Nihil quam optime

‘Nothing but the best.’ I might have been the only person at my comprehensive school (which didn’t teach Latin) to understand the school motto. I believe I always tried to live up to it. I was seen as a ‘high flyer’, and that did prove to be true in my academic achievement.

Permitting myself a moment of immodesty, I must say I have continued to strive for excellence in everything I have committed time to. Nihil quam optime. And yet – here I redress the immodesty with an embarrassing admission – I have been pretty unsuccessful at acquiring either money or status. (That might change now I am pouring my efforts into Magpie & Jay, but who knows.) A simplistic explanation for this could be that I took the motto altruistically, to mean ‘nothing but giving of my best’. It probably did mean that, but what about the other side of the coin – ‘expecting to receive the best’? Forty years later I have only just thought of that. Perhaps one should aim for both? This may be obvious perhaps to someone with strong self-esteem.

Be that as it may, the question presents itself: what actually is meant by ‘the best’? The Latin words optimus and optime are linked in English to the adjective ‘optimal’. Rather than being synonymous with ‘best’, ‘optimal’ is associated with a compromise (in a good sense): a situation that is in balance, where a plethora of matters are well arranged and adjusted in relation to one another and the right conditions have been established. Optimal does not mean ‘biggest’ or ‘richest’ or ‘most famous’. It means ‘most suitable and functional’.

Balance has for a long time been my holy grail, mainly because I cannot be happy without it. To me this means enjoying exercise of both mind and body; working hard but also spending time with friends and family; doing difficult things and having fun; being both analytical and intuitive to create something new. I have wanted my life to be ‘most suitable and functional’. And I suppose it has been. But for what?

Goals were never my strong point. Balance itself seemed an adequate goal until 2020, but with my definition of it severely dented by the Covid pandemic (all cultural embellishments to life being severely curtailed), I need to think what ‘balance’ means to me now. How does it look in a Covid-ravaged world?

Efforts promoting balance, and thus deserving of the epithet optime (best), are surely not big and bullish (and consequently destructive). On the contrary, they are shaped by a less ostentatious but much more efficacious collection of social qualities: perceptiveness, circumspection, forbearance, patience, astuteness, flexibility, cooperation. These are needed to tackle the world’s biggest problems: climate change, Covid, and any new monsters on the horizon.

Delicacy and diplomacy aren’t exciting or newsworthy (and social media algorithms are on a mission to annihilate them), but these attributes characterise the approach needed: a subtle balance between vision and realism; a judicial weighing up of the facts to find optimal solutions to multiple interrelated issues; and the communication skills – ranging from decisiveness and clarity to persuasiveness and sense of humour – to get others on board.

So where does this leave me with my goal of balance? Well I am now part of an unofficial global team. Covid has taken away much, but this makes it mandatory to distil what I can best contribute.

As it happens, the one practice that draws together all my academic and creative impulses, while adhering to social distancing, is visual art and design. This I can pursue through Magpie & Jay. After all, a business first and foremost needs a product. However, my secondary goal should be to graft the products I create into a new, balanced and ‘optimal’ economy that is flexible and visionary: aligning my activities with the pursuit of solutions to global problems in small, but creative and well-honed, ways and habits.

I might do worse than begin by making it socially acceptable to re-use greetings cards and their packaging. When is a better time to start than the 1st January 2021?

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