As every student getting at least a D- in Philosophy 101 knows, Plato defended the view that there is an objective “Good” – the Platonic Form or Ideal – that each of our actions can succeed or fail to realize. Good actions, right choices, and all around wise conduct conform to this objective standard. The Good exists independently of what we happen to think; it’s out there, floating around in the Platonic heavens, not necessarily connected with the way we happen to think or feel, but setting the standards for success and failure all the same.
There is probably no idea I can think of that has had a worse effect on my life, whether personally or professionally, than the idea that there is some external standard of good that my actions are supposed to meet. This is what I want to tell you about.
Now, of course, one need not have read Plato to manifest a deep understanding of the truly evil nature of The Good. Anyone who has asked themselves, say, whether their presentation will be “good enough” before going to speak, and recognizes the anxiety that comes along with asking oneself that question, will have more than enough familiarity with the kind of thing I’m talking about. Char Booth touches on this particular instantiation of the evilness of The Good over at Info-mational while dispensing some really great advice about public speaking. Her first principle for public speaking is the “cliched” but awfully true bit of wisdom that when speaking in public, it’s important to believe in yourself and what you’re saying:
1. Believe (in) yourself. First and foremost, accept that you have something worthwhile to say. This phrase in its entirety is an acknowledged cliche, but remove the (in) and consider whether you have any faith in your ability to contribute to the forum at hand. Next, think about how you tend to judge the words coming out of your mouth during presentations: complete bullshit, half-baked conjecture, or fascinating genius? A notch below fascinating genius is a good target.
I think this is really insightful and gets at something much deeper. How often do I feel, deep down, in some vaguely unconscious and not-quite articulated sense, that everything I do must be “Good” and perfect, and somehow anything less than that reflects on my worth as a person. A lot. How often does this make me happy? Literally never.
One pertinent example is when I was setting up the new information literacy program at my university. I’d done a lot of meeting with faculty, and “talked up” some of the particular things we could do, and ways I felt like we could help classes with research, and, luckily, we got a lot of buy in and people started requesting classes. But, when classes were about to startcoming in, I had this overwhelming dread that made me not really want to teach the classes, even though teaching is something I love to do. The dread, essentially, was this: “What if they don’t think it’s good?” What if, after all the stuff I’ve said, they think that it’s just, like … I don’t even know … it’s like Char says … What if they thought I was just some guy talking about research, and not the fascinating genius I’d somehow in my mind claimed myself to be?
I feel like this all the time, and I suspect I’m probably not the only one. And it really gets me thinking about what the heck leads to this kind of thinking? Well, obviously, in part, it’s a contingent sense of self worth: my worth, in my mind, is based on the external evaluations of whether other people judge something I do to be successful, in accordance whatever concept of “Good” or “Success” I imagine them to be operating with. In short, I submit, it’s because, emotionally I tend to operate with the idea that The Good is “out there” and my actions and value “in here” is somehow judged by that external standard.
But that’s bullshit, and I know it, and I sort of deeply hope that you know it, too.
Here are some recent experiences I’ve had in academia that further illustrate the concept. The master’s thesis I wrote while I was a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill won an award. This seemed to me to mean that it was good, in some objective sense: that it instantiated The Good, if you will. So I went ahead and submitted it to what I took to be one of the best, if not the best, journal for library practitioners in academic libraries. And after a few months the reviews come back and are like … What is this, a transcription of some drunken dialogue you had with your friends one night? I mean, it’s interesting, but what did you do, write this on the back of a cocktail napkin?
Okay, well, that didn’t quite say that, but there were, to be sure, more typos on the thing one might reasonable expect an educated person to emotionally bear. Some of the reviewers hated parts of the article. Some of them liked some of it. I rewrote some of the parts that they liked, added onto it, and they accepted the thing. Okay, great. I thought it would feel amazing when they accepted it but it didn’t really feel like anything. It was no big deal.
So then I take some of the parts that those reviewers hated, which had completely different aims, and send it to another journal. They liked the parts the other reviewers hated and sort of hated the parts I mentioned that the other reviews liked. This struck me as strange. This is the peer-review process. This is supposed to be as objective as we get in discerning what’s good and what’s bad. These people are the formal arbiters of The Good. And they all disagree over the various parts of my work.
This was a very good experience for me. It was one those really nice glimpses I sometimes get where I actually feel emotionally rather than know intellectually (big difference) that there’s no standard of goodness or success outside of myself. There’s nothing I’m supposed to be doing other than what seems interesting to me to do.
Carl Rogers puts the point this way:
The value of the product is, for the creative person, established not by the praise or criticism of others, but by himself. Have I created something satisfying to me? Does it express a part of me – my feeling or my thought, my pain or my ecstasy? These are the only questions which really matter to the creative person, or to any person when he is being creative.
This is something to keep in mind before, say, giving a talk, when one is just presumably sharing something one did that they think is interesting in hopes that maybe someone else will think it’s interesting, too. I forget, sometimes, that if not everyone else finds it interesting maybe that doesn’t really actually matter. And that it certainly doesn’t mean anything about me.
It has dawned on me more than once that instead of good I wish we’d use the word “real.” As in, what you’re doing doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be real, and come from a place of joy and curiosity and passion that’s meaningful to you. That the Platonic ideal is not out there but actually inside you.
I have heard many people object to these kinds of sentiments. These objections come in various forms. Sometimes it’s “You can’t just go around doing what you want to do.” Sometimes it’s that the people are driven by external standards of The Good, themselves, and become frustrated by contradictory feelings that living in accordance with such external dictates is, in fact, unnecessary. My take on this is, and has pretty much always been, that if the only thing that motivates you is an internal compulsion to meet external standards – and doing so makes you more happy than anxious and depressed – well, then, I say to you, to each their own, and really mean it.
But I don’t really buy it. The Good is an illusion, a myth as imaginary and unreal as the Platonic forms themselves. It’s a bad, bad word, one that I hope I’ll learn to never use.