Get your motor runnin’, Day 15: Good enough


There’s a little lunch-y shop in The BF’s neighborhood that we patronize from time to time, for a sandwich or a salad, or sometimes just an espresso drink.

The chef-proprietor is quite gifted in the kitchen: he’s Cordon Bleu-trained and no slacker with post-graduate education, as evidenced by the interesting new dishes and combinations he’s always dreaming up. And the shop is nice, with a pretty patio and a good location.

Here’s the thing, though: he’s in Los Angeles, where those kinds of things are cost-of-entry. Unlike opening a place in the middle of nowhere, or even in a small somewhere, like a college town or a non-ritzy resort town, those are the things required to have even a shot at survival. Which they were doing, Matt and his lovely wife, Jacquie. Surviving.

But things were tight. And times are tight. So they put their heads together and came up with an idea to open for dinner. Not exactly earth-shattering in the novelty department, right? Only here’s the thing: they’re only open for dinners on Fridays and Saturdays. And the menu is prix fixe. And the prix it’s fixed at is twenty bucks a head.

It gets better.

Matt & Jacquie only accept a certain number of reservations for each evening. Probably because of space limitations in the kitchen, which also limits the types of ingredients Matt can use, as he only has certain cooking equipment available to him, but what it does (which is they way they sell it) is let them what comes linger as long as they like. No bum’s rush; hang on the pretty patio as long as you like. With your wine, which you’ve bought yourself from a nearby wine shop, which has selected a number of possible pairings at various price points because Matt and Jacquie, smart, SMART, I tell you, approached this wine shop with the idea. Because a liquor license is not an easy thing to obtain, but why should that be a liability? Make it a plus, and don’t even charge corkage.

There’s a point to all of this, I swear. And it’s this. (I think.)

I’ve always wished I was a little more so. A little prettier. A little taller. Definitely a little smarter. (Okay, a lot smarter. And prettier, and taller.) I figured that if I was, it would have made the difference, to my love life, my popularity, my career success. Sometimes I’d even find myself using my lack of whatever as an excuse to not try so hard. Because really, what was the point? What, really, could I do? So much of this was out of my average-looking, below-average-height-percentile, IQ-deficient hands.

Then, last night, I got the shock of my life. It’s taken me a while to write this, because I was searching (unsuccessfully) for stats to back it up, but here it is: the last bit doesn’t matter. That’s what Malcolm Gladwell says, anyway, and I suppose he did a fair amount of research for his most recent book about success and how it’s achieved, and by whom. Last night, he brought up some crazy-ass research that basically said that once you made it into the 95th-percentile club, it was all pretty much the same. That any IQ points over 120 were irrelevant to success, or at least, no guarantor of it. 120 is the benchmark, the ticket to the game, but everything after that, while, as he said, “it’s fun to have”, doesn’t really figure ins. After that, it’s the hours of intentional practice/rehearsal/learning, plus timing and environment and luck: in other words, one factor within your control and a whole lot that’s not.

He even went so far as to say that neither IQ nor test scores (again, above a certain benchmark) should figure into college admissions procedure: have your pool of applicants with a baseline of intelligence, the old SAT benchmark would be around 1250, and leave the rest to fate. Which, of course, will never happen, because what would happen to the Harvard brand if there was no appreciable difference between it and, say, Tufts?

I can’t buy it completely. Not without seeing actual research, not without reading a lot more about it. But even thinking about it that way is pretty freeing…and pretty terrifying. If those 20 or 30 or 40 IQ points aren’t making the difference, maybe I can. Or maybe I can’t, which is the terrifying part.

Here’s what is true: I have the option of doing everything that’s within my control to advance my position, or not. Maybe Gladwell is wrong and those 10 or 20 or 30 IQ points would make the difference; maybe my efforts are sweet, but for naught. Maybe, in other words, I’m fucked. Maybe you are, too. Maybe you’re not pretty enough or tall enough or smart enough. Maybe the economy isn’t good enough. Maybe maybe maybe.

