“I can’t do this. It’s too hard.”
The class was loud. Thirty two students jammed into a tiny room, the space between desks so narrow that winding your way through them often felt like you were navigating an obstacle course. I patted Michael on the shoulder and repeated what I said at least once a day at school. “I know. Just do your best, okay?”
I was chatting with my wife later that night, and reflecting why there were so many things we told kids that we didn’t tell each other as adults. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had told me to just “do my best.” Oh, we offered encouragement sometimes, usually phrasing it in an “adult” manner, like the suggestion we “pursue excellence.” And jobs required results, didn’t they? It didn’t matter if a person was allegedly ‘doing their best.’ If they couldn’t cut it, then changes needed to be made.
The more I thought about it though, the less sense it made. Most of us had jobs that were somewhat protected. As a self-employed youth worker with no benefits, and before that, a self-employed trainer, I was one of the few working in an environment with almost no protection. No union to cover for my mistakes, no recourse if someone fired me. And yet, my chances of getting fired were still slim. And if that was the case, why didn’t we encourage each other more often by telling people – our friends, our employees, our co-workers, our family – that all they needed to do was put forth their best effort. That it was enough.
Aside from it sounding like something we say to kids – and heaven forbid we sound “childish” – it seemed to me that people felt adults needed to be motivated differently than children. That they needed to be prodded and measured and disciplined without needing simple reassurances. That applying childish axioms was just that, childish.
And yet, in repeating this simple idea to the kids over the past year, lately I started repeating it to someone else. Me.
Did I do my best today?
Am I getting better?
Yes! Today I learned something new, something I’d never seen before in my writing.
You did well.
For me, the last five years had been challenging. Writing a book and sending it out, only to see it rejected over and over and then willing myself to get up the next morning and keep going even as my dream slipped further into the Netherland of nothingness. At the best of times it was a psychological slog, a long distance race without a finish line. It was the life most artists faced, one we chose (and in some ways, had chosen for us), and one we did not regret. And yet, when faced by this profound and utterly simple idea, I found strength gathering within me, settling over my shoulders like a cloak of warmth.
You don’t need to give more than you can.
You don’t need to carry more than you’re able.
You don’t need to bear a weight greater than your own.
Of all the things we forget as we get older, perhaps the most prevalent is our understanding of “getting better.” Or perhaps I should say, our LACK of understanding. We speak often of attaining things, like a new car or a new house. Or, we speak of possible achievements: a promotion at work, a gallery showing, writing a best seller. And in so doing, we forget about the simple beauty of improvement. Of doing our job more efficiently, regardless of who notices. Or learning more about our loved ones so we can be a better dad or a better friend. Why is it that society tells us to measure our life by achievement and accumulation when we tell our children to measure their success by their effort?
Perhaps it’s time for us to do the same. This week, take a look at the areas in your life you find most frustrating, whether it’s your job or a relationship or something else. Ask yourself this question: am I doing the best I can? Forget the past. Forget the mistakes we all make in our lives. Just be honest with yourself.
Am I doing all I can do at work?
Do my kids get my best effort?
Is my wife getting all I can give her?
I say I want to be a writer. Am I doing everything I can to make it?
If the answer is yes, then take a few minutes to congratulate yourself. Buy yourself a treat. Take yourself shopping or something else that you would consider a reward. Be aware of your effort, and notice how different the world seems when we recognize our humanity. When we acknowledge that there is only so much we can do. How much brighter the days are when we don’t spoil this beautiful life with unattainable expectations.
You did your best, now celebrate. It’s time for recess.-Steve