What We Gain From a Good-Enough Life

A new book challenges us to abandon greatness in favor of more attainable goals.

Image of five yellow stars on a blue background. A hand is taking away the fifth star.
John J. Custer / The Atlantic

In 1953, the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott began writing about the idea of “good-enough” parenting—a term he coined, and one he’s still famous for today. According to Winnicott, after infancy, babies do not need tirelessly responsive or self-sacrificing parents. In fact, he wrote, it is developmentally key for parents to lessen their “active adaptation” to their children’s needs over time. In doing so, they teach their kids to “account for failure” and “tolerate the results of frustration”—both necessary skills at a very young age, as anyone who’s watched a baby learn to crawl knows.

In his recent book The Good-Enough Life, the scholar and writing lecturer Avram Alpert radically broadens Winnicott’s idea of good-enoughness, transforming it into a sweeping ideology. Alpert sees good-enoughness as a necessary alternative to “greatness thinking,” or the twin beliefs that everybody has the right to embark on “personal quests for greatness” and that the great few can uplift the mediocre many. Adam Smith’s invisible hand of capital is an example of greatness thinking; so is its latter-day analogue, trickle-down economics. So are many forms of ambition: wanting to win the National Book Award, to start a revolution that turns your divided and unequal country into a Marxist utopia, or to make a sex tape that catapults you to global fame.

Alpert does not ask his readers to abandon their goals completely, but he does ask us to acknowledge the unlikelihood of becoming the next Kim Kardashian or creating a workers’ paradise. He also argues that clinging too tightly to such dreams, at the expense of smaller or partial ones, sets us up for both practical and moral failure: To him, it’s selfish, especially on the political level, to strive exclusively for changes so large that they may be unattainable. Rather than aim for greatness, then, Alpert asks us to accept that frustration and limitation are inescapable—and sometimes beneficial or beautiful—parts of human life.

Alpert splits his book into quarters, exploring ways we can seek good-enoughness in ourselves, our relationships, our societies, and our efforts to mitigate climate change. His vision of a good-enough world—one in which “all humans have both goodness (including decency, meaning, and dignity) and enoughness (including high-quality food, clothing, shelter, and medical care)”—is energizing, but beyond it, his ideas about politics and global warming lean heavily toward summaries of or arguments with other people’s analyses. This is fair, given that he’s a philosopher and not a political or environmental scientist, but it’s also not especially interesting. His discussions of the good-enough self and the good-enough relationship, though also in dialogue with other thinkers, are more innovative and, as a result, more exciting. I also found them useful. His arguments for holding ourselves not to the monolithic standard of greatness but to the seemingly looser metrics of goodness and enoughness are, paradoxical though this may seem, guides toward a more determined way of inhabiting the world.

Many of Alpert’s ideas about good-enough selves and good-enough relationships ask only that his readers be more patient and less selfish. Greatness thinking, he argues, teaches us to defend our own ideas, time, and convenience above all else; it suggests that anyone who wishes to excel must hoard their time and energy, ignoring all the little tasks, negotiations, and compromises that make up so much of daily life. (The writer Vladimir Nabokov, supposedly, didn’t even lick his own stamps.) On an interpersonal level, greatness thinking suggests that discord and friction are, like licking your own stamps and running your own errands, needless time sucks—or, worse, signs that a relationship is on the rocks. A great friendship, according to this line of thought, is one of unbroken companionship and total harmony, a lifelong version of Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana at their most intertwined. But even on Broad City, a show utterly devoted to the joys of friendship, Abbi and Ilana are at odds, if only briefly, on nearly every episode. Alpert would say that this is as it should be. Disagreement and compromise are crucial parts of friendship. They teach us openness, acceptance, and resilience. If we let them, they make us more whole.

The Good-Enough Life often made me think about my friend Julia, the Abbi to my Ilana, an English teacher with whom I frequently disagree. She and I are both city girls, neutral about nature at best, and I have, for one, always been baffled by her love of the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, who extolled the merits of nature and solitude above all else. His often-taught poem “The World Is Too Much With Us,” with its salty dismissal of modern city life—“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”—irks me to no end. When I asked Julia why she’s not similarly annoyed, she told me that she sees nature as Wordsworth’s “material for thought”—what he happened to be working with, ruminating on. “I don’t think the material for thought opens you up to or makes you like the thought,” she said. “I think it works the other way around.” For Julia, it’s a pleasure to be invited to “think along with someone.” Certainly that’s one of the pleasures of our friendship. We’re always giving each other new material for thought.

