The Tyranny of Good by Joe Mills

My piano playing has improved. I have advanced from the children’s books to the adult ones. I have begun to play the black keys and the white keys in the same song. I have learned a couple chords, and I have even begun to use the pedals, well, one of them anyway (more on that in another column). But I have no illusions that I will ever be good. This isn’t false modesty. For one, I simply don’t, and probably never will, devote much time to playing. I sit at the keyboard every day and work through various songs, but I spend nothing like the hours that would be needed to truly learn the instrument. For another, even if I did practice several hours a day, I don’t have much musical talent. I think and feel in words rather than notes, linguistically rather than melodically.

It’s not that I don’t want to be good. Of course, I do. But, knowing that I never will be, why do I continue? Why am I wasting my time? The answer, for me, is simple; it gives me pleasure.

For others, the response to the concept of “being good” can be less straight-forward. I teach at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, an institution dedicated to training dancers, musicians, actors, filmmakers, designers. These students are amazingly talented, focused, and ambitious, and lately I’ve been asking groups of them: “What if you knew you weren’t good? Would you quit? Would you leave the school? Would you give up dancing/acting/singing…?”

The question surprises some of them because A) it seems kind of like a jerky thing to ask B) it’s too hypothetical; of course, they’re good or they wouldn’t be there and C) of course, they would quit if they absolutely knew they weren’t “good” or rather “good enough.” After all, isn’t that the point of being there?

The third answer may seem surprising, but it’s rational. These students want to have careers and be professionals. If they’re not going to be able to make a living, then they need to know, so they can train for a different job (and spend their tuition money differently). However, if we, as a faculty, are honest, we admit that we’re not surprised our alumni go on to be successful, but we’d be hard-pressed to identify exactly who that will be. When someone’s career takes off, we say, “Oh we always knew she had something . . . it was clear she was good,” but this is usually revisionist. Plus, we know being good is no guarantee of success. In Mark Twain’s story “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” dead writers parade in order of importance. Shakespeare is second. A writer from Tennessee no one has ever heard of comes first. The reverse is also true. As Robert Benchley said, “It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”

My concern with the concept of “being good” is how it plays out in a common narrative in the arts. A person is talented, but they’re told by someone – a critic, teacher, director, coach, lover – that they’re not good enough – that they have the wrong body type or they’re interested in the wrong music — nevertheless they persevere, and they triumph. They get a record deal, nail the audition, win an Oscar. It’s a common pop cultural narrative, perhaps the archetypal one, and I find myself not just ambivalent about it, but increasingly irritated by it.

Although the narrative is about overcoming obstacles and believing in yourself no matter what people say, it also insists that, ultimately, success is what validates commitment. You prove you’re good by “making it” (which still seems to suggest that you’re good when others say you are). A corollary seems to be that something is only worth dedicating yourself to if you are good at it.

Writing teachers, like myself, frequently see this type of thinking. Students want to be told they have “it.” They want some kind of assurance that it’s worth spending the time and energy doing the hard, boring, work of putting words together. This also is an excuse that people give for not writing. Countless times I’ve heard the equivalent of, “I have an idea for a novel/screenplay/story, but I have high standards, and if it’s not going to be good, as good as I want it to be, then I’m not going to do it.” People talk themselves out of doing something before they even start. This is the tyranny of “good.”

Lynda Barry in a wonderful book, What It Is, points out that there are crippling questions for an artist to ask. One is “Will people like me?” and another is “Is it any good?” These deform what you’re doing, and even prevent you from doing it. My favorite story as an antidote to this way of thinking comes from Benjamin Franklin. He was in France during one of the first flights of a hot air balloon. Some in the crowd asked, “What good is it?” and he replied, “What good is a newborn baby?”

It’s not that I don’t believe in good and bad work – I do (and perhaps that’s a subject for a later column as well) – but I don’t believe it’s relevant for certain activities and certain choices. I suspect we deny ourselves enjoyable experiences because we’re concerned with being “good.” We might not cook a particular dish because it won’t be as “good” as a restaurant. We might not draw or paint or dance or throw a ball around or play an instrument.

So, one question I think I might start asking people, “What would you do if you weren’t worried about being good at it?”

And one story I want to encounter — Someone wants to be a singer or musician or actor, and people tell him that he isn’t any good and never will be. But, he does it anyway and keeps doing it, and it turns out that people were right, he’s not any good, and he never becomes good. At the end, he has “wasted” much of his life doing something that gave him pleasure. The fool.

Joseph Mills
Joseph Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published five collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition). Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.

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  1. This is great Joe. It’s strange how artistic pursuit requires so much courage and conversation with oneself to keep producing it. But as I consider this now, I realize many professions are the same, sales, teaching, social work, medicine, law, anything that involves facing down objection to our ideas and so many other types of adversities. I guess when we really bring ourselves–our values, our creativity, our intelligence, our hopes–to situations, we feel all that is riding on us. Your essay is an important reminder for us to bring it back to the right place.


  2. The movie Francis Ha (streaming on Netflix) features a character who doesn’t appear to be consumed by the question of being “good enough” in her dancing but it is her joy, and she is surrounded with her “betters” –and in the actress’s portrayal of a real person (as normal unique, not a prodigy and not a wreck) we learn a way to live. Great article, too. Thank you. Vicki


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