As children, we are constantly reminded to try to be our best, encouraged to try harder, to be better. The pressure is echoed in familiar sentiments and rhymes;
“Always do your best!”
“Practice makes perfect!
“Good, better, best, never let it rest, until your good is better, and your better is made best”
We universally accept the idea that to be good is not enough, that the goal is always to be the best. And while there is certainly some merit to the ideal, it also begs the question – can our perpetual efforts of self-improvement sometimes lead to more harm than good?
Last week I had the privilege of shadowing a neurosurgeon who was working on a particularly tricky case. Though the surgery’s purpose was fairly easily accomplished, an unexpected complication presented itself. The complication, however, did not present any immediate danger to the patient; rather, it was a puzzle for the surgeons. After a bit of probing, however, it became clear that it wasn’t going to be easily solved, so the docs stitched the patient back up and closed the case.
While scrubbing up for the next case, the Dr. turned to me. “Do you know why we stopped when we couldn’t figure that out?” I didn’t. “What’s the enemy of good?” Thinking of traditional paradoxes, I knew the answer wasn’t “bad”, but I couldn’t guess what he was getting at. “Better. When you try to be perfect, you can cause more harm than good.”
Though the rest of the day was busy with surgery cases, that revelation stuck with me. The enemy of good is better. In a very practical, surgical, sense, trying to improve an already good manipulation can result in direct harm to the patient. But beyond that, the perfect we are told to strive for as children can actually become stifling, counterproductive, or dangerous.
I’ve often seen this at play in my own life – naturally competitive not just with others but with myself, I am on a constant mission of self-improvement. Unfortunately, my goal to be the best, to do the most, can result in half-hearted attempts, wasted time, a serious lack of sleep, and occasionally even poor health. Perhaps the most evident manifestation is that throughout college, I never just came down with a cold – instead, I ignored signs I might be getting sick, weakened my immune system with irregular meals and sleep schedules, and at least once a year, ended up with some illness that put me completely out of commission for a week or lingered on for months, seeming incurable.
I don’t know that this self-awareness will lead to change – I thrive on being busy, on occupying myself with as many opportunities as I can muster. But I do think that as we get older (and wiser), we realize our own inability to “do it all”, and accept the importance of settling for good. Life’s pleasures, after all, often come not in reaching the top, but in diverging from the path and encountering unexpected joys.