Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More
If A “Good Enough” Mentality Is Purely A Defensive Ego-Mind Shenanigan, Then What Is the “Good”?
Have a real commitment to excellence. ‘Pretty good’ and ‘not bad’ are not good enough.
—Jim Mora, Jr.
If “good enough” isn’t even close, then what is the “good.” I suggest the phrase “good enough” is typically used as a dishonest cover up or cop-out for mediocrity, substandard quality, service, and responsiveness. This popular expression is reminiscent of George Orwell’s terms “doublethink” and “newspeak” from his iconic novel 1984, that may have been combined into “doublespeak”, that is, language that deliberately distorts, disguises or reverses the meaning of words. One sense of doublespeak has the purpose of making the truth less unpleasant, while another is intentional ambiguity and reversal of meaning to disguise the nature of what is true, producing a communication bypass.
I wonder if people regularly use the phrase “good enough” as a means of being dishonest in a sneaky backhanded way, an excuse for shoddy work, and to indulge in slovenly thinking. Doesn’t this phrase undermine taking self-responsibility for one’s work quality, operate as a defensive gambit to head off necessary review, shaping and correction, and abdicate a real commitment to excellence? Isn’t saying “good enough” often a euphonium for hidden expediency, that is, simply get something done and we’d rather not know how you did it, the quality of what you did, or the price of doing it? Isn’t the phrase “good enough” often only dumbing down expediency and a manipulative ploy that undermines the ability to be honest, receive key feedback, and take positive action? Another ego-mind shenanigan?
I wonder if the phrase “good enough” can be an example of “dumbing down”, a popular modern phrase that points to the deliberate diminishment or belittling of the intellectual level regarding the content of our cultural structures, including education, news, film, literature and critical thinking. The idea originated as slang in approximately 1933 and was used by motion picture screenplay writers to mean “revise so as to appeal to those of little education or intelligence”. (Algeo, 1988) “Good enough”, similar to “close enough”, “pretty good” and “not bad”, blurs or confuses the reality that the product, service, or performance is not excellent, and often less than even functional. Using simple observation and basic due diligence, you can check the product, service, or performance and find something far short of outstanding, and often short of a rudimentary level of quality, workmanship and workability. So calling something “good enough” at best can manipulatively disguise barely passable work as legitimate and acceptable, and at worst can lie and diminish truth by pitching something that simply distorts reality.If you would like to hear more, please scroll down to the next HEAR button.
Another take on a good enough mentality is that it has become so familiar, over-learned, and broadly accepted that it is enacted as a habit requiring no present awareness whatsoever. In this case, saying “good enough” comes robotically enough out of pure conditioning, without any pausing to consciously examine its meaning, purpose or appropriateness. While developing routines as habits that need not be critically evaluated each time they are used can be quite efficient and helpful, they can also become comfortable traps that disallow presence, accurate perception, critical thinking, and renewal.
In the context of a good enough mentality acting as habitual behavior, another view is offered by the term “functional autonomy.” This term originated with the astute psychologist G. W. Allport who used it to describe any behavior that no longer has connection to its original purposes and now functions all on its own. One form is ritualism understood as an attachment to the means while sacrificing the ends, a means-ends reversal. One clear illustration is athletes’ superstitious behavior before events.
The classic story “roast beef” literally puts some meat on these bones of functional autonomy. The story describes how a mother was teaching her daughter to cook roast beef. After cutting both ends of the roast beef off, her daughter asked why she did that. The mother said it was how her mother did it and had no idea. So the mother called her mother asking about this only to get the very same answer! In mother’s mother calling her mother who was well into her 90’s and still sharp as a tack, she was informed that the ends were cut off because the oven in those days simply wasn’t wide enough to fit the roast beef! The cutting off the ends of the roast beef continued to be handed down over generations operating in accord with functional autonomy, never realizing that newer wider ovens made cutting off the ends of a pot roast unnecessary. Similarly, a good enough mentality shown in words, attitude and behavior can come to function all on its own, quite disconnected from its original purposes, functions or needs. The sad, funny truth is the person enacting the pattern usually asks no questions and is clueless!
Still another angle to look at the good enough mentality is to consider the notion of settling for what will do, even with some improvement, at the expense of true excellence and the good. The popular phrase, “close enough for government work” seems to catch this spirit and exemplify it. It’s rather shocking, if completely understandable and utterly human, how often people become disappointed, frustrated, resigned and dispirited when their expectations are thwarted, when their wants are different from what actually shows up right here-and-now. It tends to be precisely in these situations when people tend to settle for less, not out of genuine acceptance or acknowledgment of what is, but far more often in some sort of begrudging bargaining and displeased settlement to get what they can, since they cannot get what they really want. This “settling” is making what you get somehow all you can do, the better becomes the enemy of the good, and the good enough that isn’t becomes the enemy of true excellence.If you would like to
One further angle on this phenomenon that seems relevant is psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman’s groundbreaking work using the conditioning of dogs to describe a phenomenon he named learned helplessness. His theory outlining a perceived absence of control over the contingencies or outcomes of a situation, setting up a giving up, even when the control to effect the painful situation is reinstated, can help the understanding of clinical depression and related psychological challenges. Thus, given a situation in which a living thing once was effective in avoiding an unpleasant, painful or harmful circumstance, and now has no control over the outcomes, the living thing is likely to give up, become resigned and behave in a helpless manner, even after again having the ability to control the situation. Seligman coined the term “learned helplessness” to describe behavior in such no-control circumstances.
