Part II: Using Your Excellence Reflex

This is the second post in a week-long series focusing on Danny Meyer’s book, Setting the Table.  For information on ordering Meyer’s book from Amazon, see my July 28 post.

Yesterday, I discussed the broad concept of enlightened hospitality.  Today, I focus on the critical regimen every enlightened hospitalitarian must embrace: strenghtening their excellence reflex (ER).  The idea of the ER is one Meyer credits to executive chef Michael Romano.  The book defines ER as:

  • a natural reaction to fix something that isn’t right, or to improve something that could be better.  The excellence reflex is rooted in instinct and upbringing, and then constantly honed through awareness, caring and practice.

And the greatest of these are instinct and practice.  The old country saw goes “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”  While I have never seen anyone make much of anything out of a sow’s ear, I do understand, and am a walking example of instinct, upbringin and practice allowing progress toward substantial ambitions.  This post might as easily be titled, “Who will mourn for you when you die?”

I grew up in the heart of the drug and murder scene during Richmond, Virginia’s dubious run as murder capital of the United States.  If Richmond was the capital, my neighborhood — Blackwell —  was its capitol.  And if Blackwell was the power-zone for the nefarious activity, the eight-square block of it I grew up in was its Oval Office.  All the most active and vilified dealers and gunmen were my pickup basketball buddies, my crew.  Thank God for my upbringing in a Christian home, with two working parents and a close-knit extended family of hard-working folk.  Even though I was surrounded, immersed even, in the brutal subculture developing at that time, my internal compass pointed me squarely back to the ideals of education, Christ-centered living, service to others and empathetic love for the downtrodden and less-abled.

My excellence reflex was honed in Zion Baptist Church in south Richmond, where I presided over youth Sunday service; ushered; participated in Vacation Bible School; and served as an officer in the ZBC Youth Ministry.  It was forged under the humored eye of Pastor Robert Pettis, a major league baseball prospect from California and the man who would help pray me through a deafening and defining loss — my mother’s death; and under the wise gaze of the Reverend Maryland Taft Fleming, a larger than life southern Baptist preacher.  I was quick to understand that even if I had little, I had a lot more than most.  And to whom much is given, much is expected.

Church reinforced what was already being taught at home.  Every time you ask a child, “did you do your best?” you strenghten that reflex.  Continue until the child begins to ask himself or herself the same question, and you have made an adult. 

My mother, who earned her master’s degree and was a school principal and community activist, helped me hone my excellence reflex with constant attention to my grammar, diction, spelling and commitment to reading.  There was, clearly, much more to what she taught me that the “Three ‘R’s” but her spirit infused itself into my soul before she passed, and I try to honor her love of helping others every time I have the opportunity.  When she died, during my twelfth year of life, God knew she had completed her work with me.  I had what I needed from her, though not nearly all I wanted from her.  When she died, our large home church was overflowing with people whose lives she had touched: former students she’d personally extended herself to help, parents who knew the difference she had made in their ability to love and care for their special-needs child, church members she had counseled and prayed for.  They all came that nasty February day in 1983, and there was no room to spare.  I didn’t have the emotional strength or ability to process what had happened so quickly, and was incapable of watching my father and other sources of strength at their weakest.  So I waited away from the church, unable to deal with other people’s raw human need to grieve.  But I knew.  My mother was royalty because she always put others before herself.

My father, who had a high school education, earned his Ph.D. in good sense and used his smarts to guide and finance a family through some tumultuous times.  He had more to teach and share than many over-educated blowhards, and he was always happy to give it away.  It must be true that the greatest gift is the one you give away.  He led by example and made a powerful impact.  When he died in 2000, people who grew up with him and people who only knew him from one of his children came to his funeral.  Standing room only in a crowded country church.  Perhaps my proudest moment.

Thank God,  praise Him, that I understand I am on earth to maximize the impact I have on others.  I will take that legacy over an inheritance of wealth any day.  Well, some days anyway.  When I help others, when I strive to do my job just a little better, make a speech or presentation just a bit more attuned to the audience, teach my kids a lesson about life with just a little more patience and love, be a slightly better husband to my wife, I strengthen the commitment to excellence they taught me as a boy.

I have worked daily to honor both their legacies by exercising my excellence reflex.  But only recently have I really connected my work ethic to their legacy, and in so doing, reinvigorated my commitment to it.  I feel them within me when I emulate the way they used their talents.

So honor your mentors.  Exercise your excellence reflex.  Practice it when you evaluate and edit your work by refusing to skim over the last few lines.  Refuse to leave a troublesome passage intact.  Practice it while you work.  Don’t just tunnel-focus on your desk, look around and see where you can help someone else, or take on a responsibility no one asked you to.  Practice it as you see people in need and you’re faced with the choice between pretending you don’t see their struggle versus taking the time to make their way a little easier.  And let others see you lead by example.  In other words, using your ER will make you a leader.  Even if you’re not in charge, you will be a leader. 

This post was intended to be a rather academic reaction to Michael Romano’s excellence reflex concept.  In fact, though, it turned into more of a tribute to my parents and a posthumous thank-you for the man they made me. 

Even before they had an exceptional term for it, Alvin and Geraldine Brandon gave the gift to each of their kids, and shared it freely with anyone who was in their presence.  My excellence reflex needs a lot of work, but its likely to be my greatest contribution to any community in which I live.  Where would I be without that? 

Here’s to having Olympic-caliber excellence reflexes.

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3 responses to “Part II: Using Your Excellence Reflex

  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog.

    Tim Ramsey

  2. Tim, many thanks for reading, and for leaving feedback. Please enjoy and let me know whether there are issues you want to see discussed here. All my best.

  3. I would like to lift up an unsolicited comment I received from a representative from Danny Meyer’s company, Union Square Hospitality Group. I was astounded, but have to concede: the company still practices what it preaches.

    The feedback was not flowery, decorous or overly-solicitous. They simply thanked me for reading the book, and expressed appreciation that I found Meyer’s principles personally-valuable.

    If anyone has eaten at one of their restaurants, post your experiences here. If you haven’t, you MUST put one of their spots on your list for your next trip to NYC (or an outpost).

    They might have lightning in a bottle.

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