We’re always arguing too. We’re natural bickerers and like to spar, but we also have a number of deep-seated differences and disagreements. For a while, the fact that some of our arguments are likely impossible to resolve frustrated me. Now it’s one of the parts of our 24-year-old friendship that I value most. I love knowing that we can challenge each other endlessly while remaining endlessly loyal to each other. Alpert devotes a lot of time to this very knowledge, which, to him, displays “the truth of good-enoughness: there are no perfect friends with whom you would have a stasis of agreement. There is the dynamic joy of discovering, again and again, that your friend is good to you.” Of course, to make that discovery with any other person, you have to be able to accept and value imperfection and disjunction in your relationship. This ability is key to Alpert’s worldview, which requires us to realize that “being the good-enough parent or friend or lover is difficult and unparalleled in its offering.” It is achievable and sustainable—unlike being the great or perfect parent, friend, or lover—and, therefore, requires determination and commitment in the long term.

Determination is the quiet underpinning, and the greatest contribution, of The Good-Enough Life. It links the personal to the political in a way that Alpert otherwise does not explicitly do. As he asks us to be determined in our intimate relationships, so he asks us to be determined in our relationships with the political world—which, intriguingly, he writes about at length in his chapter devoted to the good-enough self. Elsewhere in the book, Alpert’s we is very broad, but in this chapter his we is an activist one. He often assumes that readers are working in some way to improve their society, and asks them to accept that, if their work is aimed only—or inflexibly—at the ideal, it is unlikely to lead to the smaller, shorter-term changes we so often need; and to accept that, in his terms, striving only for greatness can fail to lead to either goodness or enoughness. He also reminds us, tipping his hat to W. E. B. Du Bois, that “the history of struggle [is] a path toward good-enoughness,” not utopia; that, all too often, we must seek bits of “a good-enough life … in the midst of a terrible world.”

Reading this in the context of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade felt, to me, like a kick in the butt. I’d been feeling full despair about it, and frankly still am, but Alpert’s argument against greatness is, at its core, an argument against giving up. Even before Dobbs, far too many Americans couldn’t access good-enough abortion care—which, in my interpretation of Alpert’s ideas, would mean dignified, sufficient, and quality treatment for anyone who wants to prevent or end a pregnancy. Such care will presumably be unattainable for many more in the coming years and decades. That our country will not offer enough abortion care for the foreseeable future, even if we can offer good abortion care in some places, is a difficult reality. Still, I appreciate Alpert’s reminder that neither goodness nor enoughness is easy to attain—and that we need to be adaptable and determined enough to fight for them both separately and together. Kansas’s recent vote against a constitutional amendment that would have paved the way for an abortion ban is an example of a step to protect enoughness. It has no effect on the goodness of care there, but it was a vital decision nonetheless.

Progress happens slowly, and it rarely, if ever, goes in a straight line. Pushing for a better society, therefore, requires not only patience and flexibility, but also a tolerance for mismatches and contradictions. Alpert invites us to get comfortable with that fact. He also invites us to welcome contradiction in our own efforts to live kindly and decently. You can see this sort of consideration in the food writer Alicia Kennedy’s popular newsletter, in which she repeatedly asks and helps her readers to be conscious of the ethics of what they eat, but just as repeatedly acknowledges that it makes no sense to focus only on “individual choice when it comes to the ‘morality’ of food instead of the whole system.” For Kennedy, it’s important for food media to stop saying that it’s “self-care to eat a bag of Lay’s when the labor conditions at their factories have been historically atrocious”; it’s also important to not blame people for eating what’s affordable and accessible, whether or not that means buying a bag of Ruffles. Holding both of those truths in your mind, and proceeding according to both of them, is an excellent example of the complicated good-enoughness that Alpert argues for.

Food writing, fittingly, lends itself to good-enoughness. In More Home Cooking, the novelist and culinary essayist Laurie Colwin wrote that “cooking is like love. You don’t have to be particularly beautiful or very glamorous, or even very exciting, to fall in love. You just have to be interested in it. It’s the same thing with food.” The Good-Enough Life makes precisely the same argument about the world itself. You don’t have to be great to have a good life; you don’t have to be a moral genius to live well. All you have to do is be interested, keep your eyes open, and not quit. Frankly, I can’t think of a harder way to spend every day, but I’m ready to aspire to it nonetheless.