The possibly relevance of learned helplessness to a good enough mentality is straightforward: when you have once been successful in exerting control over unpleasant, painful outcomes and then have experiences of no control of these consequences, it would be understandable to not aim very high or particularly care about the quality or standard of care. You may ask, “Why bother?” and excuse what you do as good enough in a context of learned helplessness, even after you can once again exercise control over the results. Illustrations abound in several professions, acknowledged not as clichés, but purely as occupational dangers that go along with the nature of that work and impact some of the ranks therein. Not to single out any professions, since this pattern appears to be fairly widespread, it is fairly common to have experienced jaded, unresponsive nurses, burned out medical doctors and paramedics, office workers, phone representatives and civil servants that simply are going through the motions, and a great many workers in corporate bureaucracies who have given up particularly caring about their job quality and instead cover themselves and their jobs through being politically savvy, rule-bound, not aiming very high, seniority and blending in. Consider Boron’s three laws of bureaucracy: 1) when confused, mumble, 2) when in trouble, delegate, and 3) when in control, ponder. All good enough, huh?
A good enough mentality, including the possible understandings afforded by doublespeak, expediency, dumbing down, an over-learned habit, functional autonomy, settling, and learned helplessness, is unfortunately widespread in our society and easily identified. Look at the inefficiencies and waste widely documented throughout the bastions of the defense and arms industries, civil service, city, county, state and national governments in addition to a broad swath of businesses that seem to hobble along aiming and hitting the lowest common denominator for quality, service and responsivity. Look at the musical recording industry and the rich information once coded on long-play (LP) records and reel-to-reel’s having been dumbed down into the digital coding on compact discs (CD’s) and MP3’s. Look at the building industry’s long-standing trend of using cheaper materials, poorer building techniques, and cutting corners in new construction to hit a price point that will sell quickly. Look at the quality of our educational system from elementary levels to graduate school and see an ongoing downward slide of quality, teaching to the test, grade inflation, and less than excellent teachers. See our medical health care system as largely receiving mediocre quality reviews while being the costliest.
The phrase “good enough” can be often seen as a manipulative ploy of dumbing down expediency that excuses mediocrity, abdicates honesty, distorts reality, and undercuts taking positive action. Who would do such a thing? Could this phenomenon point to the ego-mind operating by the principles of self-deceit? Could this pattern simply be another of ego-mind’s myriad shenanigans to seemingly be our master? Within the function, understanding and perspective of the ego-mind operating as an imaginary separate false sense of self, a misidentification and optical illusion, isn’t this the origin of all defenses, manipulations and misrepresentations? Are you drawn to continue giving ego-mind in this function room to operate to your ruin? Is there any benefit or gain? Do you want to work this hard?If you would like to hear more, please scroll down to the next HEAR button.
Saying this is not to villianize or demonize this thinking psychological self, given it serves essential executive functions. The opportunity ego-mind in this one function affords is multiple: 1) to heal the wounded ego given traumatic bruises it has endured and remain unresolved, 2) to deconstruct, resolve and dissolve the survival decisions, beliefs, identifications, roles and stories it decided upon that block a functional, happy life, 3) then, progressively build a healthy ego that works and dreams well in the world, 4) help it be our dutiful servant, not our master to blithely follow, and 5) ultimately mature, shed, and outgrow it, leaving only its healthy functionality operating as a tool, skill sets and intelligences. This journey of growth and development, maturity and evolution, reveals the always already present True Self / Original Nature—who we truly are—to experience, enjoy and contribute. We are this “good.”
If “good enough” isn’t even close, then what are healthier alternatives? A fine approach is to simply recognize this mentality when it is present, hold the person enacting it with compassion or feeling with their suffering, and bring your effortless aware attention to all the possibilities we’ve explored to understand what functions / purposes it serves this particular ego-mind. This stage requires the setting aside of all reactivity and negative judgments while calmly “standing under”—an ancient meaning of the word understanding—to begin to fully see another’s background, context, values, experience, conditioning and good enough behavior patterns. Now choose to meet the unmet need and help another help himself to heal their wounded ego-mind, when genuinely interested and signed up in committed action to grow. Now, here, in this space, ‘good enough’ starts shifting to the ‘good’ indeed.
How can the “good enough” mentality best be transformed and transcended into the good? Of course, the one to start with in addressing any ego-mind created unworkable defensive pattern is always oneself, specifically seeing or witnessing in presence one’s particular conditioned fictive ego-mind who dreamed up and fabricated the good enough mentality in the first place. In revealing concepts as purely concepts and not real, the whole world pivots. Free the ego, and who you are is revealed to be free. The jig is up, the game is over, and the ego-mind’s shenanigans are no longer under the radar. Once seen, who’s interested in listening or following it? Here’s the fast track: reveal ego-mind, and all that is unreal dissolves instantly. An inquiry: what is changeless and does not come and go? We are this Good and Joy!
1. Algeo, John; Algeo, Adele (1988). “Among the New Words”. American Speech 63 (4): 235–236.