The case for embracing the "good enough" job
or, an interview with Lauren McGoodwin from Career Contessa
In 1953, British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott introduced the concept of the “good enough mother” (note: it was always mothers back then, but the concept applies to the primary caregiver). According to him, perfect mothering isn’t only impossible, it’s also undesirable. When caregivers “fail” their children in manageable ways, children learn to develop resilience and self-reliance. If a mother met every need every time, children wouldn’t have the opportunity to develop independence.
I thought about Winnicott during a recent conversation with Lauren McGoodwin, the CEO of Career Contessa. Lauren interviewed me for her podcast (check it out here—it was lots of fun!), and after recording, she started talking about her passion for helping women find the “good enough job”. What if—like Winnicott suggests with mothering—the perfect job wasn’t just unattainable but also undesirable? When we don’t expect work to fill every need, we take the initiative to fill our needs elsewhere (family, friends, community, etc.) and that enriches our lives more than work alone ever could.
I’m excited to share my interview with Lauren below, which has been edited for length and clarity. Her website, Career Contessa helps over 3 million women each year with their careers through content, online learning courses, and job listings. Lauren is also the host of The Career Contessa Podcast, a show that delivers helpful, actionable career tips and advice as well as the author of Power Moves: How Women Can Pivot, Reboot, and Build a Career of Purpose. She lives in California with her husband and two young kids.
JW: Millennials have been sold the myth of the "dream job" since before we entered the workforce. Why is this narrative problematic?
LM: Because the dream job doesn't exist! And so we end up with this huge gap between reality and expectations—what author Christine Hassler called an “expectation hangover”—and over time, this continual disappointment kills your confidence and leads to feelings of imposter syndrome or worries there's something broken with you.
This myth keeps people in a very unfulfilled spot where they're constantly looking for something better. And they don't understand how to enjoy what they have, even if they have something good. And, as you can imagine, that does a whole slew of things to your psyche, because how can you be engaged in what you're working on or learn and develop in a career if you're constantly looking for something better?
JW: You encourage people to find a “good enough” job? Tell us what you mean.
LM: I’m not sure who first came up with this phrase, but for me, a “good enough” job is relatively enjoyable paid work that allows you to live comfortably but isn’t your entire world. A good enough job allows you to still have passions and hobbies and interests and other things in your life that you develop and you invest your time in.
Good enough jobs can still be prestigious, but they don’t ask you to have your whole identity tied into your career. At the same time, you don’t want to be on the other end of the spectrum, in a job that’s under-stimulating. It’s about finding the right balance that allows you some degree of fulfillment, without expecting that the job will fulfill you completely—because that’s unrealistic (and unhealthy).
JW: How can we determine whether our job is good enough?
LM: Take a look at the way you've spent the last week or the last month or even the last six months. Is the majority of your identity tied up into your job? When you're at a cocktail party, do you have nothing to talk about but work? Or, does your job currently allow you to have time for other things outside of work? Does your job allow you to work on something that's of interest to you? Do you feel like there's some integration between work and life for you?
JW: How can we make sure that good enough doesn't become an excuse to stay stagnant or stuck in kind of an unrewarding job?
LM: Look, there are going to be stages where maybe it makes sense to stay a little bit more stagnant. So I don't think stagnant is necessarily a bad thing. What’s not ok is when you start checking out or “quiet quitting”. If you’re quiet quitting that’s a sign that you’re not in a good enough job.
So the best way to make sure that you're not becoming disengaged or becoming a quiet quitter is to focus in on the part of your job that gives you energy. Most people have some part of their job that gives them meaning. Is there enough there to sustain you? If not, it might be time to move on.
JW: We started by talking about the impact that the messages we received from our parents had on our generation. What messages do you hope our generation passes on to our kids?
LM: That's such a good question. Our generation was told that if we could just fix ourselves, it would fix everything. We were the problem. We were told that if we just “leaned in” more, or said “yes” more often, then everything would work out. So I hope that our kids' generation understands that there are real hurdles out there—from federal and company polices to societal expectations and stereotypes—that keep people from being successful. Because you can be doing everything right in this country and still not be “successful” in a traditional sense.
Something you read recently and enjoyed… Impact Players by Liz Wiseman. I loved it.
Favorite activity to do with your kids… They're young enough still that I get to pick! One of my favorite things is just being able to put them in the stroller and go for a walk somewhere.
What's in your cup of ambition… Recently decaf coffee, which is really sad because I'm supposed to be getting off of caffeine, but I do not want to give up the morning cup of coffee ritual. If it has to be decaf, fine, but don't want to give up the habit. Never.
Best piece of advice for working moms?… Aspire to be the good enough parent, not the perfect parent. And learn to develop a philosophy or a mindset that embraces self-compassion. The goal is not to get it perfect.
Want a deeper dive? Check out my podcast with Lauren below “3 Secrets to Happiness at Work According to Research”.
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