Being Good or Living Well?

confused face“What do you mean ‘OR?!’”   This was the response I got when I mentioned the title of this essay to a friend of mine.    My response:  When you are old and nearing the end of your days, would you prefer to look back on your life and say:

“I was good –I followed all the rules.   I was consistent, considerate, and I am proud that I never did anything to which anyone – especially other good people – might object.”


“I created my own path, was occasionally crazy, and yes I broke some of the rules, and I frequently suffered for it.  But I lived my life fully, in my own way.  I take full responsibility, and have no regrets.”

These two positions are perhaps a bit extreme, but they help define the difference between a life focused on “Being Good” and one which I consider to be “Living Well.”

Obviously, our choice is not to either Be Good, or to Live Well.  The two circles do overlap, considerably.  In order to live well, we do need to live in a community, which requires Being Good (to a certain degree) and following rules (some or most of the time.)   AND YET – many of the rules, customs, and traditions we are asked to follow are not meant to protect public safety and personal rights, but serve rather to homogenize human behavior, reduce inter-personal friction, and maintain a predictable (and uninteresting) social order.

Being Good manages risk and keeps us and others in our comfort zones.  Being Good is living in alignment with conventional wisdom and the expectations of our community.   On the other hand, Living Well demands that we assume risk, listen to our own hearts and follow our own passions – in spite of what we are told to do and how others would prefer that we act and live.

Being Good is primarily in the eyes of our community.  By Being Good, we reinforce our community’s values, traditions, norms, and role models.  The rules for Being Good are well-tested and proven; there is little risk in following them and they provide a well-defined path to respectability and “success.”  There is often much hard-earned wisdom in those rules, and we ignore that wisdom at our peril.

There is certainly nothing WRONG with paying attention to that wisdom – in fact there is much that is RIGHT in it – unless of course, that is not what we truly want to do.

Living Well however, is primarily on our own terms, doing what we truly want to do, even though the community we love and depend on may have different plans for us.  When we seek to fulfill our own dreams, we are seeking personal fulfillment as WE define it – or at least in terms that we accept and understand, rather than in the language and eyes of others.  It is listening to one’s heart and passions, more so than to the chorus of those who desire that we choose and live as they would wish.

The most courageous of us believe that a strong sense of freedom and responsibility is fundamental to Living Well.  That includes the freedom to break the rules of conventional wisdom, to make and try to live by our own rules, to learn from our own mistakes (as well as the mistakes of others,) and to suffer our own consequences.  Courageous, innovative, and entrepreneurial people for whom freedom is important, frequently choose to leave communities where there is often a stifling mandate to Be Good within very narrow standards.

When Joseph Campbell wrote about the classic Hero’s Journey, he noted that in every culture, “heroes” break away from the conventional wisdom that says, “Stay put.  Play it safe.”  It is heroic to CHOOSE to assume risk, to take chances, to be eccentric, to venture into the unknown, struggle, fail, suffer, and grow.    To me, this is Living Well.  Yes, there is risk, danger, room for mistakes, failure, and suffering – which are almost always part of the deal.   And some who break away in search of Living Well don’t come back – the stories of Chris McCandless (Into the Wild) and Pat Tillman are well known –  and yes, even Cheryl Strayed, who did come back (Wild.)    But these heroes also serve as role models – not for what NOT to do, but rather, what courageous individuals are willing to do – to break with conventional wisdom, even make mistakes, but to live their own lives.

A couple of quotes from John Stuart Mill, whose short treatise “On Liberty” written nearly 150 years ago,  makes this point much better than I:

On Eccentricity:   “In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service…. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.”

On Freedom: “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”

Our choice is not to Be Good or Be Bad, or to Live Well or Live Poorly.  Our challenge is to find the nexus between meeting at least the minimum demands of our community and culture, while also meeting the demands and impulses of our heart, as we struggle to create our own unique destiny and path when there is constant pressure to conform.  While we must Be Good at least to some degree, my choice is to first and foremost seek to Live Well, and to allow myself to be just a little bit – and occasionally more than a little bit – crazy or eccentric.

Finally, quotes from some great eccentrics:

Einstein, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

Emerson: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”  

Churchill: “Great and Good are seldom in the same man.”

While we can’t all be “great,” we can all aspire to Live Well – and that means being willing to venture outside the box that conventional morality circumscribes around “Being Good.”

Think outside the box

There’s a lot more to be said about moving the needle of one’s life away from simply Being Good in the eyes of others,  and more in the direction of Living Well.   I promise that part 2 will be a more playful treatment of this topic. 

9 thoughts on “Being Good or Living Well?

  1. Bob,
    Thanks for another great post about something we all struggle with, especially for those of us in the military. Following the rules and in the footsteps of those who’ve gone before is expected and rewarded, but it seems that those who step outside of the norm get results and achieve their own maximum potential.
    Thanks for sharing those excerpts and some enjoyable quotes!


  2. THanks Amy – the dilemma in the military is probably clearer than in the rest of society, because the rules and structure are so explicit, and accountability measures are institutional. But I think we have that challenge whenever we live with and depend on other people – they, like we, impose expectations on each other. Toughest sometimes in the interactions between parents and children! Bob


  3. Bob

    Thanks for the post. I will have to say I have defenetly lived well and it has been exciting to say the least. I read a similar post that focused more towards the corporate world. It highlighted on how corporations hire someone to make a change and when the changes start to happen the executives get cold feet and revert back to what was comfortable. I will try to find it and send it to you.


  4. Bob,

    Another great post! I’m thinking of showing it to some of the midshipmen. Maybe I’m getting old, but I have strong preference for those who achieve greatness while not forgetting ordinary human decency. People like Eisenhower and GC Marshall are my heroes now. I find that “freedom” from conventional morality is sometimes a pretext used by quite ordinary people to excuse sorry behavior. I forgive the rake or piratical type if s/he seems intent on some purpose larger than mere self-aggrandizement, but the rakishness itself doesn’t impress. Another quotation, from Flaubert.

    “Live like a bourgeois, think like a demi-god.”


  5. Thanks Reed – Roger Herbert asked whether you need to prove that you know how to Be Good, before you can truly Live Well. Great point – like in learning to improvise on a musical instrument – first you have to learn the discipline playing the wide variety of scales in all the keys before you can learn to improvise. And the best athletes master the fundamentals, before they get creative. But then, there is the occasional genius…..


  6. Interesting line of thought Bob… I’m not sure what conflict, if any, you are talking about between being good and living well. I was hoping for an example. The two don’t cancel each other out in my experience. Perhaps I’m thinking about this in the wrong way, or maybe the definition of “being good” is the problem. If one accepts the wrong premise about what that means, I can see where conflict could exist… the whole mind/body dichotomy thing.

    I’ve been of the mind that doing the moral thing IS the practical thing. And following that principle means all the good things add up to living well.


    • Joe- The moral thing is indeed (usually) the practical thing – over the long run, but many struggle to get and hold on to the long view. My point is not so much moral (except perhaps in the Aristotelian sense in which living well is one’s moral responsibility) as it is toward finding the fun and joy of living – and seeing that as much of an imperative as following the rules. My next piece in my tri-fecta on this topic will be on ‘Being Naughty’ and I’ll make the case that being willing sometimes to be playfully naughty by breaking rules of propriety and conventional morality is essential to living well – at least by my definition of living well. Working on that essay now, and gave it a run at my toastmasters club, and had a lot of fun with it. I was playfully naughty throughout my toastmasters presentation, had a great time, and they loved it! Bob


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