good or great?

Good is the enemy of great. That is the line that begins one of the best management books (“Good to Great” by Jim Collins) I’ve read over the course of my master’s program, and it sparked many interesting class discussions.

On the surface, the statement seems absurd. How could good be a negative thing? Isn’t bad the enemy of great? We can easily imagine the two locked in an epic battle, bad trying to pull us down and keep us from achieving great.

But sometimes what keeps is from reaching the extraordinary is not a force of evil. Sometimes it’s good. Good says “You’re there, you can stop now.” It feels natural. We’re good enough. Our business is turning a profit. Our book is selling well. Our family is functioning.

And so we grow complacent, comfortable with being good. We’re lured in by a sense of completion. We settle for competence. We have battled bad and reached good. That’s usually where the story ends.

That’s where most people stop.

And then there are the few who reach beyond good, who refuse to accept good as the best they can accomplish. They are the ones who fight the urge to lie down in the poppy field and resist the bewitching song of the sirens. Pushing past the “good enough” wall, they make the grueling climb to great.

Good would have suggested that, after aiding in the Revolutionary War victory, Washington retire to Mount Vernon for some well-deserved rest instead of becoming president. Good would have told Harriet Tubman to settle down and enjoy her life after she helped bring her family to freedom. Good would have recommended Wilberforce celebrate the “gradual abolition” bill and cease his battle.

Good is not the top of the mountain. It’s a halfway mark. After a hard climb, you can admire the view, and it makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something. But great is waiting at the peak.

There are many good people in this world. There are only a handful of great ones. When people look at your life, years from now, which group will you be in?

Are you one of the few who will push and struggle and climb your way to great?


  1. RossBD
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 17:35:29

    Of course there’s also the contradictory aphorism that ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’ – the gist being that we shy away from doing things that would be good enough because we can see flaws in them and end up doing nothing!
    It’s about that novel that we gave up writing because it wasn’t the literary masterpiece we wanted it to be, when it might have turned out to be pretty good if only we’d kept at it…


  2. Sarah Tipton
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 18:11:37

    Great post! This is the attitude I strive for in my writing (other areas of my life, well, we won’t talk about that). A few times, I’ve been asked to rate myself as a writer from a freshman to a senior. I will never choose higher than a junior. In high school, being a senior meant taking easy courses and coasting to a pretty much guaranteed goal: graduation. I don’t want to mentally put myself there.


  3. halee
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 19:09:02

    An excellent point, Ross! I think the common element for both perspectives would be perseverance. And vision. Without the two uniting, we’re aimless.

    Sarah, it’s definitely a mindset. Sometimes it’s such a struggle to get to good, we want to stop there and celebrate. It takes a completely different attitude to continually ask ourselves “What else? What more?”


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