The way I look at it after hearing about Good Enough last night is this: Matt and Jacquie have a place that’s good enough. The location and the menu and the pricing and the food. They’re as good as a lot of really good places like them. So they use their juice to think up ways they can be different, where different equals better. (And I’m pretty sure they’re also just constantly looking to be better, period.) They’re going at it from a Seth-Godin, purple-cow perspective. Which, in the absence of hard evidence as to what makes for success, makes as much sense as anything and more than most things.

I’m good enough. Maybe someone else who’s good enough also got some lucky combo platter of timing and location and even connections or context on her side, and she’s whooping it up with the career I long for right now. Maybe I’ll never get my version of that career. But damned if I can’t keep figuring out ways to be better, or different-better, or more focused and deliberate about putting in my 10,000 hours (the 10,000-hour rule being something Gladwell also talks about in the new book). I mean, I’m here anyway: might as well work at something.

If nothing else, it’s something to write about.


Image by cmaccubbin via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. I read and enjoyed Gladwell’s book Blink, but you have to take him with a HUGE grain of salt. He reads lots of other people’s research and extrapolates conclusions from them that often weren’t the focus of the studies. What he suggests may be true, but it’s hardly proven even though he has lots of sources.

    As for IQ stuff… a boss I had in SF loved to say “A students work for B students work for C students.” At least I cut out the middle tier with him making it A for C, but he had a point. Success rarely has to do with intelligence in my experience. Instead of 20 more IQ points, you’d do better to be more social and extroverted. Success is tied more to networking than intelligence or even (unfortunately) skills. If you’re smart and social, great, but if you’re just smart, I think you’ll have more trouble than someone of average intelligence who’s social.

    Also, being tall doesn’t do much but put high shelves in reach. Don’t get me wrong, I love being tall, but finding clothes that fit is a real bitch.

  2. I agree with Claire that Gladwell is probably of more a provoker of ideas and discussion than a writer of reference books, but I too was jolted by the idea that beyond the threshold might be gravy but it’s not necessary. It’s just another way of making you realise that you yourself are responsible; wishing and what-if-ing puts the responsibility on to circumstances, genes, education, wasted opportunities. Accepting the threshold idea frames it more in terms of what you’re able to do right now.

    But still, I always wish I could be slightly shorter. It’s not like I’m supermodel height (5′ 8″) but it’s still enough to tower over my group of friends, to feel slightly uncomfortably taller than many men (as a feminist this shouldn’t even occur to me, but social conditioning plays its part), and way too tall to wear heels without having to spoil the effect by then hunching over to hear what others have to say. We all want a little something that isn’t us, I suppose, but Gladwell’s idea – that the something that isn’t us isn’t really important – is tremendously important.

  3. Fantastic perspective for the day, Colleen! Thank you. I needed to read this. (Are we in some sort of mind-meld jet stream of consciousness these days?)


  4. Claire & Fionnuala – Agreed on Gladwell. I think (esp. after hearing him speak) that he’s sort of a merry prankster. He spoke at length about a pivotal friendship from his youth with a guy who loved breaking things to see how they went back together. And risk-taking, and games, and cheating. He has a rather unusual perspective on that sort of stuff.

    Your boss was SO right, C. Soooo right. I saw it all the time in advertising. Very rare that the kind of skill needed to produce work and the kind of skill that got you up the ladder were resident in the same corpus.

    I even hear you guys on the height thing. I guess…I guess I wish I could just take a vacation or a sabbatical from being short. Just to see. In the same way I’d really quite like to trial different plumbing and a Y chromosome and such. Just to see. You know.

    All good. Especially that last. Thanks, ladies.

    Alexis – The mind meld happens. Like cycling. It just does. Thank you!

  5. Love the story about Matt & Jacquie. It’s the simple acts of innovating with what you have that allow people to make a living, and make our world a better place.

    With all the doom and gloom about the economy, it’s those simple (yet always scary) act of trying something new and putting yourself out there that will make all our tomorrows brighter.

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