Good Enough?

To earn an undergraduate degree, a student must complete a specific number of credit hours at or above a specific grade point average in several specific categories of classes. Academic advisors guide students through this process, ensuring that they are on the path to earning their degrees.

Partially because I was indecisive and changed majors and schools at the midway point, and partially because I enjoyed education and saw it as a path to success, I finished my undergraduate education with 170 credit hours, when I needed only 125 to graduate, and I graduated with academic honors and with two degrees. Because I knew that I would run out of money if I stayed in college too long, I was very good at executing a plan, and I completed all of this in four years. What I wasn't very good at was critical thinking. I directed all of my effort at fulfilling requirements and "good enough" results that kept me on my path to a four-year graduation.

Four years later, when I decided to pursue a master's degree, the 36 required credit hours didn't seem daunting at all. That would take me under a year to accomplish at my undergraduate pace, I told my academic advisor, who simply smiled and told me that one three-hour course, especially since I was working full time, was plenty for my first semester. I quickly learned that the workload for that one three-hour class was roughly equivalent to four undergraduate classes. Not only that, but I was expected to perform at a much higher intellectual level, if I hoped to become a master with a master's degree.

The first paper I wrote for that class came back with a C on it, and comments that told me that my level of effort and thinking was not "good enough" to earn a master's degree. In fact, my professor told me that I should consider challenging myself and rewriting my paper. It was quite the eye-opener for the guy who thought he was a pretty good writer, and felt that he had already extended sufficient effort to earn an A.

Good enough is a term that we use a lot. I hear golfers declare that a putt within a few inches of the hole is "good enough." My son tells me "good enough," when I ask how clean his room is. "Good enough" is what my recruiters will occasionally say when I ask how well they know their candidates' intentions. When my wife calls and asks me if the house is clean, "good enough" is my typical answer.

What does good enough mean? Most of the time, it means "to the point where I have decided not to expend any more effort." Sometimes, it means "the best I can hope for." Though neither point is ideal, somewhere between those two points is where excellence is achieved, for it's in the TRUE quest for the ideal that we maximize our performance.

Unfortunately, human nature often impedes progress toward the ideal, as the principle of least effort surreptitiously sabotages us. The principle of least effort, sometimes called Zipf's Law, holds that humans instinctively search for solutions which require minimal effort. First applied by library scientists, the principle of least effort isn't always a bad thing - it's pointless to continue searching for different ways of finding a book in a library when you have already located it - but it can blind us to the possibilities that extra effort might reveal.

Applied to library science, researchers learned that humans cease information-seeking behaviors when they have reached a minimally acceptable answer. George Kingsley Zipf, a Harvard linguist, applied the principle of least effort to human communication. As with library science, Zipf believed that human nature always seeks to conserve effort, and he studied how humans minimize language when communicating. This became known as Zipf's Law.

Minimal effort resulting in a "good enough" outcome can be a good thing. There is a reason that African lions focus on vulnerable easy prey over healthy adult prey in the dry hot African Savannah. If they spent all of their energy in difficult pursuit of prey that they were unlikely to catch, they would likely starve to death. Likewise, if we spent all of our time and energy trying to look just right in the mirror before we left for work, it wouldn't be long before we didn't have a job to go to.

The flipside of this, though, is incomplete effort or stopping short in the pursuit of excellence. Though a minimal effort for an minimally acceptable result is understandable when raking leaves in your yard, it's not when you are performing open heart surgery.

It's usually just a very small amount of increased effort that makes the biggest difference.

I accepted my professor's challenge with my first graduate school paper, and I rewrote it. In fact, I polished it to the point where she recommended that I submit it to the field's preemminent peer-reviewed journal. They accepted it, with the provision that I work with one of their editors to address its weak spots. Over the course of the next year, I did further research and expounded more specifically on my key points. It took several rewrites, but my paper, which was originally not "good enough" for graduate level work, was published alongside work from the top scholars at the time.

My IQ didn't grow over that year, but my extra effort took me to an entirely new level of thinking and work. Consider putting in that little extra effort in at least one aspect of your life, and do it consistently. I guarantee that, before long, you will notice a difference and start thinking about what extra effort might do for other areas of your life.

-- Mitch Arnold