author of the upcoming book, "Inside the Mind of Casey Anthony." He is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. Dr. Ablow can be reached at His team of Life Coaches can be reached at