New Year’s Plan – From Great to Good

For the first time in the 20 years I’ve been writing a New Years message, I am contradicting the messages of my new years’ past.

So, if you’re seeking a stimulus to support you in having a great year, following conventional and valuable insights, search my archives.

Unconventionally, I’m not envisioning a great year.  My motto for the year is instead:  going from Great to Good.

Two thoughts about  – and for – you about “the good.”  Then, if you’re interested, a post script on what’s behind my personal shift.

I am, of course, riffing off Jim Collins’ classic book on how some companies “made the leap from Good to Great.”  As you’d guess, I don’t mean to be good, as in great – very good – good – fair – poor.  My focus is on good, or the Good, as that which is intrinsically of value, rather than Great, which largely looks to external measures: fame, wealth, power, etc.  I have a personal view (admittedly rose-colored) that doing the good will generate greatness. And I believe that personal and organizational goodness or virtue can lead to powerfully great outcomes. But my suggestion here is that goodness, apart from any relationship to greatness, can deliver two things to its seeker:

Deep Learning.  I want to ask: What does it mean to be a good teacher; I think it’s different than being a great teacher, and I’m eager to learn from this distinction. Or:  What does it mean to be a good citizen? Or a good leader?  Or a good dad, as two of my kids get married in the year ahead.  I’m looking forward to learning what happens if I choose to let go of greatness in favor of the good.

A greater sense of control and meaning.  Perhaps it’s a luxury of being 61 and having a 401(k), or perhaps it’s a permanent birthright, to be able to choose what’s good. I like the idea of pursuing what I value, in a way that seems good to me.

I must admit that I feel a disquiet in this freedom.  Is that all there is? Is this surrender?  And of which kind – the surrender that constitutes a defeat in war and business? Or is this the surrender that is a triumph in spirituality? I fear:  Will I slide from close-to-great, down to good, and even slide past good to fair, if I don’t shoot for greatness?  I welcome the questions. I’ll live the questions, in exchange for the pursuit of the good, of learning and meaning.  I’m curious whether you might join me on this good way of

leading with your best self.

Post Script:  A deeper, personal reflection on how I got here (at age 61).

As a small boy I answered the adults who asked the “what do you want to be…” question with, “Pope or President.”  50 years hence, I am grateful and eternally intrigued by this strange grandiosity. Grateful because it led me to take a thousand risks and to approach school and work like a dog on a juicy steak bone, to become, well, great.  Grateful, and also intrigued:  to uncover the roots and rules of my insatiable drive for greatness.  I’m quite certain that the roots lay in childhood trauma: I think that when my baby brother died – was just plucked from his crib, and our home, and the face of the earth – I made some primal decision that I would become indefatigable, as secure as one could possibly be. I continually aimed at greatness; even in the years when I took a back seat to my wife-governor, I never relinquished this personal drive, or it never released me.  The tree of ambition grew out of the roots of personal loss and existential insecurity.  I’m pretty sure what I deeply desired – and desire – is a feeling of love and belonging. But what I sought was greatness.

The roots were one thing, the psychic rules another. For me, success was never really success. There was always a next bridge, next journey, next hill. A part of me forever critiqued, pushed, drove me. For the last year I’ve been reflecting about why it’s so hard to accept what is, as it is, as good.  Perhaps more baldly (as I’m becoming 🙂 ) honest, I’ve been reflecting about why it’s so hard to accept me, as I am, as good. And at the deepest level, how can I learn to live in the longing that is deeper and truer than the longing for greatness, and that is the longing to simply love and be loved, to be and do and receive the Good.

Maybe I’ll share an occasional post script on this journey from an embrace of the good that is, rather than the greatness that is constantly escaping me.


  • Dan, what a great concept about going from great to good. I almost think you could keep your original philosophy to make an arc out of it “From Good to Great to Good” I love the idea though. I do believe that good companies, in addition to succeeding make a powerful difference. There are lot of “great” companies, but they’re not all certainly and would never be thought in that way. Do they make a difference? Sure – to their shareholds, employees, customers, etc… But do they make an intrinsic difference? I had lunch on Friday with a friend who is going through a forced career evaluation. At one point he said he wanted to find something he was passionate about and it dawned on me, and I told him, more important than finding something you’re passionate about, find something that makes you feel good about who you are. While it might be one and the same, there often is a difference. Thanks for starting the year off with a great read.

  • Awesome and thought provoking piece, Dan. As someone in your age range, I relate to everything here, including wondering weather childhood trauma has had a bigger impact on my life than I thought it had. I find myself grappling with the same questions you ask and settling quite well into “good” – most of the time. I’m certain that “good” is the next journey and I’m determined not to confuse it with the kind of good that is associated as something less than great, at least not in a self-competitive way. Perhaps the “good” you speak of is truly the same as great, it’s just that “great” is the wrong word to use.

  • I think there are probably better words out there than “good” and “great” to describe the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, especially in light of the popular usage of the terms.

    I think the ideal teacher is able to help a student live a good life, and it is the student’s job to define what “good” is – whether it means to make as much money as possible, to contribute somehow to mankind, or to just find enjoyment in thinking about something. I’ve never taught before but I suspect a passionate teacher has a desire and a natural ability to spread that passion to his or her students, and though the intentions are “good”, it is a manipulation nonetheless.

    Suppose a teacher is able to inspire someone to pursue a career in, say, physics, though the teacher genuinely feels that the student would be better served going down a different path. The teacher succeeded in inspiring the student but has failed in his or her obligation to help the student live a good life.

    Ultimately, I think a “good” teacher needs to (try to) understand what a good life is for each student and to help each student inch closer to that goal.

    I agree that acknowledging your values differ from the crowd is a hard move to make. You’ve probably read 1984 and, to me at least, it’s disquieting to think that that could happen to me. Great teachers in my past have taught me about the unfortunate realities of human nature and of bureaucracy. Would you agree with their perspectives that change needs to come from within the system instead of from without? Or would you say that there’s a place in society (besides asylums) for free thinkers? How can the “Winstons” of the world remain steadfast in the face of the “O’Briens” of the world?

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