Let’s take another look at that quote by G. K. Chesterton
What did Chesterton have in mind with that statement? It’s much debated. He certainly assumed the do-er made best efforts, or at least sufficient efforts, to achieve some discernable outcome; lack of effort is not an excuse for lack of results. But beyond that, capability should not be the measure of outcome; many things in life must be done by ordinary people, whether well qualified or capable to do the thing well, or not. Chesterton’s example is motherhood: [most] young women have no training to be mothers, and they have no caregiver to delegate to, so they do what they can out of love and duty; their results are generally sufficient for the child’s well-being. (Cruelly, fathers are not held to the same expectations.) Chesterton also would argue that doing things for personal satisfaction should be the only requirement, even though the outcome be less than stellar.
For Chesterton, it would seem, the modern notion of ‘quality’ as goodness, excellence, is not a factor when it comes to ordinary things.
This statement naturally runs counter to the more commonly held, opposite view: ‘If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.’ This might be interpreted in the same fashion as GKC’s statement, simply by adding four small words: ‘If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing as well as you can’. But that is not the way the statement is usually understood: ‘well’ is a qualitative measure, indicating a high standard, as well as is possible. And with that we are back to the notion of quality as goodness, excellence, best, which was the problem we discussed in the previous post (The Trouble With Quality).
The problem with the ‘excellence’ standard is, unless you are capable of producing at the highest standard, it discourages people from attempting to do the thing at all. And as I’ve said, it is the dilemma faced by every author – even the successful ones – and likely every artist: If I can’t do this thing (write, paint, compose, perform) ‘well’, why do it?. Artistic people are as competitive as any other in pursuit of some endeavour, I suppose. Human beings crave recognition and approbation. But to get it, they risk its opposite – criticism, censor, dismissal – with the result being, many give up, abandon the project, or hide their work in a closet.
And that would be unfortunate. Some genuinely ‘good’ work could languish undiscovered; the artist surrendering their potential for happiness by abandoning their best talents and chance for immersion in ‘flow’.
In this sense, the adage, ‘don’t let excellence be the enemy of the good’ applies. It may also be variant on the Nike slogan: if a thing is worth doing, do it.
Modern (or is it universal?) values lean to superlatives: Best, most, highest, fastest, strongest. But this standard is comparative. It’s rarely absolute, often subjective, and subject to fashionable change, or technical or physical capacity. What once was the highest in fashion becomes common or poorly regarded (think cars of 10, 20, 40 years ago compared to today’s cars; and the cars of tomorrow???; or hairstyles!); what was once unachievable becomes almost routine (think the 4-minute mile, under ten seconds for the 100 meter dash); what was high art in Italian Renaissance painting becomes flat, juvenile; what was shocking abomination (Monet, Stravinsky) becomes revered; what was once exceptional literature (Dickens, Trollope, Melville, Cooper) are almost unreadable (and unread) today.
With success comes status (though, it should be quickly pointed out, success (fame, fortune) doesn’t necessarily mean goodness: will Taylor Swift be seen as an exceptional performer ten years from now? Will the Beatles be remembered after all the Baby Boomers are gone?) (It should also be swiftly pointed out that people with inherited wealth may have high status but without achievement.) Human beings seem to be hard-wired for hierarchical status. With achievement status comes approbation and [most] human beings seem to have psychological need for approval and praise. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs doesn’t say anything about status, but it does have Esteem Needs at the next to highest level. And esteem seems to rest substantially on external approval. So people are often driven to satisfy their Esteem Needs by being the best at something: [earned] power, performance, records.
But if you can’t be the best (or at least better) at something in comparison with others, does this mean your esteem needs go unsatisfied? Very often the answer is yes. Not getting credit for one’s work – or worse, feeling implicit criticism – causes people to feel failure, loss, resentment, unhappiness. Comparison psychology may be a principal cause of modern-day unhappiness, or was it ever thus, merely heightened by the scourge of social media being a major contributing factor?
Does this unhappiness lead people to strive, work harder? Try again? Or Give up? Abandon the field?
What is the aspiring author to do in the face of this unfeeling unforgiving standard? A million new books are published every year, all competing for attention. Many (most?) are not very ‘good’. The cruel emotionless marketplace drives many of these authors to the sidelines. A vanishingly small fraction of books become ‘best sellers’, and many of these are not very ‘good’ either. But all of these authors struggled mightily to produce their books. They must wonder whether the results were worth the effort. They need to examine their own motives to answer that question.
Perhaps Chesterton had it right after all: if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. For its own sake. Don’t let excellence be the enemy of the good.
Who knows, posthumously your work could become famous. (A lot of good that will do you if Esteem needs was your object.)
Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata, Canada
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