The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

It Is What It Is

If it is good, isn’t that good enough?

Let it be, let it be,
Let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom,
Let it be.
- John Lennon and Paul McCartney (1970)

I have written several blog entries about clichés I do not like. So, in the spirit of being fair and balanced (itself a cliché - sorry Fox News), I want to mention a cliché I do like: "It is what it is."

Often used in sports, the expression has much broader applicability. I used it myself recently in my role on a committee charged with evaluating faculty members for tenure and promotion. Our committee always does a conscientious job, carefully looking at what someone has done in the domains of concern to a university: teaching, research, and service. But sometimes we stray into other areas, and we start to criticize folks for what they have not done. That is appropriate up to a point (after all, university teachers need to meet their classes), but when it moves into what someone cannot do - given who he or she happens to be - it requires interruption. Proclaiming that "it is what it is" is one way to halt the cascade of counterfactuals, including those issuing from me.

If someone is hired who is focused and cautious, he or she should not be criticized for later failing to be broad and provocative. It is what it is, and we knew that from the get-go when this person was hired. If someone is hired who works best with individual students or in small classes, he or she should not be taken to task for not teaching mega classes to rave reviews by the masses. Conversely, a teacher who sparkles while giving large lectures but falls short while leading small discussions should not be castigated. It is all what it is, whatever it is, and we should acknowledge and appreciate the strengths of these different types of teachers. If someone is hired who does not work 24-7 (cliché) and has a balanced life (cliché), he or she should not be faulted for taking time with the family. It is what it is, and in this case, it is probably good.

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Decades ago, when I was first asked to review a book for a journal, I received some great advice from the journal editor. Do not review the book that the author did not intend to write. Rather, review the book that was written. It is what it is.

The point: Appreciate what people do well, and celebrate who they are, assuming that they do what they do well. After all, it is what it is.

Change is possible, of course, and we want others as well as ourselves to stretch and to grow (compound cliché), at work and at life. But it is what it is, at least until it is not.

I have learned that the point of a Psychology Today blog entry needs to be presented explicitly to readers. Really explicitly. So, this one is not about evaluating faculty members at a university. It is about evaluating anyone doing anything: our country's leaders, our friends, our spouses, our children, and even ourselves. What is being done well? It is what it is, and if it is good, isn't that good enough?

 

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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