How to Avoid the “Good Enough” Trap

MG Thinkers 50 Blog

March 9, 2015

The moment we stop striving and begin to coast on our good reputation – this is the perilous moment when we settle for “good enough.” And, this is the moment that, at best, change stops and, at worst, we revert back to our old ways.

by Marshall Goldsmith

In behavioral change, there are no absolutes. We never achieve perfect patience or generosity, empathy or humility. This is nothing to be ashamed of. The best we can hope for is a consistency in our effort—a persistence of striving. What’s worrisome is when the striving stops, our lapses become more frequent, and we begin to coast on our reputation. This is the perilous moment when we start to settle for “good enough.”

Why do we settle for “good enough”?

Let’s look at four environments that trigger “good enough” behavior.

1.  Our motivation is marginal. If your motivation for a task or goal is in any way compromised—because you lack the skill, or don’t take the task seriously, or think what you’ve done so far is good enough—don’t take it on. Find something else to show the world how much you care, not how little.

2.  We’re working pro bono. Pro bono is an adjective, not an excuse. If you think doing folks a favor justifies doing less than your best, you’re not doing anyone any favors. People forget your promise, but remember your performance. It’s like a restaurant donating food to a homeless shelter, but delivering shelf-dated leftovers and scraps that hungry people can barely swallow. The restaurant owner thinks she’s being generous, that any donation is better than nothing. Better than nothing is not even close to good enough—and good enough, after we make a promise, is never good enough.

3.  We behave like “amateurs”. We segregate the parts we’re good at from the parts we’re not—and treat our strengths as the real us. The weaknesses are an aberration; they belong to a stranger, someone we refuse to acknowledge as us. This is how we confer amateur status on ourselves and secure our license for good enough. We are professionals at what we do, amateurs at what we want to become. We need to erase this devious distinction—or at least close the gap between professional and amateur—to become the person we want to be. Being good over here does not excuse being not so good over there.

4.  We have compliance issues. We all have compliance issues, admitted or not. We all resist being told how to behave, even when it’s for our own good or we know our failure to comply will hurt someone. When we engage in noncompliance, we’re not just being sloppy and lazy. It’s more aggressive and rude than that. We’re thumbing our noses at the world, announcing, “The rules don’t apply to us. Don’t rely on us. We don’t care.” We’re drawing a line at good enough and refusing to budge beyond it.

Good enough isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In many areas of life, chasing perfection is a fool’s errand, or at least a poor use of our time. We don’t need to spend hours taste-testing every mustard on the gourmet shelf to find the absolute best; a good enough brand will often suffice for our sandwich. The problem begins when this good enough attitude spills beyond our marketplace choices and into the things we say and do. In the interpersonal realm—we’re talking about how a husband treats his wife, or a daughter deals with an aging parent, or a trusted friend responds when people are counting on her—good enough is setting the bar too low. It disappoints people, creates distress where there should be harmony, and, taken to extremes, ends up destroying relationships.

The Great Payoff for Not Settling for “Good Enough”

We immediately recognize high motivation in the extraordinary effort of others—say, an assistant staying late while we’re heading home or our child going straight to his room to tackle homework rather than plop in front of the TV. We note it and admire it—because it’s inspiring to see people spurning the seductive pull of good enough.

And, for the person (and those around him or her) who doesn’t succumb to the “good enough” trap, the payoff for not settling is immense! When we dive all the way into adult behavioral change—with 100 percent focus and energy—we become an irresistible force rather than the proverbial immovable object. We begin to change our environment rather than be changed by it. The people around us sense this. And, funnily enough, through our efforts to be better, we become a trigger for others to achieve their own positive change!