Today's Reading

We do not need to fall for this false notion. Rather, we can embrace being good-ish, which is a good person who is always striving to be a better person, a true work-in-progress. To do that, we need to let go of the idea of being a good person in order to become a better person. Good-ish people are always growing, which is why being good-ish is better than being good. Being good-ish sets a higher ethical standard for ourselves, because when we are good-ish, we are learning.

To that end, Mary Kern and I expanded on the model of bounded ethicality and have developed a model of "ethical learning" which takes the psychology of good-ish people into account. We redefine what it means to be a good person as someone who is trying to be better, as opposed to someone who is allowing themselves to believe in the illusion that they are always a good person.

Remember our need to be affirmed by Rachel? That is a good example of our need to be good people getting in the way of us becoming better people. We care a lot about our good-person identity; we erroneously see this identity as either/or; we want the identity to be granted by Rachel; and we especially need that affirmation under self-threat. This way of thinking is very human and very costly to the people we care about supporting. It is possible to break free of this psychology. We see what that looks like next.


"It was so embarrassing," recalls author Sarah Weeks. Sarah had no idea how to say her student's last name: Gita Varadarajan. Sarah was Gita's instructor at Columbia University's Teachers College; Gita was an experienced educator enrolled in the Reading and Writing Project, working on her own writing to help her elementary-school students work on theirs. Sarah was thrilled when she had students like Gita who fell outside of the white, American-born norm in her classroom. Still, as a self-described "white girl from the Midwest," she did not want to "offend" Gita—a recent immigrant from India—by shredding the pronunciation of her last name.

Sarah understood that knowing and using someone's name was critical to building meaningful relationships. Dale Carnegie, author of the classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, once said, "A person's name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language." A Google search for "how to remember people's names" yields almost three million hits. But this was an issue of pronunciation, not memory. So Sarah simply called Gita by her first name and avoided the problem.

After the course ended, Sarah encouraged Gita to expand a story she had written into a book, which they decided to write together. Sarah has published more than fifty-five children's books, including So B. It and Pie, which has sold more than three million copies. Gita is an experienced teacher and a first-time author with a fresh voice. As collaborators, Sarah often introduced Gita to people in her publishing network. Still, Sarah avoided saying Gita's last name.

As Sarah and Gita developed the story, they focused on how Gita had written about twelve-year-old Ravi Suryanarayanan, a middle-school boy whose family moves from Bangalore to New Jersey. Ravi was frustrated that none of the teachers and students in his new school had tried to say his name. Sarah had privately winced when she read Gita's draft, seeing herself in the fictional teachers. Sarah asked Gita about the characters' motivations, specifically why no one tried to learn how to say Ravi's name. Gita's analysis was immediate and unflinching. "Arrogance," she said. "I don't think they care."

Sarah was stunned. Arrogance? While they were discussing fictional characters, Sarah's self-threat meter went into the red zone. This was not the identity Sarah intended to claim or the identity she thought Gita had granted her. Sarah confessed. The issue was not that she cared too little but that she cared too much to risk embarrassment or offending someone else.

Like so many of us in an uncomfortable situation, Sarah's good intentions weren't enough and the impact was clear. Gita did not grant Sarah her desired identity or the affirmation she craved. Sarah had no idea how Gita perceived the intentions and beliefs of people like her, and the impact of those perceptions.

That's when Sarah moved from believing to building. She asked Gita if she would teach her the correct pronunciation of both Varadarajan (Gita's surname) and Suryanarayanan (the main character's surname, and also Gita's maiden name). Gita readily agreed. Sarah realized that when a native speaker said the name quickly, she needed help hearing each distinct syllable. She asked Gita to say it more slowly. Again, Gita agreed as she saw Sarah was willing to put in the work.


INTRODUCTION: Good-ish People

1: Stumbling Upward
2: One of the "Good Guys"
3: If You Are Not Part of the Problem, You Cannot Be Part of the Solution

4: Knowing It When You Don't See It
5: The Power of Ordinary Privilege

6: Keep Your Eyes Open, Anyway
7: Look Out for These Four "Good" Intentions

8: Be Inclusive
9: Steer the Conversation
10: Educate and Occasionally Confront Others
11: Show Meaningful Support

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