Good Enough vs. Great

On the relationship between complex systems, consistency, and excellence.

Brad Stulberg

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Anyone can burn bright for a few days, weeks, months, or maybe even a year. But burning bright over the long haul requires consistency. Trying to be great all the time usually leads to illness, injury, and burnout. It also creates a lot of tension and stress.

But if you can string together a whole lot of good enough, you generally wind up with something great.

I first heard about the idea of good enough from the mid-twentieth century psychologist DW Winnicot. Among other things, Winnicot was known for his concept of the “good enough parent.” The parent who tries to be perfect all of the time burns out (and sadly, they often harm their kids along the way). The parent who is neglectful or just wants to be average generally isn’t great either. But the parent who can be repeatedly good enough — their kids tend to be the most well-adjusted and their relationships the most enduring and best.

Consistently good enough has become my personal and coaching philosophy. Striving for sustainable greatness usually means getting really good at being good enough.

I was thrilled to see it validated by Stuart McMillan, arguably one of the best coaches alive across any discipline. He’s worked with over 35 Olympic medalists and countless world champions in sprint and power sports.

In a recent conversation (this is a must-listen podcast), Stu put it like this: human performance is super complex. Complex systems have all of these interacting parts. If you try to optimize them all, you end up with unintended consequences and a whole lot of stress. But if you can be a 7 or an 8 out of 10 across all of the parts, then the whole ends up being incredible.

If it works for the best athletes in the world, it can probably work for you.

Back to DW Winnicot for a moment: what is raising a human being if not dealing with a complex system? There are so many components of parenting, and each of those components has sub-components. Layers upon layers upon layers.

Parenting and athletics are two of but many examples: leadership and management; creativity; intimate relationships and friendships; the list goes on.

Good enough thinking also applies to you as an individual. Define the major component parts that go into your functioning well as a complex system. Examples include community, movement, sleep, nutrition, intellect, spirituality, reading, reflection, solitude, and so on.

(I’d recommend sticking to five or less. Anything more and it gets unwieldy.)

Once you’ve got your component parts, aim to be good enough across all of them. Not great. Just good enough — over and over and over again.

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Brad Stulberg

Bestselling author of Master of Change and The Practice of Groundedness