The year’s coming to an end and many of us, or some of us, or please God at least one of us! is looking back and reviewing their life, what’s happened, what they want to happen next. This is a very useful exercise.
But sometimes it can be a painful exercise. Sometimes…well, there’s one guy I’m thinking of who talked to me about how frustrated he was with himself. “I could be doing much better. I’m SO not doing my best. And what makes it worse—I just know that if I did my best, hell, I could do ANYTHING!” And there he sat, a young man with the eyes of someone tortured by self-loathing, watching another year of sub-par performance slide into the past.
Lots of people feel this way and for many of them this self-torture comes to a head at this looking-back, looking-forward time of year.
But we can help.
Let me begin by telling you something that might surprise you: you’re already doing the best you can. We’re all doing the best we can.
I know this idea is hard to swallow. You look back on times when it seems as though you could have worked harder or made better decisions, and you say, Of course I could have done better. Yeah, but only theoretically. Some other person might well have worked harder or made better decisions, but you were you and you did what you do. What you did and the way you did it was your best.
Let’s say you’re in school. Could you get better grades if you studied harder? Sure, but you’re already studying as hard as you can. If you could study harder, you would.
Let’s say you’re in a conflict-torn relationship. Could you get along better with your partner if you were kinder and more patient? Sure, but you’re already being as kind and patient as you can be. If you could be kinder and more patient, you would!
Once we realize that we are actually doing our best and that the same is true of the people around us, the door is open for a wave of forgiveness and acceptance and compassion. We can stop torturing ourselves and others.
But here’s the paradox. Yes, we’re doing the best we can, but at the same time we can do better. Not by “trying,” or by “buckling down,” or by “getting our act together,” or by “focusing,” or by any of those words that mean so little and help not at all.
We can do better, even though we’ve been doing the best we can, if we get better tools. Tools! It’s all about tools. You could send the world’s greatest carpenter to a job with only a hammer and a screwdriver, and it would take him a lot longer to do a lot less than a much less talented carpenter with a full toolkit. “Doing better” isn’t about giving yourself a dope slap. It’s about something much simpler, much easier to remedy: getting better tools. Everyone, always, is just one tool away from doing much, much better than what they’ve been doing.
We’re all doing the best we can right now with the tools we have right now. With every tool you add to your repertoire, you will do better.
Let’s say you’re frustrated with yourself because you procrastinate. Well, OK: you plus procrastination is you doing your best because nowhere in your toolkit is a crowbar that can lever you out of your procrastination. Merely wishing you weren’t a procrastinator won’t help. Suffering agonies of self-reproach won’t help. “Trying” not to procrastinate won’t help, as every procrastinator in the world knows. But somewhere out there is an actual tool—something you can really use—that will work to cut way down on your tendency to put things off. Just ask a former procrastinator. What do they all have in common? They all have the experience of reading something, or hearing something, that they thought might help…and it did! A new tool!
It’s so important that we understand this. As long as we feel we’re not doing our best, we blame ourselves. We feel defective. And that’s just discouraging. Which limits effort. Saying “I’m not doing my best” just brings you to the doorstep of depression.
But if can say, “I’ve been doing my best, but I just need more or better tools,” well, then get more tools. Add them in one at a time. With each tool, “your best” will become better. What’s more, the more tools you add, the faster “your best” will become better.
The hard part is that it takes a little while to learn to use a new tool and to integrate it into the way you work. That’s OK. All things are possible to those who are patient while still moving forward.
Every successful dieter, every golfer who improved her game, everyone who figured out how to stop being “hopelessly disorganized,” everyone who’s ever gotten unstuck from anything owes it to one or more tools that lifted their best to a whole other level.
But then there’s that other idea: “As long as you do your best, you can achieve anything you want.” I’m sorry, but that’s just bullshit. Fantasy land.
Puh-LEEZ. We all know that life is WAY harder and crueler than that. If you expect to win prizes as a result of effort alone, well, then, mentally you’re still in the second grade. I live in LA, and let me tell you: the city is full of people who came here to become famous, who tried in every way they could, who wanted it more than anything, who visualized their dreams coming true until they went cross eyed, and still they didn’t make it. Now you probably won’t make it if you don’t try. But doing your best is just one of the things you need to make your hopes come true.
I beg you: for the sake of this nation’s mental health and your own we’ve GOT to stop blaming ourselves for not always achieving what we want.
What IS true—and this is huge!—is that if you keep adding tools to your toolkit, your best will keep getting better and the odds of your getting what you want will increase.
By the way, what is the best tool? I’ll add this in for free. The best tool is coach-ability. It consists of:
· Openness to input.
· Connecting to wise advisors.
· Doing what good teachers tell you to do.
· Being willing to change everything based on what works.
· Defining your very self as someone who learns and acquires new tools.
THIS is the secret of the masters: the secret lies not in their knowing much but in their having hunger for all there is to learn, humility in the face of all they don’t know. The minute you stop hungering to learn more, the moment you lose your keen sense of how much more there is to learn, that’s when you fall into mediocrity.
But people who are open to learning, growing, and changing always surprise themselves by how much they accomplish.