I'm sure many of you remember your teachers drilling perfection into you. In my day, we had to practice printing and then cursive writing until it was perfect.
Apparently I have forgotten how to either print or write perfectly, but I have not forgotten the underlying lesson that we should always strive for perfection.
There is a lot to that life philosophy. As a child growing up in Canada, we used to marvel at how sophisticated or bigger than life things were south of the border. When we would travel to Blaine or Bellingham from Vancouver, the pop bottles seemed bigger and the chocolate bars seemed larger.
As I got older, it seemed U.S. politicians were more sophisticated and seasoned, the football players were bigger and faster, the buildings taller, cars bigger and universities better.
Some of that was a product of the size of the two countries. Then, the United States had 10 times the population of Canada. Of course, this means that there was much more that was bigger and better, and perhaps more that was smaller, too.
However, there was more to this phenomenon than a larger population and a greater diversity.
If one strives for perfection, to reach that pinnacle of excellence, then there are many more people to beat out in a large population. To be the best, you have to be more competitive and strive even more in a large country.
Consequently, the United States won more Olympic gold medals than Canada. The United States had 10 times the talent, but 100 times the competitive spirit.
This competitiveness was, I believe, the primary motivator that allowed the United States to emerge as the undisputed global economic superpower.
Since that era, though, globalization has acted as a leveler. Now, talent can move across borders and is often recruited across borders.
The innovations, in sports, universities and industry, can also find their way across a border. Globalization means we now compete globally, not only within our country. To use a familiar economics phrase in a new way, the United States has lost its competitive advantage.
Let me take a moment to defend good enough, though. I don't think it should always be a goal to insist on perfection. After all, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Too often, people procrastinate and produce nothing because they insist on perfection. Yet, to attain that last 10 percent might take 90 percent of our time.
A more pragmatic principle might be to settle for good enough so you can get 10 jobs done good enough in the time it might take you to be perfect with one.
Those who strive for perfection can learn something about the premise of good enough.
However, there is also an ugly side of good enough for those who do not strive for perfection. It can be used as a license for mediocrity. We can rest on our laurels, or we can fail to recognize those coming up behind us.
I fear our country stopped looking back about the time as we won the Cold War. As the undisputed superpower, we no longer feared Sputnik moments.
At the same time, India and China started learning some of our innovation secrets. All of a sudden, people from these populous nations were able to flock to the United States, some to thrive and others to learn our secrets and take them home.
Either way, we took away a different message. We convinced ourselves they all wanted to come because we were the undisputed great nation on earth.
This allowed us to coast. I think we would not have suffered from what I call the "elite's disease" had we known people the world over wanted to learn from us so they could out-compete us.
Of course, we could simply shut our borders so others cannot learn our dwindling secrets. Such a strategy would only accelerate the erosion of our competitiveness. I would prefer for us to recognize the challenge and rise to it.
Ultimately, we need a balance. We should strive to be the best, most competitive, most innovative and best-run nation in the world. We should not settle for those compromises that allow others to excel beyond us.
However, we should also not use the principle of good enough as a way to rationalize why each of us need not do our part to be productive.
Yes, times are tough now, and yes, there are abuses galore all around.
However, we only hurt ourselves and our children if we spend time looking from side to side and not focusing on what is ahead and what each of us must do so our nation can again attain its position as the world's economic engine.
Colin Read is the chair of the Department of Economics and Finance at SUNY Plattsburgh. His seventh book, Great Minds in Finance — the Portfolio Theorists, has just been published. Continue the discussion at www.pressrepublican.com/0216_read.