iStock_geodeBody sculpting, surgical/chemical alterations, therapy . . . our culture is obsessed with hiding, cutting out or otherwise purging its flaws.

We want to be persons with no weaknesses.

Even our college entrance exams, job interviews, courtships and business dealings all seem to hinge on the celebration of the individual with a uniformity of character.


On its face, it seems like lofty praise.

But in music performance, it is often the very word that prefaces a less-flattering critique.

Many are the virtuosos who are noted for their technical precision and prowess even as they lack the passion that stirs the soul, the ability to express their humanity in their performance.

Music critics understand at least this one thing: “flawless” is not the same thing as excellent, epiphanal or transformational.

I recently watched maybe fifteen minutes of a movie I’m certain I would never have sat through in its entirety (I am an infamous “walker-outer” of movies that don’t suit me), but I saw enough that I caught the gist of the story line (I’m also a notorious plot-spoiler).

It was the story of a completely zany and irreverent navy captain with a dead-ended career who took on a secret assignment from an admiral to covertly infiltrate another admiral’s fleet.

It was a case of one-upmanship in the guise of a discovery of security vulnerabilities.

This maverick captain who had no prospects in the institutional navy proved himself to be a indomitable warrior in the simulation.

The scenario begged the question: what does it mean to be a great naval officer, anyway?

By all common standards, this captain was washed up.

But he demonstrated that the same qualities which made him laughing stock in the institutional navy were the qualities that distinguished him in the face of insurmountable odds.

Let me change gears a little to set up another analogy.

My husband, Oliver, spent many long hours in his youth in a quarry of Southern Utah Picture Stone hauling rock for his grandmother’s rockshop near the entrance to Zion’s National Park.

I love going to that rock shop.

There are dozens of different kinds of rocks, from pumice to obsidian, granite and gems.

It’s fascinating to see how some rocks that seem rather ordinary come out of the tumbler polished into a beautiful striated agate or twinkling opal or starry sapphire.

Along the shelves of the shop there are clock faces on a variety of minerals slabs, anasazi villages carved in sandstone, and rough, ordinary-looking rocks sliced in half to reveal the crystalline structure of a garden-like miniature geode cave.

Each type of rock has its own quality of beauty, and the individual specimens–even the ones which don’t approach the ideal–are lovely in their uniqueness.

So, to tie the two thoughts together…

I awoke in the night after watching that movie wondering: am I educating for uniformity or for excellence?

In lapidary terms—I surely hope I’m not working like crazy to polish a pearl out of a geode.

Obviously, a geode will never be a pearl, no matter how much I polish or pray over it.

And more to the point—why would I want it to be?

The whole point of being a geode is those crazy brilliant geometric eccentricities in the heart of the rough stone.

Kind of like the naval captain in the movie I saw.

Before the simulation, he was a geode in a tumbler.

But when a mentor gave him an opportunity to demonstrate his strengths, he proved to be an invaluable asset.

So I’m thinking: are we so obsessed in our current intellectual climate with “buffing off the rough edges” and meeting minimum standards in maximum areas that we fail to promote the development of personal strengths?

What exactly is “Quality not Conformity”?

Why our enchantment with uniformity? When did we stop rewarding standing out?

When did we stop prizing Excellence?

And most importantly, how do these questions animate and inform our choices as educators?



About the Author:

Rachel is the co-author of Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning and the audio series Core and Love of Learning: A Recipe for Success, and the author of the award-winning educational resource, This Week in History. She is an accomplished musician, writer, literary editor, public speaker, consultant and momschool organizer.


  1. Verena B November 5, 2010 at 2:05 pm - Reply

    I love great questions that have no easy answers!!! And certainly no answer that works for everyone; though I do think we will discover wonderful principles that can help others in their journey.

    • rachel November 5, 2010 at 2:22 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Verena. There really is no one-size-fits-all, is there? Good thing the principles inform our decisions no matter how the circumstances may vary!

      xoxo rd

  2. Christy Peterson November 7, 2010 at 8:18 pm - Reply

    Loved it.

    Is the rock shop still there? Is it still in the family?

  3. Rachel DeMille November 7, 2010 at 8:37 pm - Reply

    It sits next door to Oliver’s uncle’s home in La Verkin, right before you go up the hill toward the Arizona Strip. I think they may have sold the store, but I’m not certain…

  4. Jeannie February 1, 2012 at 7:33 am - Reply

    I really enjoyed this article. The views expressed are how I feel towards life in general not only for myself, but for my sons as well. I homeschool my youngest son who didn’t conform in the public schools due to Asperger’s Syndrome and S.A.D. and to be honest I’m so glad I do. I try through the cuuriculum I teach him and with my life views to embrace his own unique excellence. I wish there were easy answers to help us understand why we put so much emphasis on conforming in education and in society as a whole. Too overated if you ask me.

  5. Michael Rankin February 1, 2012 at 7:48 am - Reply

    My introduction to education was a battle to keep the pencil in my left hand. I was laughed at and treated harshly by the teacher because I refused to write the “correct” way. I did not know at the time I was in a battle, it was just easier for me to write with my left hand. I remember when my dad finally stepped in and informed my mom and my teacher to just let the boy alone. I have spent the majority of my 66 years dealing with the issue of someone’s idea of the “correct” way to do something. Your article rang true to me and would hope that education has advanced beyond what I had to deal with way back then. I’m afraid in the public sector it hasn’t.

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