Excellence and Apathy

WhateverIt happened again. I offered someone a small tip that would have — in a very small way — raised the excellence of their life.  The response was (and I quote), “lol [whatever].” I can’t say I was very surprised because it happens all the time.

In fact, laughing it off is the more benign reaction. I’ve learned that it can be dangerous to point out the correct use of “their” and “they’re” and “there.” (Grammar Rules: They’re there for their purpose.) Some folks get downright hostile with regard to their own precision and excellence.

This is one of many human behaviors I have a hard time understanding.

I can only guess at what’s going on. Part of it must be the natural human tendency to dislike being corrected, or of being caught being wrong. But I get the feeling there’s more to it. Do we possibly lean away from excellence because we view it as too challenging in these complex times?


“…the hand that fed me.”

The way I see it, turning aside a helpful tip is willful ignorance (which I’ve written about before), and it’s one of the human behaviors that most drives me crazy. Someone offers you a hand up the hill of excellence, so you reject that hand? In some cases you actually bite it?

That seems awfully ungrateful.

Why go around with your metaphorical shoe laces untied, looking clueless? People — at least some — do notice and do care.

It’s a bit like dressing as a slob among people who care about style and fashion or looking like a couch potato among people who value exercise and fitness.

I’ve spent a lot of fruitless effort over the years trying to find a way to offer that hand up the hill in a way that won’t offend. Instead, people usually look at me like I’m some asshole for insinuating they aren’t perfect and might benefit from a tip.

Name one person on the planet who is perfect and wouldn’t benefit from a tip. “Yo, Caesar! Watch your back! Also, don’t be Idle in March… or something like that.”


When I was learning to pistol shoot, several people mentioned that women are often better shooters at first, but eventually men catch up and often end up surpassing them. The theory was that women are more prone to listen to — and follow — the instruction, whereas men are more likely to assume they don’t need them and forge ahead on their own.

Later the male competitive drive kicks in, and they strive to succeed. At this point they bring a heavy focus to improving along with the male interest in guns. (Guns meet several big male interest criteria: they make a loud noise (plus explosions are involved), they [the bullets] fly, they are power tools, and they have lots of cool folklore connotations.)

she shootsMeanwhile the women, having achieved the desired level of competence originally desired and not being obsessed or even really that interested, had gotten off the bus blocks ago.

It’s really that same spirit that operates when men don’t ask for directions or go off climbing mountains or discovering new continents or oceans.

It has the downside of making us late — or stupid — sometimes, but hey, new continents! Oceans! Mountains! (They just sit there begging to be climbed. Trees got that same mojo going on. “Climb me!” they call!)

But the point is that excellence doesn’t just happen. It comes from training and experience, “time in the saddle” so to speak. You have to want to be excellent, it doesn’t just happen.

And it starts with having excellence as a goal.

No one can be perfect, or excellent, in all things or even in some things in all times. Context matters. Surgery, banking and airplane piloting all call for high levels of excellence. Throwing a Frisbee, putting together dinner, or writing a blog article don’t have the same demands of excellence.

baby bathwaterSo fine, toss out the bath water, but try to hang on to the baby. The goal of excellence is always a worthy one. It should always be your goal; it’s just that you can often relax the effort to accomplish it.

Case in point: it’s easy to make a grammar mistake; everyone does (remember, no one is perfect). For instance, I’m prone to screwing up “its” and “it’s” if I don’t watch myself. I’m perfectly aware of the difference — there’s no confusion on my part — but sometimes my fingers type the wrong one.

And, let’s face it, the two “its” make one of those “oh, really” moments in English Grammar, one of the many rule exceptions, and the possessives comma business can be a winding road at times.

So I’m pretty forgiving of details at that level, but the common misuse of “your” and “you’re” does drive me crazy.  I can understand people being a bit confused about possessives, but “your” and “you’re” are crystal clear.

As the saying goes, “The difference between knowing you’re shit and knowing your shit.”

grandmaIt boils down to this: when you repeatedly demonstrate apathy towards excellence, when you repeatedly demonstrate that getting it right isn’t important to you, it’s like going around in public wearing a sign: Hello! I’m a moron!

Why would you do that?

