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For the Better Good

My work station is the top of my daughters’ dresser in their playroom. #workwhereyoucan

I’ve recently read and listened to a couple of books that made me reconsider the idea of good versus great. These titles include but are not limited to Atomic Habits by James Clear, Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis, More Myself by Alicia Keys, and Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. Embedded in these books is the desire for a goal, a big hairy audacious goal, and personal accounts of striving for these goals. These accounts, and their implied or explicit advice on how to get to the goal, made me reconsider the age old argument of “good” versus “great.”

These days, I consider myself a recovering perfectionist. I wouldn’t show it, or at least I tried my hardest to hide it, but I struggled immensely with ensuring whatever I did professionally or academically was perfection. To fall short would sometimes lead me into a thought spiral of self-doubt and reproach. I wanted greatness in my work and greatness in myself, whatever I did. Being home has humbled that part of me, but I still strive for my big hairy audacious goals.

A number of years ago, “good” was added to the string of unusable four letter words, professionally-speaking. The book Good to Great by Jim Collins suggested that to achieve greatness, one needed to be unsatisfied with the word “good.” The connotation of the word “good” implied “okay.” To be “okay” when striving for better is not okay. Ergo, to be “good” is to be not good. To be “great” is to be above the fray by leaps and bounds. “Great” is the goal, not “good.”

In Born Standing Up, Steve Martin wrote, “It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical; like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.” Martin’s story is one of incredible perseverance and refinement. It was a book I wish I read when I was still in the classroom and I highly recommend all teachers read it, or better yet, listen to the audiobook.

It is easier to pour everything you have to create one thing that is great. Great is a one-hit wonder; good is showing up day after day and doing your best, finding those opportunities for 1% improvements and implementing those daily, even if the results are not immediately evident or you simply don’t feel like it.

Rachel Hollis’s book, Girl, Stop Apologizing: A Shame-Free Plan for Embracing and Achieving Your Goals, was more than inspiring. It combined the personal anecdotes of Hollis’s experiences with the practicality of advice on how to achieve. Her steps: “1. Letting go of the excuses that kept me stuck; 2. Adopting great habits and behaviors that set me up for success; 3. Acquiring the skills necessary to make exponential growth possible.”

Atomic Habits by James Clear was a paradigm buster, a collection of common sense ideas and approaches that made me initially reconsider my ideas about “good” versus “great.” He starts with defining the words “atomic” (1. An extremely small amount of a thing; the single irreducible unit of a larger system; 2. The source of immense energy of power) and “habit” (1. A routine or practice performed regularly; an automatic response to a specific situation). Instead of striving for greatness, he suggests a novel approach: 1% better every day. It doesn’t sound like much, a mere 1%, but in the long run, a daily 1% improvement will have greater staying power and ultimately lead to success. Habits work like compound interest and what starts as 1% improvements can snowball exponentially. He suggests that the word “goal” be put aside in favor of developing “systems.” Systems are processes that lead to results; in other words, systems are your habits, what you do day-to-day to get to your goals. Consider goals as the direction rather than the end game.

“A goal is a dream with its work boots on. A goal is a dream you’ve decided to make real. A goal is a destination you’re working toward instead of an idea you’re only considering or hoping for. Hope is a beautiful thing and an incredibly valuable tool to help keep us motivated and inspired about the possibility for the future. But let’s be very clear on this point: hope is not a strategy,” Hollis also wrote.

Alicia Keys is an artist of unmistakeable greatness. Reading her journey towards self-awareness and learning her creative process was insightful. She wrote, “The path to self-discovery is not a straight line. It’s a zigzag. We move in and out of awareness: one step forward, three steps to the left, a baby step back, another leap forward. A lightbulb moment might shine brightly one day, but then flicker the next. It takes work to hold tightly to a certain consciousness, to live in its wisdom. Every day, I have to intentionally maintain an awareness of my value.”

As a recovering perfectionist, I’m now focusing on my daily systems to get me to my goals. My big hairy audacious goal: land a literary agent that will lead me to a reputable publisher. My daily systems include: 1. Post a blog daily; 2. Exercise 30 minutes a day; 3. Write at least 1,500 words towards a pending project; 4. (Starting January 2021) send one personalized and detailed query letter to a literary agent per week. I certainly hope my work is “great,” but emotionally speaking, I’m focused on creating those incremental 1% improvements. I’m not striving for great anymore; I’m striving for the better good.


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