70 is the new 100: the counter-intuitive folly of great expectations

Jim Collins observed that “good is the enemy of great,” launching people, leaders and organizations on a relentless pursuit of greatness.  But has anyone taken the time to properly assess this maxim?  Greatness is, by definition, exceptional, and therefore an exception.  If we all achieved greatness, we’d need to redefine greatness because it would all be so very average.  Without advocating mediocrity, why can’t good be “good enough”?

That’s exactly what Sarah Hampson wonders in today’s Globe and Mail (see her column here).  She writes about how our high expectations to obtain only the best in life actually produce a discontented life.  And she dares to encourage the wisdom of lowered expectations (gasp – isn’t that settling for less?) as a way to know contentment.  See, there’s a strange folly in inflated expectations and the “good to great” ethos – it yields a life of shrunken enjoyment, shriveled gratitude and a teeny capacity to know the good in life.  Why?  Because nothing less than the straight A, perfect game, six-pack abs, designer home, trophy spouse, gold medal, Ivy-league education is good enough; nothing good is ever “good enough.”

Perfection is a nazi task-master.

There are huge spiritual implications in this that I won’t elaborate now (OK maybe a bit – this quest for greatness reveals a deep craving in our culture for a verdict on our lives, for someone or something to say “You are great.  You are worthy.”  And yet the folly is that we end up shipwrecking our lives and relationships trying to attain this verdict, this justification of our lives, because we can never give it to ourselves.  We need someone outside of us to give that approval we so desperately seek).

But there is lovely contrarian wisdom around.  Check out Charles Dickens Great Expectations.  And much earlier than Jim Collins, Voltaire once wrote that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Or how about the grand jester, G.K. Chesterton, who said “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”  These are no justifications for shoddy work or slacker resignation.  Instead, it’s a liberating wisdom that recognizes worthy living is almost always found flawed; goodness is savoured and celebrated in imperfect packages.

And in this century, marriage and family therapist Paddy Ducklow provides more good common, contrarian sense: “I tell my clients [and almost anyone else who will listen] that “70 is my new 100.” I also tell them that perfectionism does not help them do the job better, it only ensures that they will enjoy the success less.”

The lived, practical wisdom that the high-achieving, über-expectation crowd (which is often my own heart) overlooks is this: we’ll never know good, never enjoy a sense of abundance until we have a sense of what is good and what is enough.

I’m making good enough my friend.

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