Sunday, July 8, 2012

When the Good Is an Enemy

A proposal: the enemy of the best is the good. In life. In health. In fitness.

A close friend has often repeated this “enemy of the best” idea to me, so I decided to research its history. It pops up attributed to NFL wide receiver Jerry Rice on numerous quotation websites. The full quotation usually appears as “The enemy of the best is the good. If you're always settling with what's good, you'll never be the best.”

The concept also appears at the beginning of Chapter 1 of First Things First by Stephen Covey, A. Roger Merrill, and Rebecca R. Merrill.1 Here the words “best” and “good” are in quotation marks, leading me to wonder what philosophical distinction the authors could be making. (A few pages later, the sentence does appear without quotation marks.) In Covey’s book, what is best seems to align with the “non-urgent but important” items in quadrant II of his four-quadrant scheme.

Yet another place I found the idea was in a proverb dictionary, in this case inverted: “Good is the enemy of the best, The. Meaning that one may rest satisfied with what is acceptable instead of striving for the truly excellent. 1912: J. Kelman, Thoughts on Things Eternal, 108...”2

Wisdom lies in this philosophy, yet three strong counterarguments strike me. In his 1772 poem “La Begueule,” Voltaire quotes a line from an “unnamed Italian sage” that translates literally from the French (“Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien”) to “The best is the enemy of the good” (my emphasis).3 What this sentiment points to is that in striving for the best (Voltaire’s word “le mieux” is often translated as “perfect”), a person can pass over one or even several good enough results and ultimately end up with something less than good, or nothing at all. This is the bane of the perfectionist, and often of the procrastinator.


Another counterargument is that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to determine what is the best choice out of multiple choices. This is related to the third objection, which is that sometimes there may simply be no best choice, that as far as it is possible to tell, two or more choices—choices leading to two or more outcomes, I suppose—are of equal desirability. Do I want trimmer abs or do I want to enjoy more delicious food? I really don’t know what is best. It seems they both could be. They will both make me happy in multiple ways. And yes, they seem to be mutually exclusive, unless I want to exercise substantially more.

Despite these counterarguments, it seems to me that people who take their health or physical prowess seriously would benefit from less settling with what’s good, to use Jerry Rice’s words. If my failure point for dead lift is nine reps at 170 pounds, doing eight reps is good—very good, in fact. But the best I can do is nine, and only that quantity will get me to failure and thus optimize my muscle growth. If I run a 5k but fail to give it my all, how can I be satisfied even if I win the race? Even if my time is good enough to win, the people who do their best have won in more important ways.

Sometimes, unfortunately, it’s not that simple. I have long had goals relating to pull-ups. As my strength has increased my goals have likewise increased. My current goal is to do 10 pull-ups (chin-ups, technically), and it is proving to be quite the challenge. It will take my best effort, I’m beginning to think, to reach this goal. Given this, the decisions I must make are difficult. Should I reduce my cardio and put more of my energy into strength training and rest? This would reduce my overall best level of fitness, but it might be part of my best life to achieve this goal. If I decide to go for it, what combination of strength training and rest is best—and within that, which exercises are best, and at which levels? And so on. Clearly, it would take intense thought, experimentation, and research to determine the answers, and these answers could not be perfect.

But to return to Voltaire, let us not confuse best with perfect. What is more, let us distinguish best from good whenever we can, and strive to determine when good is good enough, and when best is best.

1. Stephen Covey, A. Roger Merrill, and Rebecca R. Merrill, First Things First (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994).
2. Martin H. Manser, ed., Dictionary of Proverbs (Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth, 2006),, 242.

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