Are We Really Doing Our Best?

March 1, 2017

Personal Growth

Assuming Others Aren't Doing Their Best. 

I couldn’t possibly count the number of times that children, parents, spouses, lovers, employers, and others have called to complain that their parents, children, spouses, lovers, employees and others are being insufficiently responsible, respectful, careful, productive, loving, kind, attentive, and more. Occasionally they also call to bemoan their own inadequacies.

I often respond to the wife who calls about her husband, for example, that he is doing the best he can in the moment with his unique combination of genetics, learning as a child, experiences as an adult, epigenetic endowment, and spiritual gifts—to name just a few influences. If you know that someone is doing their best, how could you possibly complain about how they’re doing, or be angry that they’re not doing better? If you know that someone is mentally handicapped, for example, is it reasonable to be impatient that they’re not doing better in algebra? Absurd.

Let’s look at another practical example of someone doing their best. Most children begin walking on their own between nine and twelve months. But some children begin walking as late as sixteen or seventeen months, a considerable delay that has proven neither to cause nor predict any negative effects later in the child’s life. Would any reasonable person assume that the child who first walks at seventeen months is not doing his best? No. There are simply factors involved that we do not understand.

Assume that We Are Doing Our Best

So why ever assume that anyone is doing less than their best, whether as a child or as an adult? I propose that we do our best simply because it’s what we naturally want to do.

But how can I say such a thing? How can I know that someone is doing his or her best?

  1.  I can’t really know, not with a certainty.
  2. I can’t really know that someone is NOT doing their best either.

So, if we can’t know whether people are doing their best, we can only make an assumption. What, then, is the best assumption? Let’s examine the options:

Assume that people are doing their best. What are the advantages?
When they make mistakes, we will feel tolerant, accepting, even kindly toward them.
When they make mistakes, we will feel naturally disposed to forgive them and even help them.
When they make mistakes, we will not feel irritated. It would make no sense, as we described above.
People feel encouraged by our trust and support, and in turn they tend to respond with greater happiness and responsibility.
Assume that people are doing their best. What are the disadvantages?
We might get fooled once in while. People might not be doing their best while we believe they are. We might, therefore, trust people, only to discover that our trust was betrayed. We’d feel foolish.
Assume that people are not doing their best. What are the advantages?
We can accuse them of not trying hard enough as they interact with us. This will give us a brief feeling of power as we attempt to motivate them, but it won’t work long-term.
We can justify our distrust and criticism of people.
Assume that people are not doing their best. What are the disadvantages?
We communicate condescension and contempt, which never has positive results.
We alienate people.
We feel superior to them.
We justify our judgments and criticisms—an illusory advantage.

In summary, if we assume people are doing their best, we are happier, and we tend to promote greater happiness and productivity in others. If we assume they’re not doing their best, we foster contempt and contention.

Why We Choose a Negative Assumption

Considering the advantages, then, why not just assume that people are doing their best? This is not a rhetorical question. We choose not to make that positive assumption because:

  1. We almost never saw it as children. When a child spills milk across the dining room table, this is almost uniformly followed by a lecture about the evils of being careless, a lecture the child has heard dozens of times before. Such repetition would occur only if the parents were assuming that the child was not doing his best and needed to be told that milk is easier to drink from the glass rather than lapped up off the table surface. When my children were very young, and they spilled liquids across the table, I didn’t even look up. They knew where the washcloths were, and they simply cleaned up their mess. No irritation, no lecture. Why? I assumed they were doing their best and simply made a mistake, from which they learned.
  2. We’re afraid we’ll be taken advantage of. We assume that people are inherently lazy and irresponsible, which is why we become irritated at them when they fail to do something properly. If we assumed they were doing their best, we would either say nothing—assuming that they would learn from the mistake—or we would simply educate them so they could perform more effectively. But we would not feel annoyed.

How I Can KNOW that People are Doing their Best

Back to the original question of this blog. How can I KNOW that people—including me—are doing their best?

First, I can tell you that pretty much nobody has the right to tell me whether I am doing my best. How could they possibly know that? They don’t know each of the 3.2 billion base pairs of my genome. They don’t know how I was raised. They don’t know what other environmental, spiritual, and emotional influences have contributed to my being myself. In fact, I don’t know all those things either, so even I don’t know for certain when I’m doing my best.

Yes, but what if I agree to complete a task, and I fail to do it? Surely then I didn’t do my best. No, I can’t know that, because what if I lacked some specialized brain function to complete it? What if I was just in the incubation period of an illness that impaired me physically and mentally, even though it wasn’t apparent at the time? What if I was depressed, for reasons I did not understand? What if the task triggered some episode of PTSD that I was unaware of? Knowing when I’m doing my best is pretty tough, and even harder to judge for someone else.

But what about somebody who just lies around on the couch and watches television all day, doing nothing that remotely resembles productivity? Surely that person isn’t doing their best. Again, we can’t know. What if nobody ever showed that person how to work, so they never felt a sense of fulfillment from working? What if they’re mentally or psychologically impaired? What if they’ve never experienced a successful moment in their entire lives, and they’ve just given up emotionally, with not an ounce of willpower remaining? In that case, what appears to be laziness—by definition not doing one’s best—may simply be a sense of utter futility.

This is NOT to say that “I’m doing my best” should be used as an excuse, but only that we should be slow to make the judgment that we are NOT doing our best. To further complicate this potential misjudgment, we tend to judge “our best” compared to what others can do, which is very foolish. Or we compare “our best” to what we envision ourselves doing under optimum circumstances, or in the future with more experience. Equally foolish.

Personally, I choose to believe that—on the whole—people are doing their best. I can’t know that they’re not, so why not make a positive assumption? What matters much more to me is what I am doing to make my best better, and to help others do the same. Now THAT is an assessment worth making.

On most days I am confident that I did the best I could, which means that I did what I could with my skills, intelligence, physical strength, health, and more. And although I’m generally satisfied with my best, I do try to learn from each day and be a little wiser and stronger the next day. My goal, again, is not to fuss so much about what my best is, but whether I’m trying to be better.

When referring to the behavior of others—no matter how unacceptable or defective—I prefer to say, "I believe he's doing his best, but how can I help him to do better, because sometimes doing our best is not good enough." That is, after all, the whole reason we learn and grow, so that our best becomes better.

Let’s keep it simple. Let’s do the best we can according to our various capacities today, and then let’s make it better. We’ll make mistakes, so today’s best might not even be as good as yesterday’s. So, we just try again tomorrow. We learn, we move on, and we make our best better—over and over again.

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