I hear it all the time: “be your best”; “be the best”; “keep trying to excel”; “never let them see you sweat”. It seems to be part of the spirit of our age to pursue excellence.
I want to push back against that impulse. Let me suggest that when we are always trying to be the best, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We add immense amounts of pressure to our lives which we will never be able to meet.
Honestly, these days in this pandemic, that’s the last thing we need! It goes against what I wrote last week in terms of living in the moment and being mindful as a way of finding some happiness. Always excelling takes us out of the moment and keeps pushing us to some form of ideal future.
Let me say it as plainly as I can. Sometimes good enough is good enough.
The reason I say that is because I think the pursuit of excellence is fueled by a fear–driven lie. The root of the lie lies in our assumption that we can excel in everything we try. And if we think we can excel like that, we deny the reality that we are finite creatures with finite resources of time and energy.
Now a lot depends upon how we define excellence. So let me be clear that when I use the term, I am 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. I am pointing to the neurotic driven–ness that demands constant improvement, that this year has to be better than last year.
But it seems clear to me that this is impossible. You can’t get better and better and better. We don’t have infinite resources. We are finite and limited creatures. There is a limit to what we can do and be. Past a certain point, we can’t get better.
A good example of this impulse is the world of athletics. Athletes train themselves to be the absolute best they can be. Their lives are driven by a desire to cross the finish line first, or to score the winning goal, or to jump highest and farthest. In this rarified world, that’s a normal expectation. This is what they sign up for. But the pressure to be best is so profound that it drives some athletes to use performance–enhancing drugs so that they can be faster, stronger, better. They abuse their bodies and bend the rules, or break them, simply to get ahead.
A second argument I would make is that when we are pushed to always be better, we are being asked to make sacrifices which sometimes just aren’t worth it.
When managers push us to pursue excellence at work, we rob time and energy from our family. We spend longer hours at work, and we have fewer hours to take care of ourselves and less energy to be with family and friends. We don’t have an infinite reservoir of time and energy.
At the same time, businesses and companies profit from this drive. Unless you’re an hourly paid worker, employers assume that it’s ok to ask to someone to stay a few minutes longer, or to finish up this task on the weekend, or to work through a lunch hour. And when they do that, they take unfair advantage of their workers.
This is why I think the notion of “excellence” is a great lie and a powerful idolatry. I’ve said before that the one socially acceptable form of addictive behaviour is something called “workaholism”. People assume that it’s ok to be a workaholic.
I disagree. We simply can’t do it all. We are not infinite beings. We are human beings, limited and finite. As a result, we will have to accept that we are “good enough.” And that’s ok.
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to do the best we can do. What I am saying is that there is a limit to our abilities, our energy, our time. We cannot participate in a system in which we are called to be better and better all the time. The costs of that kind of system are just too high.
Of course, I could always do “better” in various areas of my life. But what will I sacrifice in that quest? And is the sacrifice worth it?
It’s impossible to excel at everything. The only way I can be the best at work is by taking time away from family, friends, or personal time for renewal. I could be a better worker, but I’d have to give up being a good friend, a good spouse, a good father. And frankly, that sacrifice is just not worth making. I’ve learned the truth of that the hard way.
Too many people in our world seem to be willing to make that kind of sacrifice. We buy into the illusion and the lie of excellence. We don’t want others to think that we are giving up. We don’t want to “settle” for being good enough, so we continue to run on the neurotic treadmill of excellence.
We experience being “good enough” as a sort of failure.
But that’s not true. It’s not about failure. It’s about recognizing that we are finite human beings. We have limits. Our resources, our energy, our time—none of this is inexhaustible. We can’t be gods. That’s a delusion.
That is all particularly true during this pandemic. Many of us are already being pushed to our limits by this pandemic. Especially during this time, good enough is good enough. This is part of becoming a more mature human being. We learn to accept, and perhaps even embrace, the limitations that mark us as human beings.
We learn to live in the moment and celebrate every ordinary pleasure that comes into our lives.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook