A flyer plugging yet another “excellence book” hit my “in box” recently— another reminder of the infatuation of American business with the “pursuit of excellence.” We passionately love success, just hate second place, and truly disdain failure.

The drive to excel provides rewards both psychic and material—no question. But I believe it also harbors a germinal ideal that—with fuller development—might help toughen our national ethos and flagging moral fiber.

ABC Nightline host Ted Koppel said it well in a commencement address at Duke University: “We have spent 5,000 years as a race of rational human beings, trying to drag ourselves out of the primeval slime by searching for truth and moral absolutes. In its purest form, truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder. It is a howling reproach. What Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions.”

A higher personal and professional ethic would be well-served by a richer interior culture of what constitutes success. We’re quick to put quantitative yardsticks to this powerful energizer of business. But let’s tread carefully; “quantitative” success generally delivers ephemeral goods, leaving us still struggling mightily in search of fulfillment. Realistically, there’s always more to be had. A friend of mine, privy to prevailing attitudes in the sports world, calls it the “what’s next” syndrome. After the $800,000 salary, the Mercedes, the adulation of millions, “what’s next”?

Money’s perhaps the most obvious, and noxious, illusion. But even less mundane allurements—power, clout, honors, headlines, etc.—can forever be exceeded. As Andre Gide was wont to say, “The terrible thing is that we can never make ourselves drunk enough.”

The “pursuit of excellence” books, the bookstore’s newest bonanza, hardly have the full answer. Yet the apotheosizing of the search—it may well be called America’s “natural religion”—at least gives its own measure of hope and light.

I believe it gives hope that American business people can respond to an ideal richer than mere self-expression, self-interest, and acquisitiveness. And perhaps it can help restore a deeply needed and potentially transcendent ideal for modern man—the sanctification of his work, the first and indispensable step in restoring his character.

Excellence is a clarion. It tweaks our nobility . . . it says, “be the best we can be.” Virtue is its own reward, Aristotle taught—excellence in behavior brings happiness. Perhaps the noble Greek deserves a second chance; our beleaguered national ethos could certainly use him.

Victor Frankel claimed it’s not so much what we do that’s important to us, but what we do it for. Ecclesiastes tells us we are made to work, as the bird to fly. We crave useful activity. The psyche cannot avoid testing itself, seeking meaning and results. But more than ever, it seems, it cries out for a frame of reference, a grand ideal to guide and inspire our daily tasks.

The dream of excellence might just be that ideal, with a potential far beyond generating mere lucre or better work. Properly perceived, it can serve to enhance the very worker himself. Beyond challenging him to excellence as worker, it can challenge him also—and more importantly—as person. Which is to say it can properly guide and challenge his moral actions. The impact of his deeds upon others and—lest we miss the message of prevailing sexual aberrations—upon himself.

Social and personal forces can easily confuse us, and the pressures and allurements these days seem to extend ad infinitum, if not ad nauseum. Yet however benumbed the soul, our deepest aspirations reveal a compelling need not just for having or producing more but for being more. They expose our eternalness, our search for ideals, our need to reach beyond self to avoid suffocating in it. Hell is not “other people,” as Sartre mistakenly claimed. Hell is self, with no exit. The real failure in today’s frenetic pursuit of excellence would be failing to perceive its enormous potential to ennoble not just the work, but—in the fullest measure of his personality—the worker.