I will never forget the day that Alex turned to me and said, “The good is the enemy of the best.” I did not understand him at all. I asked him to repeat, and then explain this idea. Thirty six years later, I still remember his message to me.
Alex was a psychologist that worked for my family business. He was a native of Yugoslavia, and he had left the communist controlled country to earn his degree in psychology in the United States. He did not have much but his wisdom about life and his way to work – and get results – had never failed me. He had counseled me privately on romance and management. My relationship to him was like a student to Socrates. I trusted him.
The enemy of the best. Did I want to be good? Or did I want to be best? Alex had challenged me to think further.
Many people are good. I know that good is commonplace, often ignored. I wanted to go beyond good. I wanted to be the kind of leader that inspired people, and could get great results. Years before Jim Collins had written his wonderful work Good to Great, I was thinking (with Alex’s help and suggestion) about how to move toward becoming the best there is.
Alex helped me understand what he meant. He challenged me – “Do you want to be merely good? If so, you may not grow to become best.” At some level it is important for a high achiever to be discontented with “good.” Strive higher, and don’t sit down at “good.” The person who is “best” keeps going.
I might settle for the good, but if I do, I will never improve.
Is the best really attainable? Is there an optimal level of achievement which goes way beyond “good” and takes a leader into the realm of “profoundly excellent?”
I struggled. I did not want to be merely good. Yet, “best” is singular – there can be only one. Did I dare try to be “best?” Even if I knew what best meant – the fastest, the most creative, and the most productive – I looked upward and said to myself, “I don’t know if I can do this.”
Now I think of “best” and “excellence” as a direction, not a destination. I am willing to move continually forward, and choose progressively challenging goals. I have decided that it is not my place to call myself “the best;” that honor should go to people who know me, if I have deserved the word.
What I have learned is that it is not that hard to move beyond merely “good,” with some modest effort, one can distinguish one’s efforts well beyond other players. One can become an expert in any (narrowly selected topic) field simply by choosing to speak to other experts, reading the best materials and books, and getting in the game – within six months of starting. Being called an expert, in my mind, merely means that one knows more than 95% of the people around you- this is not that hard to do!
The journey to excellence – I was inspired by Tom Peters back in the 80s – is open to all of us. We may not declare victory; it is not our place to declare “I am the best,” but others may make that judgment for us. Being content with “good” is a very shallow victory. Others can pass us by regularly. Set your eyes forward and upward. And then continue the great trek toward excellence. You have already passed by the way station of “goodness.”
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