I'm Doing My Best
Updated: Dec 25, 2020
A common phrase, with many uses. I'll put a few here, but I'm sure you can think of some more.
Exasperated kid to mom: "I'm doing my best!" (In my house, this kid is about to get into trouble)
Tired employee: "I'm doing the best that I can."
Parent trying to encourage kid: "Don't worry, all you can do is the best you can do."
Parent to nervous kid: "Hey, just go out there and do your best."
Frustrated anyone: "I don't know what else to do, I'm doing my best."
Parent to teacher: "We are doing the best we can over here."
As a teacher, my first principal to me: "Just remember, every parent is sending you their best each day."
This is such a long time, tried and true saying, that I wonder if we have started to abuse it. Actually, I'm confident that we have. It feels good to say we are doing our best. It's also a great defense mechanism, to throw back at someone.
It's hard to argue with someone who is doing their best, because, hey, what else can you expect of anyone? "Do your best" is also a good way to put the responsibility onto someone else, and take some of the onus of holding people accountable off of us. "Well, did you do your best? Okay, as long as you did your best."
We like to accept the answer we get. Maybe we have some doubts, and we represent that in our tone or cadence, "Ooookay, as long as you did your best..." but we don't like to attack it head-on, because we don't like to mess with people who did their best.
Most people are not going to tell you that they didn't do their best. Have you ever hired someone to do some work around your house and had them say, "I just want you to know that I brought my third tier crew over today. Larry just got up, Phil has been drinking since 7, and Tommy just started today, doesn't really even know what he's doing. On top of that, I plan to do just enough to collect a check today." No one is admitting to this, though it happens all the time.
As an adult, you might, on occasion, be able to get a kid to admit they didn't do their best if you are able to apply the right amount of pressure and actually get to a point of logic and reason. But for the most part, people aren't going to admit that they aren't doing their best.
Everyone says, and I think maybe even believes, that they are doing the best that they can. And you know what, that's all that you can do. That feels good. At some point during my teaching career, I was taught this "positive sandwich" method. If you are dealing with a tough issue with a student or parent, you are to start with a positive, say the tough thing in the middle, then end with a positive so that's the last thing they hear. It might go like this:
"First let me start by saying that I believe Tommy is a sweet boy and he has many friends in class.
We have had a little issue with him biting his friends and stealing their school supplies so that nobody wants to be around him anymore, but he has loads of potential and is very creative. Thank you so much for coming in."
I never liked the positive sandwich.
But that's kind of what, "Doing your best" is like. When things don't go as well as we'd like, or we don't perform well, we can put a nice little bow on things by ending with, "well, all you can do is the best you can do."
Most of us know that we should be doing our best, and I think most of us know that society expects that we do our best. It's the best (no pun intended) thing for us to fall back on. People know it's unlikely to be challenged and people know that people like to hear it.
"I'm doing my best" needs to be challenged, if only on these pages. It needs to be challenged for us and by us.
Here are my challenges:
We Aren't Doing Our Best
If everyone was doing their best, as you might believe based on how many people are so adamant about that fact, then the world would be a much, much different place.
Based on the incredible achievements that we've seen out of different human beings; Things like free climbing El Capitan, swimming through freezing waters to save the planet, and running 5 Iron Mans in 5 days, indicate that our "best" is likely well beyond what we are doing on a daily basis. This is not to say that these things aren't hard, or spectacular feats. I'm also not here to act like a productivity expert or arguing that everyone should do more to maximize their life.
But we drastically undersell what we are capable of as "normal" human beings. I'm currently reading an autobiography on The Wright Brothers, and what these normal guys were able to accomplish is incredible. Neither went to college, came from wealth, or had any unusual advantage in life other than the fact that they came from a loving, supportive family. They went on to change the world using their own two hands, ingenuity, and hard work. For each of us, our "best" is likely well beyond what we currently believe we are capable of, or what we are willing to admit we are capable of.
It's much easier when we are tired, frustrated, and running on empty to offer up the sympathy inducing, burden releasing statement, "I'm doing my best." A more honest comment might be, "This is the best I can do right now", though if I were in an arguing mood, and I am, I would argue that this, while more accurate than "I'm doing my best", is also a false statement.
If someone were to offer a gentle challenge by way of a good question (here it comes) like, "What is one thing you could do to make ____ better?", we'd probably be able to come up with something pretty quickly. That's one of those questions that we don't really like to ask ourselves because then we have to answer it. Then we have to do something about it while admitting that we weren't actually doing our best.
Which is usually the case.
We Aren't Willing To Admit That Our Best Isn't Good Enough
One of the things we don't like to talk to our sweet little babooshkas (children) about is the unfortunate truth that sometimes our (their) best simply isn't good enough. People can be better than us in certain things. Sometimes people can be better than us at things without working as hard or trying as hard as we are.
It's not fair. C'est la vie.
Doing our best is important, and sometimes, doing our best is all that we can do. I guess it's always all that you can do. But that's not the whole story, we'll get to that in a minute.
The truth that we should all acknowledge, is that screaming, "I'm doing my best!", while possibly (sort of) true, isn't always a good answer. How many of us are willing to follow that up with an equally emphatic, "...but I recognize that I need to get better if I'm going to do this job well." Or, "...and I'm going to have to live with the fact that my best is only going to take me so far in this particular challenge."
