The Value of the Concept of ‘Good Enough’ in a Highly Complex World
We live in a world oriented towards greatness, one in which we feel compelled to be among the wealthiest, most powerful, and most famous. These trends are further exacerbated by the widespread use of social media as the primary vehicle for showcasing ourselves in the "best possible light".
In his recent book, The Good-Enough Life, Professor Avram Alpert argues that focusing on "good enough" over excellence can have enormous benefits.
The concept of "good enough" is not a B+ effort toward "excellent." Rather, it is a different way of looking at success itself. In the "good enough" view, success refers to selecting the best available option within a given context. It also involves the most workable solution for solving a particular problem in that setting. Admittedly, picking the most feasible alternative may not necessarily lead to the optimal outcome, but delaying this ideal outcome can be detrimental.
The Covid pandemic, still fresh in our minds, reminded us that life can be a bumpy ride that often leaves us searching for bits and pieces of a "good enough life" in the midst of a chaotic world.
Although the first vaccines made available during the pandemic were not exactly the best, they were effective in reducing mortality and controlling the infection rate associated with Covid-19. Astra Zeneca’s vaccine had significant side-effects, as did Johnson and Johnson’s, but to a lesser extent. Later on, mRNA vaccines became widely available, with almost no side-effects. The early vaccines were considered "good enough" when no other treatment options were available. In the end, these early measures helped contain the pandemic and refocus our professional practices.
Successful parenting illustrates the benefits of "good enough."
Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician, and psychoanalyst was an early champion of the "good enough" philosophy. As early as 1953, Winnicott wrote about the concept of the "good enough mother" – a term he coined and is still famous for today. In studying early childhood parenting, he found that many parents tried to do too much for their children. Beyond infancy, Winnicott argues that a child does not need relentlessly responsive or self-sacrificing parents. Rather, he suggests that healthy child development involves a gradual decrease, over time, in parents' "active adaptation" to their child's needs. In doing so, they teach their children to "accept failure" and "tolerate frustration," both of which are necessary skills from an early age. Although parents should provide sufficient material and emotional support to their children, by trying to do more, they run the risk of burning out and preventing their children from realizing their full potential – their capacity for adaptation, creativity, and wonder – the full complexity of being human.
"Good enough" solutions may be key to societal transformation and progress on climate change.
Alpert shows how our obsession with greatness results in stress and anxiety, damage to our relationships, widespread economic and political inequality, and the destruction of nature. He recommends moving beyond greatness to create a more inclusive society where everyone thrives.
The question remains whether, collectively, we can establish a “good enough world” – one in which individuals and nations do not strive to achieve their own greatness, but rather work together to provide the conditions of decency (dignity, meaning) and sufficiency (food, shelter, medical care) necessary for all. As early as the fourth century B.C., Aristotle warned against allowing inequalities to grow too large. Sociologists have since found that societies with greater disparities in wealth and power are consistently more violent, distrustful, and depressed, and more likely to fall into dictatorship or civil war.
Achieving a "good enough world" for all will also require that we develop a good enough relationship with nature – one that recognizes both the bounty and fragility of ecosystems that we share with an infinite number of other life forms – each of which seeks its own path to "good enough”. If we expect our planet to continue to sustain our existence, we must learn to care for it.
The ability to accept and appreciate imperfection is a key element of Alpert's worldview. Our deep and sometimes tacit quest for "greatness" often stands in the way of improving the quality of our lives. A willingness to seek the "good enough” in ourselves, in our relationships, and in our communities is clearly essential to the transformation of our society. Moreover, this mindset offers the added benefit of replacing anxiety and burnout with a more meaningful and enjoyable life.
I concur with Alpert's observation that “good enough” is a necessary complement to "greatness thinking." Good-enoughness will never deliver the wonder of perfection, but it may offer the sublime feeling of being part of a decent, caring, and sustainable world.