Renowned potter Brother Thomas Bezanson lived by a unique set of standards. Brother Thomas broke 1,100 of the first 1,200 pieces he created. He adhered to this ratio throughout his life. Even when his pots were good, they were not good enough.
“Good but not good enough” implies a relentless push for more, a refusal to accept what others accept. It’s an idea that resides not only in Brother Thomas’ pottery but is also contained in Joe DiMaggio’s swing of a bat, audible in Yo Yo Ma’s cello, evident in Gandhi’s determination that India reach independence, and embedded in NASA’s quest to reach the moon.
“Good but not good enough” is not just about practicing longer, working harder, or being more competitive. Instead it is a deeply intrinsic drive to achieve what others have dismissed as unachievable, or what they have not even imagined. It’s a drive powered by internal vision and compass, indifferent to external expectations, conventional wisdom, skepticism, or even ridicule. It demands a willingness to take risks that often seem unreasonable right up to the moment they succeed.
Underlying those individuals and organizations that best exemplify “good but not good enough” are leaders with unreasonable imaginations. Two examples from the social sector:
- The Institute for OneWorld Health in San Francisco is, more than anything else, a triumph of imagination by a former Food and Drug Administration official named Victoria Hale, who saw that a pharmaceutical company could be structured as a nonprofit, unburdened by the responsibility to maximize shareholder value, and capable of accepting donated intellectual property from others. It could thereby help create markets for drugs for diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis.
- Teach for America, now the top employer of Ivy League graduates in the United States, was the triumph of imagination by a then Princeton senior named Wendy Kopp, who believed that the best students from the best universities would be willing, upon graduation, to at least temporarily forgo careers in law and banking to teach in some of the most underserved schools in the country.
Specific tactics for creating an organizational culture that embraces the idea of “good but not good enough” and encourages unreasonable imaginations in developing breakthrough solutions to social problems include:
- Constantly challenging the conventional wisdom.
- Asking hard questions about what is possible even if such questions seem naïve.
- Rewarding risk and not penalizing dreamers.
- Funding R&D, often considered a luxury, as if it were the necessity it is.
- Forcing those in an organization, from the senior leadership on down, to get out from behind their desks and into places where they can engage with people and places very different from themselves.
Three philosophical ideas underlie the breakthrough thinking described above: that good is not good enough; that unreasonable imaginations drive social change; and that irrational self-confidence can be a good thing. These are not by themselves a solution for our toughest problems. But they form the necessary architecture for solving them, the underpinnings without which most efforts will falter.
Taken together they affirm the wisdom of George Bernard Shaw who said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
What other organizations exemplify “good but not good enough?”
How does your organization cultivate unreasonable imagination?
Note: this post is adapted from my recently released book, Imaginations of Unreasonable Men.