We wouldn't be okay hiring a crappy general contractor, who isn't fully capable of doing the job, under the unreasonably accepted phrase of, "He did his best." If his best stinks, we don't want to hire him, or we get frustrated when we realize that his best stinks. Our response to someone else might be (under our breath of course, because we are afraid to criticize someone's holy "best") "Well your best isn't good enough!"
What about when we realize our best stinks? I think usually we just pout and repeat the phrase. We hope that by saying it, we'll feel a little better and that the other people around us accept it.
But sometimes, our best just isn't good enough.
What if our best isn't good enough at our job?
What if our best isn't good enough as a parent?
What if our best isn't good enough in our marriage?
Are we so stubborn that we look at how things are going (not well) and yell out in frustration, "I'm doing my best!" and then think that somehow makes it okay? Will the Universe accept this? Does It feel sorry for us? Does the situation our life, our the grand scheme of things alter to our "best"?
The positive here is that our best can get better. If our best isn't good enough, there is an abundance of things we can do about it. But not if we refuse to first admit that it needs to improve.
We Have To Tell The Truth About "Doing Our Best"
It would be great if we'd all acknowledge when we aren't really doing our best. Things like, "I'm doing the most that I'm willing to do right now." Or, "I've got a lot of other things going on, and this is all that I can devote to this area at the moment." are much more accurate than the typical refrain. This is not to say that I don't believe anyone ever does their best, there are just many times where it's simply not true.
Sometimes, we just need to be honest about this, especially with ourselves.
One way to do this is to acknowledge that our best isn't good enough in a certain situation.
Another thing to consider is that maybe we didn't do the best we could do to prepare for a situation. Yes, maybe you gave your best effort during the presentation, but did you prepare to the best of your ability? Yes, you did your best on the test, but did you study as best as you could throughout the week?
If we are responsible for leading others, working on a team with others, or parenting others, I think we have a responsibility to tell others the truth, where appropriate, about doing their best too. Don't let people that you care about hide behind, "I'm doing my best."
We Might Have To Make Our Best Better
It's possible that we really are doing our best, and that it wasn't good enough. Perhaps we prepared as best we could, and we gave the best effort that we could, and we still fell short. This requires the honesty mentioned above, but it's certainly possible and it happens all of the time.
In this instance, we have a decision to make. We can decide that we are satisfied with having done our best and coming up short. This is a fine place to be. No sarcasm, no reading between the lines, I mean it. Doing your best, when done honestly and completely, is a great thing.
We could also decide, that while we feel good about what we've done, that we can actually do better, and we are willing to do something about it. Once we've decided that we've done our best in our preparation and done our best in our effort, and still fallen below where we'd like to be, we can then decide to get better. We can learn more, try harder, get past our fears, find a mentor, or any other number of things to help us increase where our best is.
We Might Have To Make A Change
We could decide that we are giving our best, it's not enough in the given situation, and that there is nothing else we can do. In this case, we might have to change our situation. If you are giving your best, and your boss doesn't think it's enough, and you feel like you really are giving your best, then maybe it's time for a new job. If you are being asked for more than you are capable or willing to give, it's probably a reasonable consideration to look for a new place.
If you really feel like you are doing your best as a parent, and things aren't working, and getting better in this area isn't a good path forward for you, you might have to get rid of your kid. It's not working, try again with a new kid and see if they appreciate your best effort.
Just kidding, clearly. But you might have to get some outside counsel to help you be the parent that your kid needs you to be. Same thing with your marriage. If you don't feel like there are any more changes that you can make, you might have to enlist some help that will help you make some changes to the situation so you can get to where you'd like to be with your spouse.
Sometimes It's About Results
You might work for someone who doesn't care about your best, at least not in the way that we often like to refer to it. We like to use it as an explanation, or a buffer between where we are/how we feel, and what the reality around us is.
"I'm sorry I'm behind on what you assigned, I really am doing my best."
Well, you're behind on what you have been assigned.
It may be the case that you work for someone who can or will give you some slack, especially if you really are making a good effort. But it also may be the case that you work for someone who can't or won't give you any slack, regardless of your effort.
Whether we like it or not, sometimes, results are all that matter. It may not even be a boss or employer situation. Sometimes, in life, the outcome counts the most.
If you are a parent, this is an area that I think is really important. Instilling in our kids that effort counts is huge, and our kids should learn that it's important to do their best. The value, many, many times, lies in the effort, particularly when our kids are young and growing and learning the importance of hard work and integrity of effort.
We should be careful not to ignore the fact, as we teach our children, that they also need to learn that sometimes they try hard and lose. Sometimes they prepare well and get beat. Sometimes they do their best and someone is better. Let's not overemphasize "do your best" without teaching the other side of the story too, when appropriate.
Don't fall into the trap of throwing around this phrase as a safety blanket for yourself, or accepting it as an excuse from people you care about. It's not that people aren't doing their best (but maybe), but the idea of, "that's all that you can do" probably deserves a little challenge.
All of this requires telling ourselves the truth. Think about if you are really doing your best. Determine if maybe your best isn't good enough in a given situation. Decide if there are things that you are willing and able to do to make your best a little better. If those things won't help, discern if it's time for you to make a change in some way, or if you need some additional help to make an adjustment.
Absolutely do your best. Honestly. That's all you can do. For now.
I'm pulling for you,
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