Good Enough

In the language of the psychologist Barry Schwartz, I tend to be a satisficer rather than maximizer when it comes to getting things done. That is, I tend to aim for "good enough" rather than "excellence" or "the best."

This tendency of mine sets me at odds with the zeitgeist of our age, particularly in the world of corporate America--the pursuit of excellence, being the best or, at the very least, the best you can be.

Pushing back against this impulse, I'd like to argue in this post that you shouldn't try to be the best you can be. I'd like to argue that you should settle for being average and good enough rather than for excellence.

In fact, I'd like to argue that you embrace being a failure.

Why would I make that argument? Because I think the pursuit of excellence is sitting atop a lie, a fear-driven lie.

The root of this lie is that excellence--striving to be the best, or even merely better--assumes we are gods. Excellence assumes that we are not, in fact, finite creatures with finite resources of time and energy.

Of course, let me add, a lot depends here upon one's definition of excellence. By excellence I'm pointing to the impulse in our culture where being satisfied with being "average" or "normal" or "good enough" is somehow an admission of defeat or failure, a giving up or a throwing in the towel. By excellence I'm pointing to the neurotic driveness that demands constant improvement, that this year--personally or institutionally--has to be better than last year.

But as should be clear, this is impossible. You can't get better and better and better. Again, we are not gods with infinite resources. We are finite, limited creatures. We have a top, a limit. Past a certain point, you can't get better.

That is, unless, you start borrowing--or robbing--from other facets of your life. You can get better at work if you begin to borrow some time or energy from, say, your family. To get better at, say, work you can work longer hours, spending less time elsewhere. Because this is the only way a finite creature can get better. You can't tap into an infinitely deep reservoir of time and energy. You have to borrow from somewhere to get ahead elsewhere.

This is why I think the idol of excellence is a great lie. Excellence presupposes a false anthropology as it assumes that we are gods and not human beings. Human beings, of necessity, have to be "good enough." Or, at the very least, excellence entails sacrifices, borrowing from other aspects of life to get ahead in another areas. Sacrifice-free excellence is unavailable to us. We are not gods.

This is why when I hear calls for ever escalating excellence, progress, and improvement what I really hear is a call for sacrifice. Of course I could do "better" in various areas of my life. I could throw in more time or energy. But if I do that what is going to be sacrificed?

To be concrete, there are a variety of things at work where I've achieved a "good enough" level. But my workplace, probably like your workplace, can't really compute "good enough," the goal should be excellence and constant improvement. Being "good enough" is an admission of failure. We should strive to be the best. Or, at the very least, we should be better than we were last year. Constant improvement is the name of the game.

But, again, that is impossible. The only way I can improve and improve and improve across the board is if I start, say, taking time away from my family or church. Excellence is revealed to be a euphemism for sacrifice and idolatry. When an institution demands "excellence" what they are really asking for greater and greater sacrifice. Yes, I could be a better worker. But at the expense of being a worse father, spouse, or friend.

And yet, most of us are ready and willing to make these sacrifices. We buy into the illusion and the lie. We don't want to "settle" for being good enough, so we neurotically pursue excellence and betterment. Why do we do this?

I think it has to do with our fear of death. Behind the push for excellence is a fear of death.

How so?

Again, being "average" or "good enough" is often experienced as a sort of failure. But as we've just diagnosed the situation, being "good enough" isn't as much about failure as it is about our finitude. And that's where the fear of death enters in. Being "average" or merely "good enough" provokes existential anxiety as we are confronted with our limitations. Again, there is a delusional anthropology behind the quest for excellence. We'd like to think we have inexhaustible resources--all the time and energy in the world to be excellent in everything. Which is to say we'd like to be gods, beings immune to death. This desire to be god-like--to be excellent--is driven by a fear of our own mortality, a fear of our own finitude. Failure--not being excellent--reminds us that we are humans and not gods, that we are mortal creatures vulnerable to death.

Fearful of our mortality, then, we opt for delusions. We pretend that we are gods and delude ourselves with god-like myths that "failure is not an option" when, in fact, failure is a fact of life for finite creatures. Failure is intrinsic to human existence. Be be a human is to fail.

Our discomfort with failures, then, is a fear of death. Our discomfort with being "average" or "good enough" is a fear of death. The neurotic push for excellence is driven by a fear of death.

