January 4, 2015

Is it Good Enough?

Note: the student pictured here is not the one in the story below.  It was the same year, however, and it represents a fun memory to balance out the unpleasantness below.

Is it good enough?

A student asked me that question a few years ago, and every so often, the memory rears its ugly head and needles me.   

7th grader: (Tossing paper like trash onto my desk; teenage attitude on full, proud display) Is this good enough?

Me:  (exasperated) Is this good enough…I don’t think I understand the question.  Good enough for what?

7th grader: (exasperated, in return) You know…is it good enough?

Me:  (fury building, held back by a crumbling dam of responsible adult professionalism) Well I don't know.  Is it your very best effort? (pause) Your silence tells me it is not.  The question, in fact, tells me it is not.  I know it is not your very best effort, because if it were, you wouldn't bother to ask the question.  Whether it was “good enough” or not wouldn’t matter if you knew you had handed me the best work you were capable of at the moment. There wouldn’t be any more you could do to improve it…so I’m not sure what you’re looking for me to say here.

7th grader: What grade would you give me?

Me: I won’t be giving you a grade.  I will record the grade you earn, and I’m going to do that one time only for this assignment.  If you want me to grade it as it is, I will do that, but I won’t allow a re-do if you aren’t happy with the grade.  What I am willing to do is give you another day on the assignment if you want to work on it more.  I will not deduct any points for it being late as long as I receive it tomorrow. 

7th grader: (grabs paper off desk, begrudgingly and returns to seat)

To my memory, he turned it back in at the end of the same period having changed nothing.  I think it was a C- in the end.  Good enough?  I don’t know.  I wasn’t even curious at the time, but when I think of it now, I sometimes wonder if he was satisfied.

It’s a difficult memory for me.  I know I could have handled it differently better.  At the time, I recall my righteous indignation; now I can’t help but see the hypocrisy.  Was every lesson I ever taught planned and delivered to the very best of my ability?  Of course not.  It’s simply inhuman to deliver our very best each moment of each day.  It’s exhausting to even think about it!  I guess it wasn’t the so much the fact that it wasn’t his best work, but 1) He had the gall to throw it in my face and 2) I had been putting in some of my very best work for weeks and failing to inspire a large majority of students to do the same at any point.  I was frustrated and sad and burned out and it was time to go; it felt like this kid was telling me all that between the lines. 

The “is it good enough” question has been on my mind quite a bit recently, albeit in a different context.  I’ve been thinking about social media and blogs.  A casual review of my Facebook page will bear out that for me, very little makes the is-it-good-enough cut.  Does this status, photo, or blog add anything of value?  Does anyone really want to see my meals?  Am I bragging? Venting? Pontificating? Soapboxing? Empty-gesturing? Ah…better not to post anything.

It all seems like so much noise – overwhelming, narcissistic Internet pollution.   Perhaps it’s an unfairly negative viewpoint, and I can’t claim to be above participating.  I’m in there with everyone else, though not entirely sure why since consuming social media leaves me feeling as though I’ve just eaten a fast-food dinner: almost completely devoid of nutrients and more than a little bit bloated.

Beyond social media, the “good enough” question inhibits most any idea I might have, and I’m frankly getting tired of its one-note, pessimistic doom.  I’ve started taking long walks – two hours or so – almost daily, because it takes about an hour before I can really hear my thoughts.  The second hour is when the conversation starts kicking up in my head.  A recent example:

Me 1: Maybe I’ll set aside some time to work on some short stories or essays.  Maybe I’ll try to turn it into a book at some point, or a movie.  It would be good to write more and think more.  I spend so much time looking at screens…

Me 2: You haven’t really done that before.  Everyone thinks they’re a writer.  It’s pretty self-indulgent to think you have anything special or new to say. It probably won’t be good enough. It’ll probably be hackneyed, trite, and you’ll expose yourself and people will feel embarrassed for you.   They’ll roll their eyes at your pained efforts.  The world is not in need of more poor writing.

Me 1: That’s probably true.

A day or two passes before that conversation between my selves continued.

Me 1: Why do I think every endeavor has to be good enough?  What do I think “good enough” even means in this context?

Me 2: Either that it will become something you can make money from, or at least people will be interested to read it.  Good enough means successful.  Successful mostly equals money.

Me 1: See that’s where we get all mixed up all the time.  Success doesn’t equal money, and success doesn’t mean there is never any failure.  Failure is a prerequisite for success – I think someone smart said that.  Every successful person has a ton of failures and you can’t really get good at something without practice, without first failing.  So I will write, and it will maybe, probably suck.  But maybe after a good lot of practice, it will suck less, and perhaps even become good…or maybe it never will.  All I lose in the effort is time I likely would have been wasting on the Internet anyway.  It’s a small price.  I can’t keep not doing things because I worry I won’t be “good enough.”  Isn’t there some virtue in doing for the experience - the journey - and not in anticipation of the end result?  Isn’t there something to learn no matter the result?  Why do I care so much about the result?  Can’t we just have a hobby for Christ-sakes!

Me 2: It’s true.  We have been meaning to not get so hung up on failure.  In fact, I think we were trying to figure out how to embrace it.  It’s better and braver to try new things than to be safe and stagnant.  I can be kind of a dick.  You shouldn’t listen to me so much.

With approval from both internal voices, I have decided to write more.  I am mindful not to congratulate myself, but to be excited about engaging in activity – to think and be alone with my thoughts.  Although I’m scared of exposing those thoughts and of being a hypocrite, I will post some of it on my blog.  I will not worry about whether anyone is reading it.  If people do read it, I will not burden myself with their reactions, feelings, or expectations. I will not talk myself out of doing. I will focus on the doing and not on the results.  I will write because I want to write and because it’s good for my mind and my spirit to create rather than wholly consume.  I give myself permission to not be as profound or eloquent as I aspire to someday be.  I will write the best I am capable of at the moment.  For now, at least, that is good enough.


  1. I just wrote you a response then it told me I wasn't longed in!!
    Damn it.
    Well the concluding lines were...
    Get on with it woman. So far so good!
    And, I, for one, give you my promise to let you know if/when there is a time where I need something more than good enough from you.

  2. I wouldn't expect anything less! Thanks for the encouragement!

  3. There is no winner in a battle of wills with a 7th grader. Most of them are only slightly more self aware than a hassock. Write what YOU want. Just be prepared that Internet trolls make 7th graders seem like the Algonquin Round Table.

    1. You are a wise man. I think the chances of anyone other than my friends reading this are so very slim. As far as I know, none of them are trolls. :)