05/10/2012 09:36 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

Has Good Been Replaced By Good Enough?

There used to be a time when we reached for the moon -- in our nation, in ourselves and in our expectations of others. Then something happened along the way. While few may be in agreement on what that something was -- parenting that rewarded effort instead of success? Political correctness that made offending the worst offense? Technology advances that depersonalized? -- many believe that increasingly, it feels like "good" has been replaced by "good enough."

Why should midlifers, in particular, care? Remember the joke that asks, "What do you call the guy who graduates last in his medical school class?" The answer: "Doctor." Which begs the question: Is that the guy who you really want to see when you get seriously sick?

And there's more. Do you really want to trust your retirement fund investments to someone whose preferred method of communication is texting, or would you rather have face-to-face meetings when you talk about what your financial goals are? How do you feel about spending hours on a voicemail loop while you wait to get an insurance bill straightened out? Have you become frustrated when the guy in the Indonesian call center reads from a script from which he can't deviate because he truly doesn't know the answer?

Does anyone remember when we had just one phone company -- Ma Bell -- and everything always worked right all of the time?

Allan Weiss -- who has written 46 books, including one called "Good Enough Isn't Enough," pulls no punches when it comes to what he sees as a denigration of our standards and our definition of quality. He argues we are on nothing short of a "crazed egalitarian slide."

As an example, he offers up Facebook (which he calls "vanity publishing run amok"). On Facebook, he said, everyone gets to have an unvetted opinion, regardless of their expertise, experience, education, etc. The result is that "every platitude, dopey belief and inarticulate utterance has an equal footing with [the words of] any Nobel Laureate."

The problem with having a society in which we are all supposedly equal, he said, is that the lowest common denominator will always prevail. "Even schools are afraid to call for and acknowledge the best efforts, since someone else's self-esteem may be damaged." In my own children's school, awards are given for academic achievement and attendance. Is showing up like you are suppose to really worthy of special citation? When awards are given with equal weight, doesn't it detract from the few whose hard work results in honest-to-goodness achievement?

But isn't treating everyone equally a good thing? You know, as in one of those constitutional guarantees? Not exactly, Weiss said. What should be equal is the opportunity, not the results. Guaranteeing equal results only guarantees that you lower the bar.

"There is a mistaken belief that everyone deserves an equal finish," Weiss said. "Everyone deserves an equal starting line and level playing field, but not an equal finish. We're obsessed with 'self-esteem,' mistakenly believing that it rests in rewarding everyone, regardless of talent, rather than those who are superior in a competitive world. Schools have actually stopped identifying 'top ten' students and summa cum laude achievers."

The settling for less -- allowing "good" to dissolve into "good enough" -- shows up big-time in customer service. (Note to retail employees: "No problem" is not the equivalent of "you're welcome." "No problem" suggests that your customer didn't inconvenience you when in fact, your job exists to service the customer.)

Many businesses treat customer service as a concept belonging to yesterday. Today customers are treated as irrelevant pieces of lint that need to be brushed off the shoulder of a salesman's day. Yes, there are exceptions. Nordstrom recently sent a sales associate to my home after she mistakenly gave my husband the wrong pair of jeans that the store was altering (alterations are still free, I might add). She made the mistake and she righted her wrong, bringing me my pants. No one in the store so much as suggested that I should have to take the time or burn the gas to make a second trip to fix their boo-boo. Ana Gamarro of Nordstrom in Canoga Park, California, you made my day -- but your company is the exception to the rule.

Some blame the decline of service on the automation that discourages personal contact. Have you ever met a voicemail loop that actually gave you the information you needed in a quick and efficient manner? How about the automatic checkouts at the supermarket? Besides eliminating a cashier's job, these lines move slower, require the customer to bag his own groceries, and have yet to ask anyone how their day is going.

I regularly waste hours of my life playing the voicemail loop game with my bank (why doesn't its online bill pay ever work right?), my insurance company (if the doctor says he is in network and your website says he is in network, why do you insist he isn't?); my phone service carrier (just once, can they give me the monthly rebate credit they said they would when we signed a two-year contract?). The simplest question cannot be answered by the simplest means because companies don't want to hire and adequately train enough humans to do that. Instead, our time is treated as something we can waste while we talk to a computer. Sorry Siri, but at this point, you should know that "call home" is not "call Lori Holmes" -- even if I have the car window rolled down.

Why can't things work right and make our lives a little easier? The answer is glaringly obvious: Because we have settled for them functioning poorly. OK has become the new good, and being good enough is all we care about.