All around us, we are urged to “be our best”, to “be the best you can be”. The spirit of our age tells us that in everything, we ought to pursue excellence.
Let me push back against this impulse. I want to argue in this column that we shouldn’t try to be the best. I’d like to suggest that it’s okay to settle for being good enough rather than always striving to be excellent.
Why would I make that argument? Because I think the pursuit of excellence is fueled by a fear–driven lie.
The root of this lie lies in our assumption that we can excel in everything we try. From there, it’s a short step to thinking that we are not 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 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.
A good example of this impulse is how it drives athletes to use performance–enhancing drugs in order to be faster, stronger, better. This kind of drive says it’s okay to bend the rules to get ahead.
The other argument I would make is that when we are pushed to always be better, we are being asked to make sacrifices that just aren’t worth it.
When we pursue excellence at work, we are robbing time and energy from our family. We spend longer hours at work — which means we have fewer hours to spend in taking care of ourselves and being with friends. We don’t have an infinitely deep reservoir of time and energy.
This is why I think the notion of “excellence” is a great lie and a powerful idolatry. I’ve often said that there is one acceptable way to be addicted to something in our society: it’s okay 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 okay.
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.
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.
So let me say again, “good enough” is good enough. And part of becoming mature as a human being is to accept, even embrace, the limitations that mark us as human beings.
Again, I don’t mean that we shouldn’t try. All I’m saying is, when we do try, we ought to accept those limits, and be satisfied that at the end of the day, we have done what we can. It’s good enough.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook