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Excellence or enjoyment?

Read this for a quick introduction to questions about how the pursuit of excellence can help or hinder the enjoyment of life.
© Neil Thin, University of Edinburgh


Most people’s idea of living well involves some degree of effort, activity, and dynamism over time. That is, we don’t imagine a good life as one of effortless, flat contentment. But most of us also accept that ambition, perfectionism, the pursuit of goals, and the belief in the possibility of ‘fulfilling potential’ all pose significant risks to wellbeing. And if competition is involved, there are also risks to collective wellbeing if this results in winner-takes-all situations that benefit only a tiny minority of winners.

So a good life and a good society both involve some kinds of intelligent compromise between ambition and contentment, and between the pursuit of excellence and the pursuit of enjoyment. But we don’t arrive at those compromises on our own. Our families, schools, clubs, and wider cultures all have important influences on whether we live in a climate that fosters a flexible compromise, or one that promotes unrestrained ambition and consequently leads a majority to frustration and disappointment. Here are some of the questions we might want to ask of ourselves and our institutions:

  • Is it better to be permanently dissatisfied and driven by ambition, or to keep our goals modest in the hope of achieving contentment?

  • What roles do cultural and social institutions have in fostering or inhibiting ambition?

  • How ambitious should our personal life goals be?

  • Should we promote high aspirations and recommend that people aim to ‘fulfil their potential’? Assuming that everyone must in practice be selectively ambitious rather than aiming for excellence in all life domains, how can cultural and social processes be arranged so as to help people choose which of their potentials to be most ambitious about?

  • Should we promote competition to enhance ambition and increase the likelihood of excellent achievements?

  • In which areas of life, if any, is deliberate stoking of competition justified, and why? For example, why do so many people support competitive approaches to academic and sporting prowess, while disapproving of beauty contests and music or drama competitions?

Providing encouragement and opportunities for personal growth

Most definitions or analyses of wellbeing include some recognition that a good life includes personal growth, that is, a sense of progress towards some kinds of valued achievement. What people hope to achieve, what they believe indicates ‘success’, is highly variable between individuals, across cultures, and through the life course.

Whatever the specific content of desired and admired achievements may be, to have lasting value for wellbeing they need to be a) reasonably challenging, and hence to indicate a degree of commitment and personal growth; and b) socially approved by people whose opinion the achiever values. The pioneer researcher on achievement motivation, David McLelland (1961) defined this as a combination of a wish to excel, the pursuit of activities instrumental to success, explicit desires, and goal satisfaction. However, since his work was strongly linked with promotion of ‘economic development’, he tended to focus on motivation for ‘economic’ goals, to the considerable neglect of less obviously ‘economic’ goals such as wisdom and wellbeing.

Realistic thinking about success and adequacy

Since all people have multiple values and multiple goals, no-one can ‘maximise’ any one goal or value, except perhaps for wellbeing itself. Everything else has to be ‘optimised’ or ‘satisficed’, and lots of motives have to be suppressed, and goals deliberately neglected or abandoned in favour of others. The pursuit of wellbeing therefore entails not only the steadfast pursuit of personal growth and progress, but the skilful harmonising and balancing of trade-offs between potentially competing life goals.

Likewise at organizational and societal levels, recognition and support must be given to a wide range of criteria for judging ‘success’. And yet, many organizations such as schools, workplaces, and professions, seem in practice to overemphasise and overvalue a narrow set of success criteria, such as beauty, competitive prowess, and academic scores, thereby making it hard for most people to feel socially approved and valued.

Linking personal and social goals

Looking at the relationship between social quality and the individualistic pursuit of success, one obvious challenge is that from a social point of view some of the most important goals are ‘maintenance goals’ that don’t lend themselves to the sense of personal growth or progress. Some people have to be prepared to sacrifice some of their more egoistic goals, at least some of the time, in favour of prosocial maintenance goals such as keeping villages and houses safe and clean, and maintaining social harmony. In so-called ‘collectivist’ or ‘communitarian’ cultural contexts, it is these goals that are likely to be given most attention.

Since subjective wellbeing is always strongly influenced by the relationships between what we aspired to in the past, and by our current (revised) aspirations, assessing and analysing people’s motivation to achieve particular kinds of success in relation to particular life goals or other evaluative standards such as self-other comparisons is an important part of wellbeing research and planning. Achievement motivation varies greatly due to complex interactions between genetic tendencies for innate drives, actual and perceived personal abilities and potential, sibling and peer rivalry, incentive systems etc.

Two basic ideal type routes to wellbeing would be:

  • high achievement motivation and high actual success (or strong evidence of progress towards success); or

  • low aspirations and low or moderate success.

Deliberate manipulation of achievement motivation occurs in families, wider communities, schools, sports clubs and workplaces, and can involve whipping up aspiration to optimise effort and achievement, or dampening aspiration to reduce disappointment or minimise zero-sum competitions. Please tell us about how these practical and moral dilemmas manifest in your work or areas of responsibility. How do you, either interpersonally or by promoting institutional values, influence people’s aspirations and sense of purpose? Do you think you are striking a sensible balance between the promotion of enjoyment and of excellence? How do you help people manage the inevitable trade-offs between enjoying themselves and striving for high achievement?

Further reading suggestions:

McLelland, David C. (1961) The Achieving Society. New Jersey: D. Van Nostrand

Southgate, Beverley (2011) Contentment in Contention: Acceptance Versus Aspiration. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan

© Neil Thin, University of Edinburgh
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