Many years ago I was Director of Training and Development for a large facilities management company with several hundred thousand dollars in annual revenue. I worked closely with a man named John. He had immigrated to the United States as a child, speaking no English. He taught himself English by watching Sesame Street and by compulsively reading every book he could get his hands on. Poverty caused him to quit school when he turned sixteen to help his family by going to work as a window washer. The scaffold collapsed one day, dropping him three stories and breaking his back. He was bed-ridden for a month while he recovered which gave him the opportunity to read a new book every day.
John had no high school diploma but he was one of the smartest, best-educated people I ever worked with. He had progressed over the years and had worked his way up to become Executive Vice President of Operations at that huge company. His face was lined, his back was hunched but he was still a worker. As when he was younger, he still came to work at dawn and left after dinner in the evening.
I recall travelling on business with John, rushing through the Pittsburgh airport, a facility we managed. Suddenly John wasn’t beside me anymore. I turned and saw him on his knees in the airport concourse. Dressed in his suit and tie, he was picking at some gum stuck to the carpet, prying at it with a credit card.
“What are you doing?” I shouted. “We’re going to miss our flight.”
“This is our building,” John answered. “I need to take care of this.” He pulled the gum loose, jumped to his feet and threw the gum in the trash as we dashed for our plane. Many executive leaders would have called in a low-wage worker to handle a menial, small situation like the gum. Not John.
His advice to me was, “Good enough isn’t.” Get past the odd sentence structure; think about what that means. John lived that way in his professional life and in his personal life. He never accepted that “just okay” was good enough. He always did more.
In the first story in Finding Our Way, my collection of short stories, I paraphrased John. Here is my take on his philosophy from that story: “I believe we should all have audacious goals and dreams and never settle, though we may never find everything we want.”
To live like that is hard, but to achieve excellence we need to be obsessive about how we do things. We can’t settle for good enough. And we need to maintain balance in our lives with all the other obligations that tug at us. We need to be obsessive about sustaining our relationships, our family life, our careers and everything else that make up our audacious goals. I believe it’s worth the effort to live like that. It all matters. Good enough isn’t. Never settle.
Peter Stipe is the author of Finding Our Way; a collection of short stories, and The Art of Love, a novel. Peter Stipe.com Facebook: PeterGStipe