When is “Good Enough” Good Enough?

Many years ago at a theatre festival, I heard the technical director of the host school chew out his crew for improperly setting the masking. The guest director had not specified masking requirements and the crew had done the minimum. The technical director told his crew, “it may be good enough for them, but it’s not good enough for us!” And we all have heard—and probably used the phrase “good enough for government work” even if we don’t work for a governmental agency.

A related phrase is “it works” or “that works.” Tony Randall on a talk show a number of years ago was asked what word or phrase he hated; his answer was “That works.” The implication was that “that works” is the equivalent of “that’s good enough” but certainly not of “that’s excellent” or “that’s perfect.”

Do these statements really suggest a standard lower than excellence? In Randall’s view, yes. (We have no way to know whether Randall was seeking some sort of perfection or just a standard higher than “working.”) In the view of others, no.

“That works” generally means that all the pieces fit together when they have not done so before. I find that it’s used a lot in theatre, where it means, “yes, that is a moment that that is good.” It does not preclude other possibilities, for as we all know, in art, the possibilities are endless. “It works” means that we have found one assemblage of parts that is better than all the alternatives we have considered before. It’s not only “good enough;” it’s very good—maybe the best possible answer—if not, certainly a contender.

“Good enough for government work” does imply a reduced standard: according to this view, government work can be accomplished at a level lower than that demanded by the private sector. Whether this is true is not at issue; what is at issue is whether “good enough” is good enough. Is it, for starters, really equivalent to “it works?” In many cases, it is. In normal use it means virtually the same thing, albeit a bit more understated: the best among available alternatives at the moment.

And, in making art, isn’t that what we are looking for—the best among available alternatives at the moment? Of course it is.

Occasionally you may hear, “that works better,” indicating that although the best among available alternatives had been discovered, in another moment, a new, better solution was found. Again, in art the possibilities are endless, and in this case, the artist, although s/he had found a perfectly acceptable solution continued to search until something better was found. It’s the nature of artists to do that.

It all depends on where our bar is; the technical director in the first paragraph had a substantially higher bar than the director, at least as regards masking. If we hold a very high standard for our work, “good enough” or “it works” may be an understatement, but definitely means that it meets that standard. So when is “good enough” good enough? When we are willing to publish it or ship it or make it available with our name on it. If we are willing to own whatever the artistic decision is, then it is absolutely good enough. In fact, it might even rate a “that’ll do pig,” which, as we all know, is the highest praise that can be offered.

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Date: Sunday, 5. November 2017 23:20
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