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The Good Student

A while back I needed a reference letter from a professor from graduate school. I went to see the first guy I thought of, who was widely-known in the field and could have helped strengthen the application I was preparing. We hadn’t really hit it off so well in class, but I thought it was worth a try.

I should have listened to my first instincts. “Sure, I’ll write a letter for you, Chris,” he said. “I’ll tell them you were a good student.”

“Good student” is the kiss of death in any academic reference letter, so that was all I needed to hear. In academia, and life in general, no one cares about someone who’s merely good. I said goodbye, never followed up about the letter, and eventually found someone else who could write a much better one for me.

Good Student, Good Writer

I think of this story now as I prepare to head off for two weeks of vacation and planning. In addition to my notes on the year and ideas for 2010, I’m also bringing along a printed copy of my 54,000 word book manuscript. This time next year, the book will be out and people will be writing reviews on Amazon and elsewhere. Somewhere, someone might actually be talking about it with a friend.

This thought terrifies me.

It’s one thing to edit a 1,000 word blog post; it’s another to edit a 54,000 word book. I feel resistance towards the whole concept. I want it to be completely, 100% done—but it’s not. It’s more like 90% done, maybe even 95%… but right now, I know in my heart that it’s only a good book, not the excellent one I want to see on the shelf at Barnes & Noble or Chapters.

But enough about me; let’s talk about you.

To go from good to excellent is not always necessary. You can do very well in many areas of life just by being good. In fact, I think that the pursuit of perfection can sometimes serve as a form of life avoidance. It’s often better to face your fear and just get something out there, perfection be damned.

There’s probably something, though, that you want to be better-than-good at. When it comes to that thing you desperately want to be proud of, you understand the difference between good and excellent very well. You can look at it and tell right away if it needs more work, even when other people are happy with it.

The solution in this case is to keep going, whatever it takes. Create draft after draft until you’re really satisfied. Embrace the purity of pursuing excellence for excellence’s sake. Above all, don’t settle for the good!

The Little Things

By the way, making something good is usually about getting a few big things right, but excellence is about refining all of the little things. That’s why you need to pay careful attention to revisions, whatever form they take in your own work.

I’m looking forward to the annual review that I’ll describe in more detail over the next few posts, but I’ll also be working on that final 5-10% of the book. Let’s close with words of wisdom from the great Lily Tomlin:

“Sometimes I worry about being a success in a mediocre world.”

I worry about that too. That’s why, sometimes, the good is not good enough. When it’s all said and done, it’s nice to have something you’re really proud of.

QUESTION: What are you striving for excellence? What are you happy to leave with just being good?