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Doing my best...?

Maybe not always

I’ve spoken elsewhere about how I was brought up on this two-edged sword that runs you can only do your best. It was intended kindly, in that if one did one’s best, then no-one would complain about the result, the best was as much as could ever be expected of you and if it wasn’t sufficient, then…ok…so be it. The unforeseen consequence of it however is the other side of the coin, which implies you can only do your best, as in you must do it, you are not allowed to deliver any less than your best. Therein lies a problem.


Often asked why I have had the tendency to make life so hard for myself, to hold myself to so high a standard, and beat myself up for failing to meet it, my answer has been that I was brought up to do so. The problem is that I embedded the negative side (the ‘must’) far more deeply than the positive (‘it will be enough’) side.


I’m not the only one. There is the whole culture that has grown up based on this notion of having to become “our best self”. Why? When and why did it become compulsory that we fulfil our potential? More to the point, is it a good idea to subscribe to that notion, to the idea that unless we are fulfilling our potential or at the very least striving to do so, then we are somehow failing?


I don’t think so.


When we fill a pitcher with water or lemonade or vino Verano or whatever else graces our summer tables, we don’t fill it to the brim. Bottles of wine, water, vinegar, oil, always have space between their contents and the cap. We never expect these things to “fulfil their potential”, to hold as much as they are fully capable of holding, because if we did so then the liquid would have no room to move. The slightest mishandling and the container would over-flow and some of the contents would be lost. The space, the sloshing room, at the top allows the liquid to expand and contract in response to changes in temperature or pressure; it allows it to compensate for movement. In essence it allows the liquid to stabilise.


Perhaps we would also be more stable if we allowed ourselves some sloshing room, if we didn’t focus so hard on being the best we can be, and more time on enjoying and making good use of who we actually are. I have resolved to stop trying so hard. I may not be my “best” self, but I am the one that I’ve got and I don’t want to waste me by not enjoying who I am and making what I hope is good use of what I’ve got.


This doesn’t mean that we abandon self-improvement or growth activities or stop seeking to change the things about ourselves that we’re not happy with. It just means that we set the bar a little lower – progress not perfection – and that we separate out those activities from our sense of self, see them for what they are, and stop making our happiness (and our usefulness) dependent upon achieving some pre-determined and necessarily arbitrary outcome first.


You see, that’s one of the problems with trying to be our “best self” . So often we start with some pre-conceived idea of who that person is…and the truth is we have no way of knowing. We cannot know what our potential is, and so by definition we cannot know when we have fulfilled it. We may continue striving past the point where we can achieve any “more”, and all the energy we spend on pushing and pushing is wasted not only because it will serve no purpose, but because it also detracts from our enjoyment of where we are and the good we could be doing, while we’re busy trying to be better.


I have resolved to abandon any notion that I can only do my best. Mostly, I’m sure I will still try to…decades of conditioning won’t disappear overnight, and I do get a kick out of knowing that win-or-lose I couldn’t have tried any harder, but sometimes I am going to let me do something that is just good enough on the day. Some other times I am going to decide not to try at all and see how that works out.


I know I haven’t fulfilled my potential because I’m still learning things. I’m still doing new stuff. I’m still getting better at things I’ve been doing for years. That’s ok. In fact, that’s brilliant. That’s exciting. There’s a joy in getting something right for the very first time, that you never recapture. I also know I haven’t fulfilled my potential because I’m choosing to no longer do things that I have become good at, but that no longer inspire me. Things I could have been better at. Maybe.


I don’t know what my full potential is. I have absolutely no idea what my best self looks like, and I resolve to stop caring…to stop trying to find her. She’ll show up, or she won’t. In the meantime, I’m going to give myself some sloshing room.

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