To be shamed, then, for being normal, average, good enough or a failure is to be shamed by a fear-based illusion. Basically, you are being shamed for being what you are--a human being. That's the tragedy of modern life: You are not allowed to be a human being. You have to be better, something more. A god. Otherwise you're a failure.

But I'd like to remind you--with a word of grace and truth--that you are, in fact, a human being

You are a failure.

And that means you are good enough.

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24 thoughts on “Good Enough”

  1. "Behind the push for excellence is a fear of death."

    I absolutely agree with this point, but maybe not for the reasons you mentioned. I find myself wanting to be perfect in my academic community to achieve some sort of elite status. I want that status to last and for my name to be remembered in the scientific literature. But I feel the real reason for this is my fear that after I die if I'm not remembered in the academic community my life will have been meaningless and forgettable.  If there is no afterlife, I want my work, at least, to be remembered. Ironically, this very thinking is a failure in my faith in God.      

  2. Absolutely. This one parable, alone of Jesus' parables, fits (albeit uncomfortably) a capitalistic success-orientation. So we ride that interpretation to the hilt. Jesus doesn't mention people who "maximize" versus people who are "good enough"--he contrasts people who risk the gift for Kingdom work and those who don't.

  3. Thanks, Richard. Reminds me of a Chesterton maxim: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." One outcome of the drive for excellence means we actually don't try to do things that we're bad at--like helping the poor, interacting with the mentally challenged, etc., etc. Instead we do the things that we can be, well, excellent at doing.

    Of course, this is a hard sell if one wants to stay employed. . . .

  4. i'd suggest that this post is very much related to an earlier post of yours, about a study set up to mimic the 'good samaritan' situation:

    "Overall, the results revealed that the single biggest factor in helping
    was the hurry manipulation. The relevant statistic from the study was (%
    who stopped):
    * The Low Hurry Condition: 63% offered aid* The High Hurry Condition: 10% offered aid

    incidentally, some seminarians in the high hurry condition literally
    stepped over the groaning person on the way to deliver their sermon on
    the Good Samaritan.
    i'd guess that those seeking "perfection" by sacrificing time on other activities are almost always in the "hurry condition" noted in the study.

  5. Wow. Thanks for putting this into words. I think I've felt this way for a long time and didn't know it!

    A few thoughts- I'm a musician, which sort of predestines me for a perfection complex, being a performer and all. I have worked with several musical mentors, who, in an effort to "do it all" ended up half-assing everything they do because they were trying so hard to please everyone. This lifestyle was forced on me all through college, and after I graduated I had a sort of breakdown/existential crisis. I had spent 4 years being everywhere and doing everything, all in the name of "ministry" and promoting the university I attended. It pretty much killed me. As a result I haven't been actively involved in music ministry for over 2 years. It's completely depressing me, because music is my heart and a huge part of my worship to God; I feel incomplete without it. But I think I have a little PTSD from my college (and high school) years because I was run so ragged trying to do everything that was asked (demanded) of me. I'm also a huge people pleaser, which doesn't help at all.

    Perhaps this isn't completely on your topic- but it's what came to mind after reading.

    Anyways, thank you for sharing this. Bless you!

  6. You've begun a new mini-series - "good enough" vs. "excellent":
    Realizing this is another subset/symptom of the "fear of death", I'm particularly interested in your take about the "NOT good enough" stigma.  Especially since this seems externally imposed (to varying degrees)  from parents, school teachers, high school friends,  coaches, employers, hollywood/media, church, spouses and ultimately, God/scripture (depends our perception too).    Thanks again Dr. Beck.
    Gary Y. 

  7. Yes, but how many of us have the freedom to settle for Good Enough? We are up to our eyeballs in a competitive economy. If you don't improve in ways that can be "quantified" you will simply be replaced. And CEO's have to push the stock price ever higher or they're fired. How we do escape the treadmill? This is the  beauty of the system, if you opt out but your competitor doesn't he will crush you. Remember the apocryphal story about RFK and Hoffa? RFK was heading home late one nite and saw the lights on in Teamster HQ--he had the driver turn the car around and went back to work.  How about all the folks who work multiple jobs for little pay and no benefits to support their family? I think you make an excellent point, but do we reclaim that freedom that has been stolen from us?

