脱颖而出 tuō yǐng ér chū.
The sharp end sticks out.
Every culture has idiosyncrasies. In China there is the desire to be the best. To have the tallest building; to achieve top class rank; to buy only new cars; and to attend prestigious schools, are all expressions of “Excellence”.
Here excellence is not measured on a sliding scale, nor is it measured comparatively (when M is better than P, so M is the “excellent” one). No. In the Middle Kingdom, “excellence” is black and white objective.
Today I pause to ask, “Why?”
Roll back 1,500 years for insight into a popular idiom: 脱颖而出 tuō yǐng ér chū — The sharp end sticks out.
Back then, the Peoples Republic of China was divided into multiple nation states. Our story spotlights the Zhao kingdom which was under besieged by the king of the Qing State. In response, the King of Zhao summoned his advisor Ping to prepare 20 top performing staff to visit the neighbouring ally, the King of Chu, and ask for assistance. Ping drafted his first 19 when a man, named MaoSui, stepped forward to volunteer for the mission. Ping retorted, “No, you may not. In the past 3 years, under my supervision, I’ve yet to hear anything special from you. I must select the most talented staff. Those who like a sharp tool placed in my pocket, stick out.”
Undeterred, MaoSui answered, “If I haven’t stood out it is because I haven’t let you place me in your pocket. Give me a chance and you will see I am very sharp.” Ping considered the reply and gave MaoSui the 20th position.
When the delegation arrived to the Chu kingdom, the first 19 failed to persuade the King of Chu. Finally it was MaoSui who managed to negotiate the allied response from the King, and the Chu ally forces were sent into war at the defence of the Kingdom of Qing.
Thus the birth of our idiom: 脱颖而出 tuō yǐng ér chū. MaoSui’s tale has is still told today in school history lessons to inspire children to be the best, to succeed, and that “the sharp end sticks out”.
For us to come full circle on the word “excellence” we should consider the life and death context which formed our idiom. We all have a fight on our hands, but few use a sword. Our fight looks more like faulty time management or unmet deadlines — not the fight of hostile takeover from a neighbouring warring state.
To be the father, whose daughter proclaims, “My dad is so cool!”
To be the employee who hears the boss say, “Amazing! As always!”
To face yourself in the mirror and proclaim, “I nailed it! That client presentation was excellent. I’ll do it again tomorrow.”
To face the board and hear, “We want to increase our investment in you because you have proven faithful and we love the company growth we see.”