Cultures of Excellence

In Tyler Cowen’s piece, Work on These Things, he briefly talks about the idea of cultures of excellence. A concept that I have been thinking about since.

If you ask informed Filipinos why the street food is mediocre, they will tell you that Philippines lacks a culture of excellence”. It seems that some kind of culture of doing things really well” has very persistent and generalizable effects. South Korea and Japan have developed much more rapidly than many Asian countries, despite many others adopting relatively free Washington Consensus”-style trade policies. Russia still has higher GDP per capita than Mexico despite Mexico’s economic policies having been much better than Russia’s for many, many decades at this point. How should we think about cultures of excellence?

Growing up in a filipino household, I’ve always felt different from other filipinos. Naturally I gravitated more towards personal development and careers. I loved hanging out with friends as well, but not as much as my filipino friends.

I also observed that filipino role models were few and far between. I didn’t see many historical figures that looked like me. I didn’t see many filipino intellectuals, business leaders, or authors either.

In our culture, economic success is important, just like any culture, but family and friends come first. I think of other countries with a culture of connection like latin america, and even though they might not be wealthy they seem quite happy.

Juxtapose that with countries with a culture of excellence. Russia and Korea have some of the highest suicide rates in the world. In Japan, the work culture is so intense they have a word for it, Karoshi, meaning overwork death”.

I’ve noticed this same culture of excellence at my school, the University of Waterloo, a school known for producing strong technical talent. The culture at Waterloo values career success over everything, including relationships.

Perhaps the cost of a cultures of excellence comes at a cost of a culture of connection?

September 30, 2020

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