The Relentless Pursuit of OK

How striving for good enough makes life better.

I do many amazing things badly. These include running the New York City Marathon, playing Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption,” and solving gigantic Rubik’s Cubes. Most people would be impressed. But look under the hood and you’ll discover the race took me seven hours, my guitar playing is intermediate at best, and my cube moves require the least amount of effort.

So what? Some guy running barefoot passed me at Mile 22 in Central Park, but the day was exhilarating and I saw cool parts of NYC. I’m not going to fill Madison Square Garden any time soon, but playing loud and fast is an incredible release. And people might gape spellbound as I solve a 7x7x7 cube on the subway, but the process is meditative and my commute flies by.

Apply the expression “Happiness = Reality/Expectations” and I score big points for sheer satisfaction, especially since I don’t try that hard. Focused on intrinsic enjoyment, challenging myself to the point of learning without actually mastering, I get the best of both worlds. I could run faster, play better, and solve smarter — but who really cares? What, exactly, is the point?

If I were obsessed with being the best, I’d never do any of these enjoyable things at all. Eliud Kipchoge recently finished the marathon in a world record 2:01:39, his average mile more than twice as fast as my fastest mile; burned out Van Halen still plays guitar better than I ever will; and Felix Zemdegs solves cubes ten times faster blindfolded than I do with eyes wide open.

How could I compete with such greatness, or even get close? Why even try? Running keeps me fit, playing lets me release, and cubing helps me relax. Same rules apply to most things in life, including work and parenting. Could I be more successful? Sure. Could I be a better dad? Of course. My career is fine and so are my kids. Why ruin good by trying to make everything great?

Our society is obsessed by winning. We’re trained from birth to kick ass and take names. Richer, faster, and better are drilled into us as absolute success criteria. Our culture of consumerism also demands more of everything, expecially the success necessary to buy more things. The opposite is also true: we’re either a binary hero or a zero, number one or a broke loser.

That makes many of us hyper-competitive, mean spirited, and hopelessly unhappy. Anything addictive builds tolerance, demands ever-increasing stimuli to trigger ever-diminishing responses. That’s especially true for the biggest pleasures in life: sex, money, and power. Moderation and balance might be beneficial for the soul, but everyone has their price. What’s yours?

We end up paying a price, too, dimishing returns all around. How many cars can we drive, how many steaks can we eat? Along the way, how many hours are we away from our family, how many people do we alienate, and how much of life do we miss? Swapping one form of positive reinforcement for another, the map gets mixed up with the territory as we kill ourselves to live.

The bad mojo often turns our lives into a series of avoidable, one-car accidents. A really funny scene from The Big Bang Theory is when Amy ruins Indiana Jones: much to Sheldon’s surprise, dismay, then jaw-dropping acknowledgement she explains how the ending of the film would have been completely identical had the hero never been swept into the adventure at all.

How much of our own lives would be better if we try less hard — or not try at all? Despite Indie’s heroic efforts the Nazis find the Ark of the Covenant, open it, and get zapped by the powers within. He helps get the Ark to the States, but it winds up in a warehouse and not a museum, so he’s not only superfluous to the story, but he actually fails in his mission. But who thinks that? Nobody.

Underneath the everyday, we want to electrify our existence and become a hero like Indie. These stories appeal to us with their excitement, their sense of purpose, and their protagonists’ relentless pursuit of excellence. Nobody and nothing can stop them, giving us inspiration to conquer our own internal and external demons that busily block our fanatical quest for success.

An acronym for the archaic spelling oll korrect, OK officially went mainstream during the presidential campaign of Martin Van Buren in 1840 when the native of Old Kinderhook, New York adopted the phrase “Vote for OK.” A loanword from American English into countless languages, OK has since become the most frequently spoken and written word on planet Earth.

Used throughout the world as a noun, adjective, and adverb, OK quickly expresses approval, agreement, assent, or acknowledgment. OK also describes something as adequate or acceptable, and when used in comparison with something else better implies mediocrity. OK is thus the opposite of the special, the Heroic: it ubiquitously denotes passive acquiescence and banality.

I embrace the relentless pursuit of OK because whenever I’ve striven for perfection my heroism has proven either superfluous, a failure, or both. I’m not a slacker, or saying that hard work, determination, and talent shouldn’t go into all that we do. Rather I’m sharing my elation in finally discovering how an 80% effort empowers the universe to do the more important remaining 20%.

Central to this liberating notion is sensing the boundaries between control and accomplishment, and understanding that control and accomplishment are emergent consequences of — rather than the purposes for — doing cool things and meaningfully connecting with others. Zen archers become One with bow, arrow, and target: but why assume their goal is a bullseye?

Zen and the Art of Good Enough