  8. There is a relationship, I think, between what you've written here, what you wrote the other day about salvation through merit (and the misreading of that idea), and living under the capitalist economy. A lot of the anxieties below seem to about (albeit not explicitly) the fear of satisficing in a capitalist economy. In other words, whether you meant to or not, I think you just made an excellent Christian argument for communism.

  9. Thanks for this, I think this is very well said.

    I wonder if this can be pushed beyond the individual.  This seems to also describe something of American (and maybe even Western in general) consciousness regarding economic growth, the need for military expansion, continued status as the sole superpower even in the face of rising regional powers.  Do you think those facets of American culture can be characterized by American society being existentially uncomfortable with its own limitations?

  10. "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."--Samuel Beckett

  11. To an earlier post, I would say that perhaps God doesn't want competition, but he does want excellence. I do agree with some here who say that Richard just might have posited a straw man. Perhaps the wrong alternatives have been put forth. To do it all better than anyone else... vs to do some things just good enough to pass. Is that really the choice?

    Maybe if we stopped trying to do it all, to do it competitively, to do it better than someone else... 
    Maybe if we stopped for just a moment and intentionally (ie, with intention) did each thing with purpose and as though doing it for Christ. Not doing it to be the best of humans. Not doing it to be better than someone/everyone else. Just doing our work as Christ would want, in line with our gifts. With intention, with care, with prayer. Opus Dei.

    I'm a rookie follower of Benedict and have enjoyed the Fridays with Benedict here. But I think that a deeper read of Benedict might shed some light here. It certainly has encouraged me to do each thing carefully, intentionally, with commitment, and to be a very careful steward of whatever God has blessed me with - whether personal or material. It is all holy. It is all His.

    And what did the old monk say when asked what he did at the monastery? We fall down. We get up. We fall down. We get up... the key point for me here is that we do get up. Over and over. Is that striving for perfection? Or is that simply living in the Spirit?

    An unholy obsession with perfectionism... or a holy commitment to doing one's best?

  12. One of my favorite takes on the perfectionism theme is "if a problem arises, it means we don't have enough rules." I see this often in the workplace, and it makes things difficult for everyone. Sometimes things just happen... we can't make rules to cover every situation in life. If we try, then it means that we believe we can control everything in life. If this is true, then we must believe we are gods.

  13. it is an idol... self. Not learning to trust God's plan for our lives... Trusting instead in our own ideas of improvement, betterment.. our attempts to appease a cultural standard that just keeps morphing into a bigger and bigger gap (or pit of hell) from who we really are... but .. fear of death? I would say it's more a failure/ignorance of knowing who we are in Christ. Or perhaps a fear of having to justify ourselves... and  if one knows who they in Christ, then a deep knowing that we may just be that servant who squanders the treasure... I'm thinking more a fear of living ...authentically, honestly, and truly.

  14. Richard,

    Thanks for this article. I agree with all your points. This fits in nicely with some of the things you've said in the past regarding Christus Victor atonement theology, as well. If salvation is being freed from our bondage to death, then we are free to live - without somehow having to compensate for the fact of our mortality and contingent natures.

    I find it instructive how people have responded to the suggestion that we can relax our tyrannical demands on ourselves. While many seem relieved by this message, others seem terrified of it - seeking to augment it in some way or dress it up somehow so that it is more palatable but, alas, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet - and perfectionism by any other name is still a battle lost before it has even begun.

    Why is Christianity so plagued by this cruel, vindictive perfectionist streak? Why are so many churches and communities like police states where our every action is scrutinized by people with planks in their eyes?

    Why is it still revolutionary to say, "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath"?
    My yoke is easy; my burden, light.

  15. Heck, we didn't need Dr. Beck's post for THAT.  Just check out the pervasive prosperity among the communists, both past and present!

  16. Who is "riding [that interpretation] to the hilt?"  qb's just pushing back against the problem set-up.

  17. I think I agree with Dianne.  Are you presenting us with a false dichotomy here, Richard?  I completely get the constant betterment and comparison thing, but does this rule out a desire to do the important things as well as possible, coupled with a desire for the wisdom to know exactly what the important thing is in any given situation?  Should we moderate our efforts to practice hospitality or works of mercy?  What about if our day job involves just this?  To carry out these tasks to impress, or to escape criticism, or to compete is one thing, but what about doing "for the least as for the Lord"?  I suspect, as with most things, the solution is to be found in learning to live 'dilemmatically' - to live in the tension between extremes.