Microsoft Word and PowerPoint have built-in grammar and spelling engines (so does WordPress). I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been in where the presenter’s slides are peppered with those jagged red underlines signifying spelling errors.

It’s like the presenter is announcing to the world: “Look at me! Not only can I not spell worth a damn, I’m too dumb to even notice my software trying to help me look competent!”

I mean seriously, how do you even go out in public like that?  It’s like putting your underwear on outside your pants.

People like this are running the world now, you know. Explains a lot.


About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

21 responses to “Excellence and Apathy

  • Wyrd Smythe

    P.S. The incident that triggered this blog post happened years ago and off-line (so can’t possibly t apply to anyone reading this, in case you were wondering). I wrote the rant and it’s been sitting in my Drafts folder ever since. I finally published it partly because I’m trying to clear out old Drafts and partly because I’m suffering from a bit of ennui right now and having a hard time getting started on new posts.

  • dianasschwenk

    Aww Smitty, I know you struggle with this when trying to help others. And it makes me angry on your behalf when people misread your intention.

    I’m a bit of a freak about grammar and spelling too, but honestly things that don’t interest me, I don’t bother to get as good as I can at them because I’m simply not interested. Make sense? ❤
    Diana xo

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ha! I never actually said the helpful advice I offered actually involved grammar! XD I’ve learned to just let that stuff slide, especially online. I think it’s important to know your shit from you’re shit, and I think it’s important to communicate clearly and precisely, but I’m quite forgiving of grammar and spelling errors. I have to be — I was never good at either. :/

      On the general point of biting the hand offering helpful advice, I totally agree. Makes me angry it makes you angry! Now we must embrace our anger and destroy our enemies! Are you with me!!

      Here’s the thing I think about being good: you have to be aware when it matters. Driving a car matters; people should make an effort there no matter how much they like it. Stuff that affects other people — we should try not to mess up stuff like that.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I’m actually pretty forgiving about occasional grammar violations, although I do strive to minimize them in my own writing, and an article, post, or comment that is littered with them is hard to take seriously.

    That said, I’ve learned never to correct anyone else’s grammar unless they’ve asked for my input on their writing. (Or unless they work for me.) People usually don’t react well to unsolicited criticism. They sometimes don’t react well even when they ask for it, which I take as a signal to ignore future requests for critiques.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      (As I mentioned to Lady Di above, this particular time wasn’t over grammar, but was metaphorically the same.)

      The big difference is between someone who obviously makes an effort — but errors sometimes — versus someone who doesn’t care, doesn’t see any value in what grammar buys you. Anyone’s zipper can be undone; clearly not knowing how to dress is another matter.

      I learned to never correct anyone’s spelling or grammar when I did it to a high school girl friend’s love letter. Ouch. The idea that people want to improve doesn’t apply to all situations, clearly! 😀

      The difference, hopefully, is between pointing out someone’s unintended mistakes (bad, pointless, annoying) and trying to education someone who clearly doesn’t know something (good… you would think).

      • Wyrd Smythe

        ROFL! “trying to education someone” XD

        There is an internet (predates the interweb) rule to the effect that any spelling or grammar rant must contain its own set of spelling and grammar errors!

  • rung2diotimasladder

    Advice on giving grammar advice: Don’t stop the conversation and go into a lecture. Simply repeat what the person says the correct way, then move on. And do it again and again. This is what I was taught in my TESOL certification course. Sometimes interrupting to correct grammar makes people feel like they aren’t being listened to.

    And leave my dangling preposition alone. 🙂

    I will say this…the repetition trick doesn’t always work. I have friends in Oklahoma who say “Him and I went to the store…” and no matter how many times I drop hints, my friends don’t pick up on it. I even said, “It’s so funny how I keep hearing people in Oklahoma say ‘Him and I…'” Didn’t work.

    Meh, what can you do? It drives me nuts too, but I’ve learned to keep my grammar corrections to myself for the most part.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Advice on giving advice on giving grammar advice on… wait… what? No, I got it… Yeah, you’re right, I know. As I said to Lady Di, this wasn’t actually about giving grammar advice, but something else (the precise nature of the advice given, and subsequently blown off, was changed to protect the guilty).

      It’s not the dangle of the bojangle, it’s the sweet of the treat. (This is what happens when I blog after consuming large quantities of lovely wonderful beer.) Him borrowed me some money fo’ that beer!

