“Good is the enemy of Great.” -Bono
“Can we try to not suck?” -Jeff Stelpflüg, May 1996
This will be a quick hitter blog, I promise.
One can argue whether or not Bono has followed his own words with every album in the last 12 years. Regardless, the point is simple and salient. If one truly wants to be great at any endeavor, why should you ever settle for being good? Not that being good is bad, but one does have to push (and push hard) if one is shooting for something exceptional. The quote stands, and I do try to aspire to this, at least in spirit.
On the other hand, where does one start? The 2nd quote is from a friend and captain at the end of my freshman year of college. Our cross-country team finished 9th or 10th in a conference of 12 teams in November 1995. We always had smaller teams than most our competition; we were losing in the numbers game. But we also had room for improvement. We had to start somewhere.
After the spring track season, we had a team meeting before we left campus for the summer. Flüg would be our leader for the next two seasons, and the normally cool and calm captain had a point to make. We would run plenty of miles on a weekly basis and spend time and energy in competition. Getting beaten badly was getting old to him and he wanted to impress upon all of us the need to put in quality and high mileage over the summer. Our time together would be vastly more enjoyable if were at least competitive (forget winning, just be respectable). The quote was the take away from the meeting – can we just not suck? That would be worth SOMETHING.
It hit home with me. I made sure to put in my mileage and to make it quality. We weren’t trying to be world beaters. After all, we were NCAA Division III (non-scholarshipped) athletes. Nike wouldn’t be calling any of us at the end of our careers. “Just improve.” The mantra seemed to resonate – we finished 3rd, 2nd, and 3rd in conference the following three years (and went 2nd and 3rd again the two years after I was gone).
I’ve had to think about this one a lot lately. I admittedly have a tendency to try for perfectionism. Even though this is my first year teaching, I strive to have things just right and the way I intended for them to go. My formal mentor is really pushing me (and justifiably so) to keep improving. Don’t settle – keep looking for better angles and better ways of doing things. I have to admit, I was beginning to feel the pressure of trying to be perfect.
I do think that maybe I was misinterpreting what my mentor was trying to tell me.
“Strive for greatness” or “try to not suck”?
They aren’t mutually exclusive. I’m beginning to believe that if you can only pick one, it might be more important to “try to not suck.”
Hear me out on this.
It’s foolish to believe that your going to be great the first time you do anything. Or even the second or third time. Does it make sense to put all one’s efforts into being great as fast as possible? I hardly think so.
Sonia (my wife) has mentioned on several times that it’s more important to focus on making several good decisions instead of one or two perfect ones. I think this applies to personal improvement – in whatever arena one chooses to apply it. This is kind of how I interpret “trying to not suck.” I don’t think it’s cynical at all, and I don’t think it lets you off the hook. Rather, I think it more appropriately frames the first step in a job. “Just make things better than they were.”
I walked into a lab that was a mess, students in very stages of readiness for my subject, and a curriculum that I’m doing my best to synthesize in my first year. Things aren’t going to be perfect (and I kind of like that for starters). What’s the goal then? Just make things better than they were.
What’s the goal when I come back for Year 2? Same as it was in year 1. Improve. Compared to Year 1, I need to try to not suck again. It’s a repeating process. Striving for greatness could be a singular, one time activity. I think it actually lets you off easier and earlier. Trying to not suck forces you to take steady steps forward – in a realistic and somewhat humorous manner. It takes immediate pressure off while allowing you to focus (in an appropriate way) on getting better with time.
I’m going to apply for some teaching fellowships over the summer. Why? Because I want to get better at what I’m doing. If I do the same job next year as this year, that’s major suckage. I just need to get better – not be perfect.
Good and great aren’t enemies. You need a lot of good things to happen in order for something great to occur. Good comes before great, and I think you get there by repeatedly trying to not suck.