The Trouble with “Good Enough”

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We have all wrestled with this question — what is the point of diminishing returns between value and effort? When is something “good enough?”  The image above is from my talk at Dare Conference in May on making learning a habit. The central point being:

Children feel the excitement of learning more strongly than the fear of the unknown. For adults the balance is reversed: we stop learning when we’re afraid of leaving the safety of what we know.

Here's the video, if you're interested.

To get what we want, we often do need to commit to changing our behavior. Renown leadership and business thinker, author, and executive coach Marshall Goldsmith dedicates a chapter to the trouble with “good enough” in Triggers. He says:

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 suffice for our sandwich.

For most things we suspend our hypercritical faculties and find satisfaction with the merely good. The economist Herbert Simon called this “satisficing” — our tendency to commodify everyday choices because chasing that last bit of improvement is not worth the time or effort. It will not significantly increase our happiness or satisfaction.


We do it with seemingly critical choices such as where we bank or which credit cards we use. Likewise, with our accountants and lawyers, even our dentists and ophthalmologists and GPs. We make these choices randomly, not based on systematic search for best in class.

[…] Even in choosing our environment the vast majority of us settle for good enough.

We get a little more picky when our self-esteem is at stake (such as deciding where to apply to college) or our survival hangs in the balance (such as picking a neurosurgeon.

We often don't do our due diligence after we obtain a recommendation by someone we know. Based on how they have delivered in the past and how well they know us, this might not be a problem — it's up to us to decide. That takes up part of our cognitive load, or mental effort.

Picking a laundry detergent, or a mustard has low risk consequences. The problem is when we don't put enough care into what we say and what we do with others. We end up disappointing people, creating issues, and even destroying relationships. Goldsmith provides an example of four environments that trigger “good enough” behavior:

1. When our motivation is marginal

It's all those moments when our enthusiasm for a task is dulled or compromised and we're vulnerable to mediocrity.

Skill is the beating heart of high motivation. […] Good performance (in turn) provides good feedback, placing us in a constantly reinforcing feedback loop.

[…] But we often overlook the flip side — the situations when insufficient skill practically pre-ordains our marginal motivation.

[…] We also underestimate how the quality of our goals affects our motivation.

[…] Finally, we don't appreciate how quickly our motivation can turn marginal at the first signs of progress.

The takeaway: if we're not willing to take the task seriously to do what it takes to show we care, we shouldn't take it on.

There are thousands of ways to increase our skills online, and multiples of those to experiment by doing stuff in the real world, in our spare time. A blog, for example, is a great place where to improve writing, analysis, and research skills and to stay sharp in our thinking when we make the commitment.

2. When we're working pro bono

Defined as any voluntary activity that's a personal choice. 

[…] We create casual equivalencies between volunteering and our level of commitment. We think that because we raised our hand to help out we can raise our hand to opt out at the inconvenient moments. This is how our fine and noble intention degrade into good enough outcomes. This is how our integrity gets compromised.

We know that the right thing to do is to fulfill our obligations, but caught up in a challenging environment — we're tired or overextended, we have better options, it costs more than we thought […] — we think more of our situation than the people counting on us.

The takeaway: Pro-bono is an adjective, not an excuse. This is why it's a good idea to learn how to balance making promises with the actual time and effort required to deliver on them.

It's not just a problem with individuals. Entire organizations sometimes forget to perform in these cases. Successful Habitat for Humanity programs depend on companies keeping their commitments of people, resources, and time.

3. When we behave like “amateurs”

Sometimes this means we are one person at work, another person entirely at home. Who among us hasn't noticed how in our home environment we behave in ways we'd never tolerate in a work environment?

Some of it is goofy harmless stuff like being absent-minded and mechanically incompetent. Other behavior is more distressing; we're brooding, taciturn, isolated, antisocial, or angry. 

Careers collapse if we bring such behavior from home to the workplace. So for the most part, we don't. It's easy to see why. At work we have all sorts of structures in place to maintain our personal poise […]. There's also the powerful motivator of money, status, power — and keeping your job.


Most of us fall into this amateur-versus-professional trap each day without knowing it. And not just when we switch between home and work. We switch between amateur and professional on the job, too, usually in areas that don't reflect who we think we are.

The takeaway: We are professionals at what we do, amateurs at what we want to become.

We should also consider that thanks to the ubiquity of remote internet access and the growing number of tech-related jobs many more of us are working from home (or telecommuting) more frequently, and the number of self-employed individuals, who likely work at some place they call home with other family members/roommates and at third places like airport lounges and coffee shops.

For the purposes of this point, wherever we go, there we are.

4. When we have compliance issues

People have compliance issues for two reasons: either they think they have a better way of doing something (classic need-to-win syndrome) or they're unwilling to commit fully when it means obeying someone else's rules of behavior (classic not-invented here syndrome.)

[…] 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.

For example, neglecting to send daily messages we promised a client when we have no updates. We can provide additional value with our message or amend the agreement with them, if the situation has stabilized.

[…] Most of us don't notice our episodes of noncompliance, although we quickly spot them in others.

The takeawayWhen we engage in noncompliance […] we send the message that “the rules don't apply to us. Don't rely on us. We don't care.”

When we make decisions about the point of diminishing returns to judge what is “good enough,” we often consider the practical aspects of our work — the project, prototype, in-market program we can tweak and improve. We rarely consider the impact of our behavior on our work, and life — the relationships, culture, and our self-esteem.

Both contribute to our confidence, and contribute to the level of influence we achieve.



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