Excellence is overrated. Let’s espouse being good enough instead | Andre Spicer
Schools, bodies, workplaces, relationships this quest to be outstanding can be damaging, says academic Andr Spicer
We live in a society preoccupied with being exceptional. Whether it is as employees, mothers, students, fans or cooks, we are expected to be outstanding. We must strive to be the best employee, craft an outstanding body, have an amazing relationship, all while being exceptionally happy. Even the most ordinary organizations also are expected to be nothing less than excellent. Companies want to be ” world class”, schools have become” academies of excellence”, and humble local GP surgeries strive to be ” outstanding “. Being good enough is seen as simply not good enough.
Our quest to be excellent has many positive consequences, but it also can be damaging. Lionising excellence can create huge inequalities. When high performers are showered with rewards, the great mass of us who are average miss out. This can trigger rancour in those who feel that they don’t measure up. But the preoccupation with being exceptional does only harm the great mass of median people. It can also do damage to people at the top as well.
Recent research on” insecure overachievers” has found that a burning drive to always be outstanding often foliages even the most exceptional performers feeling like they are not good enough ). This can create severe damaging physical and mental health problems. Ultimately, the quest to be outstanding means all of us feel like we will never measure up.
If excellence is a harmful trap, how can we get out of it? More than 50 years ago, the psychotherapist, DW Winnicott provided written answers. During his work with parents and children, he noticed that those striving to be the perfect mom or father is most often end up creating problems- for themselves as well as the child. Well-adjusted children often had parents who were ” good enough “. They weren’t so neglectful that their child was harmed. Nor were they so astounding that the child felt they couldn’t escape the overwhelming shadow of their parent.
Rather they simply provided enough love and support for the child to develop. However, they did not provide so much that the child never realised there are limits to their demands and passions. Winnicott realised the fact that people were not perfect parents was actually a vital spur for children to develop a sense of freedom from their mom or father. It was also instrumental in helping them to learn that there was a world beyond them which did not bend to their every whim.
All these year later, Winnicott’s lessons in parenting are being taken up in other areas of life. The novelist Avram Alpert recently argued that we should give up our obsession with greatness and instead try to build a good enough life. Being good enough means being willing and able to respond to others demands, but also being willing to recognise our own limitations and to say no once in a while.
A good-enough employee is willing to do their own work and even take on tasks that go beyond their role, but they know they have limitations and they are able to say no when they feel overwhelmed, out of their depth or doubtful. A good-enough spouse is attentive to their partners’ needs, but does not bend to their every whim. We are being good enough to our bodies when we eat well and exert regularly, but also recognise that there is more to life than the gym and diet smoothies. We are good-enough citizens if we are willing to do our duties like voting and paying taxes, but we are also willing to push back if we don’t agree with our government.
Being good enough doesn’t only apply to our individual lives. It also can inform how we think about our institutions. Instead of hoping that our workplaces, hospitals, schools or governments are all outstanding, perhaps we should try to build them good enough. Good-enough workplaces would devote employees a decent wage, relatively interesting run and opportunities to develop.
But they wouldn’t make outlandish promises about being everything for staff , nor would they make outlandish demands on them. Good-enough schools offer a safe and stimulating surrounding for to learn in, but they wouldn’t do the learn for the students. Good-enough healthcare would offer the supporting we need when we are ill, but it doesn’t constantly intrude into people’s life to ensure they are well.
Being good enough isn’t easy. In our own lives, owning up to our restrictions can trigger some uncomfortable feelings like guilt and disgrace. But these feelings help us to come to a vital realisation- we are not omnipotent and often it is better to reach out for assistance rather than trying to be outstanding on our own.
The same thing is true of good-enough institutions: when we are not given everything we think we deserve, we can easily become frustrated and angry. But sometimes these feelings can spur us to try to take responsibility. Think about the student who needs to put in some work to learn themselves, the patient who needs to construct some lifestyle changes to help alleviate their illness or the employee who needs to solve a problem themselves rather than waiting for their boss to sort it out.
When we realise our institutions are inevitably limited, we might stop overloading them with expectations that they will inevitable fail to deliver on. Aiming for good enough may help to avoid the tragic and all too common situation where our ever-extending demands overload both us and the institutions we rely upon.
Living a good-enough life may not sound as inspiring as striving for excellence. But as the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips points out embracing the annoyances that come along with just being good enough is a vital part of living a life in which we feel safe, but are also able to become absorbed in projects that mean something to us. In that routes, being good enough is better than trying to be extraordinary.
* Andre Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour at the Cass Business School at City, University of London. He is the author of the book Business Bullshit
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