Julian is a 12 year old from Montana, Joy is a 15 year old from Texas. They share an unusual love, a rare desire: they both wish to dance the ballet, and at the highest level. In pursuit of this passion, these two young Americans have done what few Americans have ever done: they moved to Russia and enrolled in the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, one of the toughest, strictest, most difficult, most challenging, most demanding ballet academies on the face of this planet. Think Balanchine, Nureyev, Baryshnikov. These titans of ballet all are products of the same Russian system.

In a June 1, 2010, New York Times front page article (“Young Americans Embrace Rigors of the Bolshoi”), the young Americans’ experience was described as a cold water emersion: “no hand holding, no Russian interpreters, no preparatory sessions,” just discipline and high standards of performance. Joy said, “the standards are such, the work ethic is such in Russia that there is no room for failure, no room for laziness, no room to be nice when it is not appropriate to be nice…. Russia is the best because there is this demand for excellence that there isn’t anywhere else in the world.”

Ouch. A “demand for excellence that there isn’t anywhere else in the world.” That is what they used to say about us, about America. It was our work ethic, our standards that the world measured itself against. Yes, yes, I know that this is ballet, not industrial might or technological prowess. Yet I fear that in our search for the utopian society where no one should ever have to suffer any hardship, any pain, any suffering, any wrong, any slight… we have lost our edge, our toughness, our discipline.

In search of a society where no one’s feelings ever get hurt we have created enormous room for failure. In a society where no one is ever allowed to be considered wanting or inadequate in any way, we have insured laziness. In a social order where self-esteem is handed out as a birthright regardless of effort or merit or accomplishment, we have set standards so low that no challenge or effort is required.

In large measure, people live up or down to the standards and expectations that are set for them. Standards that stretch and challenge your abilities, skills, and talents are the best gift. Rigor, discipline, high standards, and a love of excellence are the hallmark of successful people and of successful, enduring societies.