the essence of excellence

The Essence of Excellence

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media 25 Comments

Some have called him the greatest performer of spoken word of our time.

His videos have brought YouTube viewers to tears. His powerful performances turned comic book addicts into poetry lovers.

In 2000, he won the individual championship at the National Poetry Slam in Providence, Rhode Island – beating 250 North American competitors. In doing so, he became the first-ever winner from outside the U.S.

His first published collection, Visiting Hours, was the only work of poetry selected by the Guardian, Globe and Mail newspapers, for their Best Books of the Year lists in 2005.

And yet, most people have never heard of him.


All of that changed when Shane Koyczan recited his poem “We Are More” at the opening ceremony for the 2010 Winter Olympics held in Vancouver, British Columbia. The man who was born in the obscure town of Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories, wowed the world with his words.

Most footage of that performance is of very poor quality because the Olympic Committee regulates the rights to the original broadcast and we’re stuck with amateur video.

Here’s an extended and animated version of “We Are More”.

The reason I’m writing about Shane today can be summarized in one word:


Most days I wake up on the right side of the bed and everything just flows. Some days I feel stuck in a rut and I catch myself doing the same things I’ve always done, hoping to get a different result. It never works, does it?

To some, living life on cruise control might be the ultimate goal, but as soon as I find out that my brain has secretly switched on the autopilot, I tell it to turn it off and start doing some stretching exercises.

A big part of me has this inner urge to always learn and grow and expand what I am capable of. In order to do that, I need to be challenged beyond my boundaries. It’s the best way to escape my cozy comfort zone. But where to go? Whom can I turn to?

I am always on the lookout to emulate excellence. If I want to be the best, I have to learn from the best. That might sound straightforward to you, but in our culture that is not necessarily the predominant philosophy.


I never understood why medical researchers seem to spend more time studying illness instead of learning about wellness. During their training, doctors-to-be poke around in dead bodies, supposedly learning the secrets to saving the living. They spend most of their time around the sick and the dying, and some of them eventually become specialists in a particular disease.

The study of the dysfunctional is the norm, but it doesn’t have to be.

In certain schools of Oriental medicine, doctors get paid to keep the people in their care healthy. Their focus is much more on preventing the root cause of a problem, rather than on treating or alleviating symptoms. Instead of trying to find a cure for diabetes, they are teaching their “patients” about a healthy diet and an active lifestyle.

It is a well-known fact that Western doctors have more problems with drugs and alcohol, and a higher suicide rate than their patients. (source) Most Oriental healers practice what they preach and keep on practicing well into their senior years. In their culture, the wisdom that comes with age is held in high regard, instead of hidden in underfunded assisted living facilities.


Like doctors, many professionals are trained to spend most of their time on sick systems, tracking and analyzing problems. Psycho-analysts come to mind, as well as lawyers, economists and -dare I say it- politicians. We have become masters at focusing on what’s wrong and finding someone or something to blame.

“Fast food and soda made me fat. I didn’t do it! Pepsi won.”

What would have happened after 9/11, had we invested just as much money and brain power into building bridges between people, cultures and religions, as we have invested in beefing up homeland security? Or have we ignored the causes while we were busy trying to treat the symptoms?

Why not focus on creating beauty and cultivating friendships, as we fortify our nation to prevent more death and destruction? How can we sow the seeds of peace and understanding if we spend all our money and manpower building more barriers and pave over our gardens with concrete to protect us? Is that a sign of desperation or of inspiration?

I admit it: I have my dark days. When I look for inspiration and the essence of excellence, I sometimes turn to poetry and to my favorite poet: Shane Koyczan. He’s called a spoken word virtuoso for a reason.

As a professional speaker, I admire the way he hammers his words in with heart and with soul. They almost burn into my brain. I’d love to emulate his mastery of language and moving delivery. His artistry is the challenge I am looking for. His depth is what I aspire to.

Shane speaks to me in a way few other people do. One moment he seems to tenderly touch his words with velvet gloves, only to start building a tremendous crescendo of ideas and similes and associations my mind tries to process intellectually but cannot, until what’s left is an overwhelming feeling of intense exaltation.

It’s almost a hypnotic induction.

A great example of his style is the poem “Beethoven”. Even though the quality of the recording leaves a bit to be desired for, it is a monumental performance.

Shane Koyczan still performs his work for sold out houses, but he has done something else. He created a new genre called Talk Rock with his band the Short Story Long. His unique mix of song and verse won him the “Best New Artist” award at the BC Interior Music Awards in 2009.

Even though the poetry corner at my bookstore seems to be shrinking day by day, the spoken word is alive and kicking in Canada. And I can’t help but wonder: what would happen if the world would feed itself with the art of poets, painters, dancers and musicians instead of with the language of hate, discrimination, intolerance, fanaticism and violence? 

Shane Coyczan:

“Because there are times when the cost of truth is so high, we endure our own hearts to hearts break. We make love into a currency that can’t be cashed in, because there has never been a bank that will give out a loan based on the collateral of hope.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS What inspires you? Who is your inspiration?