  18. I don't think I'm presenting a false dichotomy. I think all I'm trying to say is that people feel stretched thin and often feel worthless because they can't hit "excellence" across the board. My observation about that is that those expectations are unrealistic (being based on the false anthropology I describe).

    The classic case, though I'm presuming here, is the working mother who has to be great at home and at work and everywhere else. But those across the board expectations are not realistic or sustainable. Why? Because we aren't gods, we are human beings with limits. But rather than owning that reality we, instead, embrace the unrealistic expecations and, thus, feel shame for failing.

    My guess is that working moms gets this much better than men. Working women feel the pressures and the associated sacrifices and the resultant cultural shaming more than men because they are torn between two worlds. Men, because they get to be men, tend to sacrifice home as a matter of course. Which means that they mostly don't know that they are, in fact, sacrificing something. And yet they are. They just don't notice.

  19. Hi Richard

    Thanks for your thoughts.  I completely get and agree with you.  I think what I'm working through is the little voice in my own head that wonders if we aren't throwing out something precious with the bathwater.  Is that just my own 'protestant work ethic' / need for approval hangover, or is there a place for doing something worthwhile as well as possible for its own sake?  The conclusion I was stumbling towards in my last post was the idea that the mistake we make may be in letting our own 'saryx' or the pressures of the world guide the choices we make when deciding what to put our best efforts to.  Perhaps what we lack is the wisdom to do our best in the RIGHT actions.  For the working 'Mom' or Dad, this could be leaving the housework to play with the children, for example.  This is purposeful 'good enough' thinking - choosing to accept compromise in the 'many things' of life to focus on the 'needful' thing.  Couldn't there be something of the 'Little Way' in doing something unnoticed and unremarkable to the best of our ability?

    For me, this recalls our previous discussions of self-esteem.  I still tend towards the view that there is a 'good' version of self-esteem as well as the competitive, comparative incarnation - a sense of usefulness that comes from contributing to our communities.  Can inspiring someone / being inspired towards better efforts never be a work of grace?  Must it always involve shaming someone and (perhaps more to the point) keeping them in their shame?

    What do you think?

  20. What may be confusing in my post is that I'm assuming a situation where a person is feeling pushed to achieve more and more excellence, either across the board or in a particular area. When a person isn't feeling pushed and has found a good balance then nothing I've described in the post applies. Yet I'd argue that finding a good balance is, in fact, letting some things be "good enough" so that other more important things can be attended to. Just as with your example of the parent leaving the housework in a "good enough" state to spend time with the kids. Your example is exactly what I'm trying describe. Because there are people who feel shamed and like a failure if the house isn't spotless and immaculete. They can't leave it at "good enough" as that would signal a failure. But as I argued in the post, sometimes have to be just that sort of "failure" to be present for your kids.

  21. Yes, I think we agree.  One aspect of my job involves training with foster carers and I'm often saying something similar about 'good enough' parenting - that it's not their job to 'fix' their kids, but rather to provide a space within which healing and growth can take place.  Like Solomon, however, I can often be better at giving advice than following it, and I look forward to these thoughts on perfectionism coming to fruition in my own life in good time.

    I continue to give thanks for this place on an almost daily basis.  Blessings on your day, Richard.

  22. wonderful words. i am a former competitive swimmer and every year you HAD to be faster than the last, or else be ashamed. we are humans so live it up! 

  23. Great post.  I completely identify with this and God has recently been showing me that I need to correct this in myself.  I need to stop trying to take it all on my shoulders, pick up the slack of others and pull it myself.  I need Jesus' easy yoke and light burden.  Although, in my case it seemed that my motivation was a fear of failure.  At least, failure in my own self-righteous, prideful, perfectionism.  Maybe there is some fear of mortality but for me it was an almost immobilizing fear of failure.  Constantly going over all the risks and trying to eliminate them before acting to almost always ensure success.  Thank you Jesus for your easy yoke!
    Thank you for this post Richard, it was timely for me.

  24. "You are a failure.

    And that means you are good enough."
    There it is. Law AND gospel.

    That's the Word that brings death...and life.

    Thank you.

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