Do your best

(First published in the August 2010 Issue of Melbourne’s Child)

This morning I picked a fight with my 6 year old, Chloe. I didn’t set out to fight, of course, but she was really pushing my buttons. Her claim that she had finished her writing homework was giving me some trouble, as her “story” consisted of a single sentence. When I pointed out that she hadn’t actually written a story, she wailed “but we don’t have to, Mum!”  After a brief tussle over the difference between “best” and “quickest”, I gave up and stormed out, muttering despairingly to her father “she’s just like me. I always did the bare minimum at school.”

I spent a few minutes in gloomy reflection, remembering the endless battles between my parents and I throughout my childhood.  The house was often full of the wild battle cry that still echoes around my skull:  “You can do better than this!”

Suddenly, I stopped. These days I have a PhD, a wonderful family, work that both enthralls and fulfils me, and the finest network of friends I could wish for. It could be argued that doing the bare minimum didn’t actually do me a serious disservice.

It was then that I took the leap into full on heresy – could it be that the mantra “always do your best” is actually really bad advice? After all, there are some areas where most people would agree that near enough is good enough. Few of us believe we must do our best to line up the rubbish inside the bin in neat rows. As long as it fits, who cares?

Long ago, when I was a sales assistant at a department store, I was carefully wrapping a wedding present for a guest who was already late to the wedding. He didn’t want my best wrapping, he wanted it fast. Being a control freak, I found it incredibly difficult to do a sloppy job, and in the end he grabbed the tape in frustration, slapped some on the other end of the parcel and left at a dead run. Although I loved to wrap things beautifully, complete with hidden tape, that was one situation where my best was not only not required, it was completely out of place.

When I was a lecturer at university, teaching first years the glories of computer science, we used to talk about a certain type of student – usually Science Engineers – who would calculate precisely how much each prac session was worth, and how many marks they needed to get to pass the subject. They would then do exactly the right amount of work to get their pass, and stop. At the time this was a source of some despair among the staff, high minded academics that we were. Now, though, I see this more as a rational, intelligent strategy for getting the most out of life, which is, after all, about more than perfect marks and endless study.

Realistically, it’s doing the bare minimum sometimes that allows me time to play with my kids, to sit down and read a book occasionally, and to stop and smell the roses. Yet the rhetoric I throw at Chloe regularly implies that if she’s not doing her best, she’s not doing enough.

Obviously, we don’t want Chloe to produce sloppy work all the time, and we want her to achieve her full potential. But now I wonder whether badgering her to do her best every time is actually counter productive. Perhaps we would do better encouraging her to determine for herself the right level of effort in different situations. Clearly there are some situations that demand the best, and some where it is wasted. The trick lies in learning to tell the difference.

Just as permanent perfection is an impossible dream, we can’t give 100% 24/7. Physically and psychologically, we simple have to have downtime, low periods, times when we don’t give everything we’ve got – otherwise we wind up running on empty. I am starting to suspect that one of the most important skills we can teach our kids is how to prioritize. How to decide when a little slacking off is fine, and when to pull out all the stops.

Above all, I need to stop telling Chloe that she has to do her best all the time, because either she will fail and feel perpetually guilty, or she will burn herself out trying. Either way, that’s not something I want for my daughter. It’s clearly time to retrain myself. It won’t be easy, but this is one time when I’ll definitely do my best.

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