February 9, 2011

Is 'Good Enough' Good Enough?

My life is full, and I'm stressed. Luckily, most of what my life is full of is good. That should make me feel less stressed, right? Not quite. If, like me, you're a recovering perfectionist (or her best friend, the recovering "good girl"), you understand. Those of you who are neither are luckier than you can imagine.

The RP (or RGG) always, always does her best work. That, in itself, is not the stressful part. What causes the stress is that the RP seems unable to look at the four-hundred-and-fifty-seven items on today's To Do list and decide which require her "best" and those for which "good" is good enough.  What we've got here is a failure to discriminate. (If you haven't watched 'Cool Hand Luke' recently, now's your chance.)

Occasionally, I'd hear -- maybe on a panel at a professional conference, maybe in a self-help book -- that excellence was over-rated, that not all projects need the same level or quality of attention. It sounded reasonable, but in my heart I thought that people who operated that way were slackers. Whether I was planning a conference or cleaning out my closet, "good enough" didn't seem to be an option.

Fast forward, and I'm in a photography class at the local university. I'm taking the class to learn about photography; I'm not taking it for the grade, and it's not something I need to advance my career.

Our assignment each week is to take a set number of photographs that illustrate specific design principles. Last week, the day before my assignment was due, I decided that half the photos I'd taken wouldn't do. They were technically competent, but I wasn't pleased with the content. I re-shot them. It took all afternoon, time that I had committed to friends.

Should I have re-taken the photos (and given up what I'd initially planned)? I never considered the question. If the work needed improvement, didn't I have a responsibility to make it better? It wasn't until after I'd turned in the assignment that I looked at the assumptions I was making.  The answer to my question, which I'd always thought of as "yes," was, in fact, "it depends."

Whether I went with the images I had or shot new photos depended entirely on my purpose. When I'd 86'd those first photos, I saw what I'd done well and what I'd missed. If I'd learned from the process, hadn't I achieved my purpose? True, my instructor wouldn't know that, but is he really my audience?

In the past, I'd have said yes to that question too. Under some circumstances, I still might. But in this situation, here and now, I'm the audience, the only person I'm accountable to. Seeing it in that light, the gathering I'd missed by re-shooting the photos was more important than proving to my teacher that I was a better photographer than my photos showed.  This was a time when my "good enough" should have been good enough.

How many other outdated stories, built on outdated beliefs, am I still telling myself?.  I wonder what other assumptions, learned 20 years ago or maybe yesterday, I need to re-think?

Photo by AJC1 on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons License.


  1. There is a reason to consider zen: how to cut away what doesn't matter, what is hoarding, what is relevant. There becomes an essential calmness, known as mindfulness, that comes from meditating to relax the mind; the body follows.

    "Good enough" isn't so much a mantra, rather, more than good enough appears to be excellence, but is more likely over-exertion to satisfy insecurity. "Good enough" satisfies most requirements, but excellence demands passion. Passion is often over-used, and becomes habitual, rather than focused. Drained of passion, one becomes worn out.

  2. Tom, we're on the same page. I've been meditating for six months now, after spending much too long talking about it and not doing it. I look forward to the time when I can internalize simply BEING enough. Thanks for making this point.