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
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