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.

Undivided Attention: Means to the End of Virtue

Like most parents, I’m concerned about my children’s overabundance of screen time. Tablets, smartphones, and laptops provide instant access to video games, social media, and streaming video, including an unlimited supply of favorite television episodes. Yet sometimes I’m almost as preoccupied as my children. Since my smartphone notifies me about text messages, emails, and important news flashes, I can be summoned at almost any time.

In our age of multitasking and short attention spans, it’s critical to understand that most virtues are built on sustained mental and physical effort. Without attending perceptively to the needs of others, we won’t cultivate a sense of justice in our communities. Without an active awareness of our personal duties and responsibilities, we won’t respond to the call for courage. And without focusing on the most salient aspects of a complex situation, we won’t develop practical wisdom.

As mesmerizing as it can be to immerse ourselves in a 24-hour news cycle, a never-ending feed of social media posts, or a well-crafted movie plot, such activities cannot produce firmness of character. While temporary diversions are appropriate in helping us achieve life balance, most of us embrace distraction as a way of life. We plug ourselves into the Internet.

Years ago, I came across an essay written by French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil (1909-1943). The title of the essay is “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” Weil claims here that “the real object and almost the sole interest” of school work is “the development of the faculty of attention.” No matter what subject we devote ourselves to, the result can be personal transformation and joy: “Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul.”

Interestingly, Weil observes that one of the most transforming effects of school studies comes from turning our attention to mistakes. She suggests that we “take great pains to examine squarely and to contemplate attentively and slowly each school task in which we have failed . . . without seeking any excuse or overlooking any mistake . . . trying to get down to the origin of each fault.” Such actions will generate not only humility, but progress.

So how do we achieve this sanctified state of undivided attention? Weil argues that it is not to be “confused with a kind of muscular effort.” That type of strained approach is both useless and tiring. To produce the kind of transforming results advocated by Weil, we need to embrace the joy of sustained learning. We place our minds in an ardent state of expectation, waiting for truth as an unearned gift.

Weil explains why a state of undivided attention is so difficult to achieve: “Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue.” She continues: “That is why every time we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.” In other words, to replace vice with virtue, we must actively focus our attention on observing, learning, and improving.

In describing Sherlock Holmes’s extraordinary ability to solve crimes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle paraphrases Thomas Carlyle’s definition of genius as “an infinite capacity for taking pains.” Sherlock’s gift lies in his perceptiveness and sustained concentration on the problem at hand. His colleagues failed to appreciate that his “smallest actions were all directed towards some definite and practical end.”

What prevents us from becoming the Sherlock Holmes of our own life’s problems? More than anything else, it is our lack of attention, the fragmented state of our minds. While we cannot completely escape our frenetic and distracted lives, we can carve out moments for undivided attention. We can wake up early in the morning, leave our smartphones off, and study for an uninterrupted hour. We can take a midday break for a 20-minute walk, disconnected from the Internet and focused on one of our most vexing challenges. We can sit down with family members or friends and fully understand how they’re feeling. These are the moments when we find the joy of learning and the pleasure of communion.

We all need to take time for relaxation and entertainment. But we have a greater need for character development and sustained attention to real life.