Constraining Greatness


In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Avram Alpert suggests that the ideal of greatness can be an obstacle to achieving the good life. On the surface, his promotion of the “The Good-Enough Life” seems little more than the latest bashing of Donald Trump and his “Make America Great Again” movement.

But Alpert’s insights are actually grounded in both practical experience and sensible philosophical reflection. His most persuasive example is taken from D.W. Winnicott, who suggests that the “good-enough mother” is one who is not merely “adequate or average,” but who manages to love and care for her children while allowing them sufficient autonomy to prepare for the inherent troubles of life. As any conscientious parent knows, this is a daunting task, whatever term we use to describe it.

According to Alpert, the good-enough life creates conditions for everyone to thrive, to enable others to be good enough to meet their personal challenges and responsibilities. Such an ideal does not pardon mediocrity or encourage apathy. “Good-enough” implies virtue and goodness in a comprehensive sense.

Striving for a comprehensive level of goodness might actually be more difficult (and more heroic) than a misguided quest for extraordinary distinction in a narrow sphere.

Clearly, Alpert is arguing against shallow conceptions of greatness—when grand achievements come at the expense of others or when fame is based on one-dimensional success. Lamentably, flimsy notions of greatness prevail in our society. We celebrate successful athletes, musicians, and business executives whose personal lives often fail to reach even the lowest standards of respectability. The towering heights of their public achievements overshadow the repulsiveness of their more private affairs.

If the burden of greatness compels us to neglect family relationships and basic standards of decency, we ought to abandon it, as Alpert suggests. Or we can choose to redefine greatness as a multi-faceted achievement of virtue.

Alpert places Aristotle’s virtue ethics in the same “greatness” camp as other flawed philosophical systems of the western world. But at the heart of Aristotle’s definition of virtue is unity and balance. Aristotelian wisdom does not countenance either excess or deficiency in any area of life. The golden mean applies to each individual virtue as well as to the fullness of virtue achieved within a complete human life.

Of course we can argue that Aristotle’s magnanimity, his great-souled man, represents an unreachable ideal. But greatness as an unreachable ideal is much different from the small-minded celebration of intemperance, which is what Alpert is really arguing against.

So another way of looking at the ideal of greatness is that it needs to be constrained by our commitment to a wide range of virtues and responsibilities. For example, we cannot be great while violating the principles of justice or failing to control our emotions.

So how does the the “good-enough life” philosophy make its way into real life? Here’s an example from my professional work. I’m currently developing an online course designed to teach students real-world skills in using information technology. With the other members of my development team, we’ve committed to deliver a great course. We’re committed to the ideal of greatness.

But since we live in the real world, my team and I understand that our greatness will be constrained by several other development criteria. First, we need to prepare students to pass an IT industry certification. Second, we have an extremely tight development schedule. The course needs to be delivered at the beginning of July. And third, we need to keep our sanity and avoid burnout. Each of us have family responsibilities and other commitments that would be neglected by working 80 hours per week. So our challenge is to prepare students for real-world success, help them achieve an industry certification, deliver the course on time, and maintain our physical and mental health.

Because we don’t have unlimited time and resources, we’re forced to do “good-enough” work in each of these areas. Fortunately, we’re employed by a company that supports the ideal of work-life balance. And we have significant control over content development decisions. For example, every concept we teach does not require a lengthy (and expensive) video presentation. We can also reuse some material from other courses.

In this scenario, none of our development constraints force us to give up on instructional quality or to work 16-hour days. They encourage us to prioritize our development efforts and to work more efficiently than we otherwise would.

In the end, a constrained view of greatness can actually be empowering, as long as we have the autonomy to make difficult decisions and the willingness to help each other when we personally fall short.