Because our society has become so competitive, we’re often advised to focus on doing our best, rather than worrying about whether we have accomplished as much as others. Many people find this advice helpful because it frees them from the stress of always comparing themselves to others and falling short in some way. In a world of more than seven billion human beings, interconnected by modern technology, we are bound to find others who have accomplished more in almost any endeavor. Striving to outdo everyone is likely to be an impossible goal. Even those who manage to set a world record, through great effort, often find that someone else surpasses it in a matter of months.
In general, I agree that it makes good sense not to be overly concerned about measuring up to others’ accomplishments. But there is also a perfectionist trap in “do your best” because no matter what we do, there is probably something we could have done better. By definition, our best can’t be sustained as a long-term steady state. When we’re having a good day, we can do our best; but there will be other days when we’re distracted, or we didn’t get enough sleep, or we haven’t adequately processed a complex task and don’t feel able to deal with everything it involves. That happens to all of us, and we shouldn’t feel guilty because we’re not doing our best at a particular moment.
My preference, rather than always striving to do my best, is simply to do what needs to be done. By nature I’m picky anyway; in my writing, I often change a lot of words until it’s flowing just the way I want it. I don’t need the additional stress of always worrying about whether I’m doing the best possible work. Instead of obsessing all day about the small details, it’s generally more useful just to get the task finished and move on to something else.
Of course, that does not mean rushing through things with only the bare minimum of effort. Doing what needs to be done requires allowing enough time to do it properly. That way, if a task isn’t going well for whatever reason, we can just set it aside for a while and come back to it later, when we’re feeling more focused. And then if we’re still having problems with it, we have enough time to ask for help. Our hyper-competitive modern culture has left some people feeling that they always have to do everything by themselves, or else they’ll be incompetent failures; but in fact, there’s no shame in asking for help when we need it, and we may discover that those we ask are glad to help.
I’ve learned from participating in online creative writing groups that everyone has different perspectives on what makes good work, and usually they’re not shy about sharing their opinions. Of course, what one person prefers is not necessarily going to suit someone else; but if we can get past our defensiveness about being told that there’s room for improvement in our work, we are likely to find others’ views at least somewhat useful.
A corollary of the observation that everyone has different perspectives is that when we try to do our best, it’s not a clearly defined goal. What is our best, anyway? Do we really know? All of us have had the experience of being proud of an accomplishment, only to realize later that we made an embarrassing mistake. As we go through life and learn more about our world, we see many things differently. What we consider our best work at age 50 is not what we thought at age 25, for instance. And by that I don’t just mean we develop more skills; we also gain more insight into the social context and consequences of our acts. Are we at our best when we outperform our coworkers, or when we take a little time that might have gone into our work and help them to improve theirs? When we put huge amounts of effort into accomplishing a very ambitious task, at the cost of stressing ourselves out and spending very little time with family and friends, is that our best? Does the highest salary automatically equate to the best career choice, and if not, what other factors are important to consider?
Although striving to put our best efforts into everything we do may sound like a noble goal, in practice it’s highly likely to cause us to suboptimize—that is, to accomplish things that look good in themselves, but that actually detract from our well-being because we haven’t fully understood how they fit into the big picture. Instead of feeling obligated to work as hard as we can on each particular task, we should consider how the task fits into our long-term goals, and then set our priorities accordingly.