      Maybe the trick to driving home a grammar point is: use a wooden stake and a large hammer.

      Learn! [thud] To use! [thud] The shift. [thud thud] Key!!


      • rung2diotimasladder

        He done it to protect the guilty. Gotcha.

        Well, I guess you already know my best advice: Drink beer. It won’t make people less annoying, but at least you’ll be drinking beer.

        Yum. I wish I could have one now!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        God is great! Beer is good! (People are crazy!)

        It’s fall, so I’ve been transitioning off the summer IPAs and getting back in the browns and coppers of the season. Lagunitus has a Copper Ale that’s pretty yummy, and there’s this Michigan brewery (Saugatuck) that makes a smokey brown ale where you can taste the bonfire smoke! But I’m really waiting for Avery’s winter stout to come back around. Almost as good as the Flat Earth Cygnus X-1 stout that’s my favorite!

      • rung2diotimasladder

        Ah…stop talking. I can’t drink on the meds I’m taking.

        But maybe just half a beer won’t hurt? 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I dunno… this time of year it might turn you into a pumpkin! (Especially if you’re prone to pumpkin ales. Which, just for the record, eww! Making beer out of gourds just isn’t right.)

        Water! That’s the ticket! Drink lots of lovely water! (In point of fact, I’m trying to do just that. My liquid intake for years has been mainly Diet Mountain Dew, beer, or water, in that order and with a major fall off at each category. I’ve been working on cutting down — way down — on the DMD and hugely increasing my water intake in a big way.)

      • rung2diotimasladder

        You’re going to be totally grossed out, but I have to say, I like pumpkin ales. I don’t get to drink much these days, but when I do decide to take a sip, I tend to go for those fruity or flavored ones. Last year I would have gagged at the thought, but something about whatever it is I have has changed my tastes. And to make things worse, I’ll put ice in my beer to water it down. I know. I know. Don’t even say it. It’s beyond disgusting. I shouldn’t be ALLOWED to drink, since I’m wasting it, right?

        On drinking water: We just got all new kitchen appliances and my big thrill was getting an ice maker—an ice maker! YES!—and a dispenser in the door. I’ve noticed that I’m drinking a lot more water now, just because it’s so fun to fill up my glass. Plus a fun light comes…on very slowly, like a stage light. Which makes me feel like getting a glass of water is some kind of event, a drama. I think if I could fit inside my fridge, it might be able to take me to another time…or at least to the moon.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “You’re going to be totally grossed out,…”

        Nah, I don’t require others abide by my tastes. It would mean more competition for the stuff I like.

        My best friend was seriously into pumpkin ales, but he’s gotten a bit tired of them. Now he only buys a few of his favorite brands in the fall. I teased him all those years about drinking “gourd” beer, so his backing off a little has given me some “told you so” opportunities. XD

        “I tend to go for those fruity or flavored [beers].”

        To each their own! As you probably remember from previous conversations, I lean strongly towards Reinheitsgebot beers (made from only water, barley malt, hops, and yeast). You’d like a lot of Belgium beers, I bet (if you don’t already).

        “…something […] has changed my tastes.”

        Certainly something going on with your system can mess with your smell (along with your sense of smell, tee, hee). It can also just be that your tastes change. I know mine sure have! I can’t believe how much I like mustard now (the brown kind filled with tiny pebbles).

        The mustard thing was funny, really. I’ve always been a “plain cheeseburger” guy — don’t at all like ketchup or yellow mustard or (especially) relish or pickles. Still don’t, and I will scrape that shit off any burger I’m given.

        But I love pastrami — always have. At some point I decided that pastrami deserved (brown) mustard to garnish its awesomeness. I figured the pastrami was strong enough to stand up to the mustard. (Part of the thing for me is that the stuff people put on burgers overwhelms the taste of the burger to me. All I taste is ketchup and relish.)

        The more I used it, the more I liked it. Serious rye break, toasted with Swiss cheese melted on it, slathered with mustard and stacked high with deli pastrami. Oh, my, heaven!!

        At some point I began putting mustard on other sandwiches, smoked turkey, black forest ham, even roast beef. Turns out, that’s good, too! The funny part is this: During the transition, I’d coat the toasted bread with mustard and then lick the knife.

