Sunday, January 30, 2011

Good Enough Is Not Good Enough

“Where are the strong? Who are the trusted?”
-Elvis Costello

“A 'No' uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a 'Yes' merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.” -Mahatma Gandhi

We often pretend that only some people lie. People love to tell jokes about how salesmen, lawyers, and politicians are constantly lying to us. We shake our fists at doctors who, trying to dodge potential malpractice, won't tell us exactly what to do. We hate the careful answers of our financial advisors and our mechanics. “Just be straight with me,” we fume.

And while we are complaining to each other about the lack of honest discourse in commerce and in politics, we'll happily fib our way through our day. From our private lives to our workplace to exchanges on the street, we're all carefully navigating how to say what we really think.

The problem is not that we are a bunch of phonies, however. The problem is that in our attempts to avoid calling things as we really see them, we're negotiating excellence. We're sidelining exceptionality.

We can't admire what is not admirable. So how and why are we pushing “greatness” to the side?

Lying: Hey, I Do It, Too
Who hasn't told an easy lie in order to avoid conflict?

-Your best friend is crazy about his new girlfriend. You think she's a total mess and would make a terrible partner. He asks you what you think of her. You say “she seems nice.”
-Your husband finishes the work on the bathroom and you hate the way he installed the faucet. It'll bug you for years and you know it. He looks at you proudly and you say, “Great work, hun. Thanks.”
-Your kid hardly ever practices baseball but wants start on the varsity team. It frustrates you because he's lazy. Later, he doesn't make the team. You say “I'm proud of you for trying.”

We spin it, like political pundits after a debate. And, sometimes, we just plain lie. We say the opposite of what we really think.

Some of us do it in the name of politeness. We don't want to be jerks. Others do it in the name of protection. We think that the truth hurts. Some of us just don't want to go the through the trouble of telling the truth. We're busy. Honest communication takes too much time.

All of this makes sense in our private lives, we think. Who can always tell the truth? It's absurd! We can't pretend that we can be honest about everything. Caring for people sometimes means leaving things out, right?

When No One Is Mediocre, Then No One Is Excellent
But we're lumping all of this together too easily. It's one thing to avoid telling your friend that her ass looks enormous in those jeans. It's another thing to avoid identifying flaws in each other and ourselves. By protecting one another from the discomfort of the truth, we deny ourselves the ability to grow, adapt, and reach for new things. We claim to be helping one another-- but, instead, we are only stunting each other.

This is because honesty demands fixing the broken and improving the improvable. The mediocre becomes plain and not good enough.  Things that work get celebrated and things that don't get identified. Honesty is the fuel of real and lasting progress.

I hear people say “I'm terrible with technology.” What this actually means is “I prefer it when someone else fixes my stuff.” “I can't spell” means “it doesn't matter how to spell things.” “I have no idea who my state senator is” means “I don't want to be involved in decisions about my community.”

We're saving ourselves and one another from unnecessary pain, sure. But we're also avoiding improving things. We're cycling medium.  And our country is paying for it.

The Exception: Complaining
I'd like to allow one caveat. We will tell the truth if we can avoid any responsibility that comes with being honest. This is the machinery of “complaining.”

We are great at complaining. We love to whine about things that don't work when we are removed from making things better. Take road rage. We are astonishingly honest in the isolation of our cars. Someone cuts us off and we are suddenly on truth serum. We'll uselessly scream a suggestion: “use a turn signal, moron!” Something sucks at work; a stupid policy is making everyone unhappy. Everyone will complain and no one will try to fix it, usually because the problem will take a bunch of time, energy, and creativity to fix.

It's so wonderfully easy to complain. Who wants to go through the trouble of confrontation? Of improvement? Our complaining takes the place of being honest.

The Haystack of “Good Enough”
Somewhere in the efforts to be polite, political, and/or non-confrontational, we're not just stunting our progress. We're making it impossible to tell the difference between “mediocre” and “excellent.” We're numbing our ability to identify (and reach for) greatness. And we are doing it most with our children and young people.

Think about that. Our willingness to spin has a special effect on the younger generation. Again, it's not necessarily about hypocrisy. It's about losing the ability to identify the exceptionally good.

Our kids in our culture watch us. When we don't call the average “average” or the weak “weak,” the real casualty is greatness. We extol average!  "I'm just an average guy!"  In the huge pile of nearly meaningless compliments and unspoken critiques, we can't find the exceptional and inspirational.

In schools, we celebrate showing up-- and not even showing up on time. We reward doing the bare minimum. And you know what? We do the very same thing in our lives, day to day. We lower expectations in order to be happier with results.

This isn't just the 'give everyone a trophy' problem. This is more of a 'it's easier to call it good enough' problem. 

It won't matter if our teachers and schools are better if we can't tell our kids (and the parents of those kids) that “not bad” is NOT “excellent.” It won't matter if the kids can't tell the difference between “weak” and “strong.”

Does spelling matter? Should you be able to troubleshoot your own computer? Should you know who your senator is?
Does my ass look big in these jeans?
Is there a difference between “average” and “great?”

It depends on how brave and strong we can be about telling the truth-- in our lives and in our schools.

For further reading on the subject of excellence in schools:
The best high school students in the world are now coming from other countries. The numbers are chilling. Check out this article in The Atlantic from Nov 2011.


  1. I liked this, a lot...I'm more honest now with age and confidence. I think that comes in to play too with maturity.

  2. Can you define greatness, as you see it, for a person and for a nation?

  3. This is really food for thought. "By protecting one another from the discomfort of truth we deny ourselves the ability to grow, adapt, and reach for new things." You have put this well. You carefully consider how in our personal lives we negotiate excellence: "caring for each other, at times, means leaving things out." True, but was it Franklin who coined the idiom, "Honesty is the best policy"? Whoever said it was right. It is best to consistently mirror the truth. "We are entitled to our opinions, but not our own facts." It is imperitive for the younger generation. Young people crave the truth. It is food. They want to know. Truth teaches them to learn trust, and tells them where to cast their line. Amy Chua's new book, "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" posits that Chinese mothers expect more of their children, and therefore get it. When I look back at the adults in my young life, I am grateful to those who pushed me and told me the truth.
    Jane, not really anonymous. Spelling is important, and spellcheck is hilarious.

  4. Thanks for the feedback, everyone.

    Defining 'greatness' requires imagination, to be sure. At the risk of being cavalier, 'greatness' depends on the situation. If I had to distill it, I'd say greatness most often grows out of an urge or drive to improve something. It may be borne from dissatisfaction, hunger, necessity, passion-- but, at its core, it's a function of process.

    Herein may be our greatest stumbling block, then. When we define excellence as a place or a terminal end-- a win, a job, a score, a moment--rather than a way or journey, we're not able to talk about what produces excellence: personal drive and internalized values.

  5. To quote Jack Nicholson, " can't handle the truth" and many people can't. This doesn't excuse us from the truth because truth is for the soul of he who lives it rather than the person who may or may not hear it. Truth is what nourishes the soul. (I mean soul in a non-religious way.)

    I completely agree that "greatness" is a process.