Is Being “Good On Paper” Good Enough?

Is Being "Good On Paper" Good Enough?

I was sitting on a bench in Entebbe with my boyfriend at the time, in that classic and painfully inevitable part of a vacation where you have to awkwardly fill time with a B or C list attraction because you’re caught between your hotel’s check out and your flight time and the airport isn’t so central to the main city.

Three weeks earlier on Labor Day, my then-boyfriend, George, and I parted ways at Logan Airport having just accomplished the wildly-more-expensive-and-difficult-than-it–should be feat that is a Martha’s Vineyard wedding, followed by an outer Cape Cod one in the same weekend. (I love you my friends, but total pain in the ass).

From Boston, I was going back to Washington, D.C. and George was continuing to Tanzania, where he’d hike Kilimanjaro, then meet me in the small city of Entebbe to start our exploration of Uganda. George had a serious interest in basing his new infrastructure start-up in Uganda, and I was coming along to see how I’d like living there as part of an ex-pat couple.

George was virtually never untethered from his company laptop. However, “when climbing Kilimanjaro” was deemed an acceptable time to temporarily go unplugged. As a result, he gave me his laptop bag to take with me as we parted for our separate terminals. We said our dramatic, movie-esque airport goodbyes. At 25, George was everything I wanted in a man on paper. He was tall, (6’2” or over was my “cut off” then), Ivy League educated, athletic, prior military, in possession of a master’s degree, and also loved Mystery Science Theatre. And loved me. Was more was there? He checked every box.

As expected with one of the busiest travel weekends of the year, Logan was a shithouse and my flight was severely delayed. On my seventh hour in the USAirways Club Lounge, I decided to make some to-do lists, not a natural habit or enjoyable pastime for my theoretical, abstract self, but a necessary evil to make sure any routine or mundane task gets done. Ever.

When I removed George’s laptop from its perfectly weathered leather bag at security hours earlier, I noticed one of his trademark graph-paper notebooks was inside.

I opened the bag, took out the notebook and flipped to the back to get my paper. Soon, I’d have a much juicier way to occupy my mind. On the last page of the notebook was a chart. It reminded me of the ones I had seen while ambivalently car shopping after my beloved 2001 Saab 9-3 convertible met its end.

George had listed me, several known, and some unknown past girlfriends across the top of his page. George was approaching 35 at the time, so the list did have some time to become quite robust over two decades of dating.

Down the left side of the paper were traits and areas George considered desirable, if not mandatory. In the middle under each name and dynamic was a Harvey Ball shaded accordingly to his assessment of performance and ability in each of his listed dynamics.

I swept looks, athleticism, and intelligence, finding brief comfort until I realized those were the “objective categories” that were pretty black and white to judge and did not really require much feeling. I faltered in domesticity (MaidPro was and remains my tightest homegirl, and at 25, I had probably made about three home-cooked meals ever—subsisting on a meal plan of dates, networking events and business dinners), I got spanked on nurturing (I have an Elmira-like relationship to my cat, but that’s where I really draw the line), and I was dinged “physical relationship.”


I did not “win.” If this was an actual Consumer Report, I’d be a very decent blender, one you couldn’t go wrong with. But when you split hairs, not the best blender.

I spent the next couple weeks consulting with (and subsequently driving insane) anyone who would listen to me. I drafted, deleted, and redrafted several emails to George: everything from fiery breakups messages, to devastated, forlorn love letters, to ambiguous permanent goodbyes, to made-up excuses as to why I could no longer go. (Mom was at the ready with a narrative of a fictional elderly aunt who had passed).

I sent none of them.

The above two methods and their myriad of “answers” gave my ego something to suck on and pacify itself like the wailing infant it was. Much how my own “checklist” of qualities in an ideal mate also sated my ego, but did little else.

“Lists” and “good on paper” requirements do little to fulfill us. They make our ego happy. Our mate, and thereby us, are brag-worthy by fulfilling some predefined list of what is good. I recall talking to my good friend Alex about George early one. She asked if I loved him. I rattled on about his sterling education, military record, looks, and prestigious job.

“I asked if you love him,” Alex stated back to me ever loving, ever completely fucking frank.

The question stays with me years later, because the answer was actually, no. We devise the lists of “must haves” in an attempt to get what we want, but when we do it on a vapid level, we are left unfulfilled. While George and I were creating our lists and graphs and checking off boxes for our egos, we shut out our intuition—and feelings.

And it is our intuition, not our ego, that looks out for us and our wellbeing. I juxtapose this moment with when my friend Jay came to visit me when I first moved Philadelphia. He asked me about Aaron, (my now husband). “He does everything right all of the time.” An answer provided without hesitation by my heart, not by a feeling a mate “should have” x,y,or z.

After nearly two weeks of traveling together and nearly three weeks since I first saw the chart, I decided to say something as we sat on the bench outside the garish resort. George was dumbfounded. After what seemed like an eternity, the first thing he asked is if I looked at any client information in his notebook.

What the fuck?

Then, he didn’t say anything. I got up, and got in the resort’s cab line to head to the airport. Where I felt coldness and a violation of my humanity by being boiled down to Harvey Balls, George saw a valuable framing exercise that still showed I was an amazing woman, but I felt like shit. And if I showed him my list with all my checks, I am sure he’d feel like shit.

We went back to D.C. and our relationship was never the same. A few sessions of awkward and pedantic couples therapy later, and we were done. In our construction of charts, wish lists, “must haves” and “non-negotiables” on paper, George and I did not leave room for what made each other human. Being able to go on a 10-mile run together, or going to an Ivy League school, or having blonde hair or parents that are still married are ingredients of fleeting infatuation, shallow pride, and at best-contentment. They do not make honest and open lasting bonds that transcend adversity and enhance our being.

I am not recommending you abandon all standards in your search for a mate and start answering inmate pen pal ads in the back of the National Enquirer (but if that’s truly your thing, keep on keepin’ on). I am recommending you start paying more attention to your intuition and how you feel—because it’s valid and in your best interest. Going for “all the right things on paper” will likely leave you with nothing more than—just a sheet of paper.

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Caroline Gould is a personal branding expert and career consultant based in Washington, D.C. Her signature program is called Self Discovery School. She also writes a weekly advice column on Post Grad Problems. Submit your question or find out more on

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