        Part of my brain went, “Ewwww!! Awful!!” But another part of my brain was going, “Mmmm… Yum!”

        At first the former had the upper hand. I would often wince, not quite believing I had just licked a knife containing nothing but mustard! Holy picky eater, Batmom would be astonished.

        Lately I’ve been noticing it’s gotten to be all, “Mmmm… Yum!”

        “And to make things worse, I’ll put ice in my beer to water it down.”

        Okay, now you’re pushing it. XD

        “I shouldn’t be ALLOWED to drink, since I’m wasting it, right?”

        Nah, it’s okay. Just get one of those Invalid Drinker signs to hang off your forehead. That way we’ll heap pity on you rather than scorn.

        “…my big thrill was getting an ice maker—an ice maker!”

        I can totally relate! I love ice and an ice-maker would be awesome (although the water here sucks). I’ve gone through phases of buying bags of ice just to have ice. I figure it’s helping me drink less soda and more water.

        I think when I switched from cans to plastic bottles and began drinking directly from the all too convenient bottle I got out of the habit of ice. In the summer I put half-or-so-full bottles of Diet Mountain Dew in the freezer to make DMD-sicles. I add fresh soda to top up the bottle for a cold soda!

        “I think if I could fit inside my fridge, it might be able to take me to another time…or at least to the moon.”

        Stay in there too long, and you’ll definitely be sent to a different world. Also, bad Steve Spielberg movies aside, hiding in a fridge will not — repeat not — save you from a nuclear blast.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        I know what you mean about the plain cheeseburger. For the longest time I thought I was just being a baby, but now that I think about it, ketchup really is gross. Sugary tomato paste on a burger? No thanks. And that mustard they use should be labeled “mustard”…or “mustard product”…that’s not the stuff you’re enjoying. (BTW, I think those tiny pebbles are mustard seeds.)

        Maybe someday I’ll go back to real beer. I don’t know what’s going on with me, but I doubt it will last. I think it’s just the lower alcohol content of those fruity beers that’s attractive to me now.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yes, mustard seeds. I love popping them with my teeth. XD

        I just call’m “pebbles” because of the way they make my break look like a cobbled road!

  • Steve Morris

    It takes a certain amount of self-confidence to acknowledge to another person that we have failed and that they know better than us. We tend to interpret it as personal inadequacy. There are perhaps even evolved social instincts that make us attack anyone who threatens our social standing in the group.

    I am a natural corrector or faults that I find in myself and others. That sometimes leads to conflict. I have learned over the years to do it less, and perhaps just pick out one fault to mention, rather than offer a list.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yes, good point about confidence! The more one “knows” one usually gets things right, the easier it is to take the inevitable screw ups. (Which is a good argument for striving to usually get things right. Ego self-protection!)

      I suspect that you, like me, have an “Engineer’s Mind.” By training, and often by inclination, we tend to view systems in terms of their failure modes. “How can this break?” What people may not appreciate is that the motivation is making the system better — less able to break.

      When it comes to engineering, there is inventing new things and improving existing things. Both involve an awareness of potential failure modes that isn’t common. Socially we should look at the positives, we should focus on the parts that work, that make social interaction better.

      But when it comes to bridges, “It positively works in good weather when only a few cars drive over it!” isn’t going to cut it with engineering. XD

      As for saying things… I offer “tips” if I see a real chance to make someone’s life better. I’ll bring up flaws if they affect me. Otherwise I’ve learned (via the school of very hard mistakes) to keep it to myself. The son-of-a-bitch thing is that my engineer’s mind does notice. I have this sinking feeling there are those who genuinely don’t notice, or barely notice and don’t care.

      • Steve Morris

        An engineer’s mind, yes. that’s probably it. All those people who don’t notice grammatical errors and bridges collapsing when they walk over them – they have different skills to us 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The reality, sadly, is that as valuable as an Engineer’s Mind is when it comes to bridges, and all forms of STEM, it doesn’t always do well in “polite company.” Those other skills those other people have often make them a lot socially smarter — what’s sometimes called “emotional IQ” or “social IQ.”

        Funny thing is, I think both groups sometimes find themselves envying each other. Greener grass, I guess.

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