“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven played music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
From the time he was little, I’ve encouraged my son to do his best. Whether in school, doing chores around the house, or when helping another, I’ve stressed that giving his best effort is always important.
Some might say that I’ve put too much pressure on my son, that he can’t always be great at everything he does. But this is where thinking sometimes gets confused, leading to an incorrect understanding and focus.
Being the Best
Asking my son to do his best, and asking him to be the best, are two very different things. He couldn’t possibly be the best at everything, nor should that be the goal. But he can always do his best.
Being the best involves an element of competition, whereby we compare what we do to what another does. It requires focusing more on the outside world, and less on the inside one.
When we focus on being the best, it naturally involves putting ourselves first, rather than thinking of others first. As a result, we may begin to lack compassion for others in our quest.
To be the best, we must look out for our own vested interests above all else, something that requires always looking over our shoulder to make sure no one is outdoing us. And when we compare what we do against what others do, rather than against what is truly right or wrong, we may find ourselves out of alignment with our values.
Our hearts often become uneasy as we strive to outdo others, and we may find that our minds churn even at night, and our sleep suffers as a result.
Living this way is not only stressful, it’s downright exhausting.
Doing Your Best
Doing our best means giving our all, and going about whatever we endeavor with our whole heart. No matter how hard the task may be, it’s important to strive forward with focus and determination.
David Erichsen, on his website Lifehack. says, “Doing your best is synonymous with living out each and every moment to its fullest potential. And this potential exists in every situation you encounter in your life. All that is required of you is not to fight whatever life throws your way.”
Doing our best is a virtue. It not only fills us with a sense of accomplishment but serves to strengthen the good things in us. It takes resolve and determination, focus, and perseverance, as well as a great deal of self-discipline. Things such as patience, honesty, ingenuity, and being thoughtful and considerate of others are also required. And sometimes, it even involves blood, sweat, and tears.
Some of the most successful and well-respected coaches in sports, in whom many of these qualities can be found, understand this. They know that even in competition, core values are vitally important, things like hard work, self-sacrifice, and thinking of others.
The great Herb Brooks, who coached the underdog U.S. hockey team to victory against the highly favored Soviets in the 1980 Olympics, had this to say, “I looked for people first, athletes second. I wanted people with a sound value system, as you cannot buy values. You’re only as good as your values. I learned early on that you do not put greatness into people … but somehow try to pull it out.”
Phil Jackson, the all-time winningest coach for basketball championships, having coached both the L.A. Lakers and Chicago Bulls to multiple victories, said, “Once you’ve done the mental work, there comes a point you have to throw yourself into the action and put your heart on the line. That means not only being brave, but being compassionate towards yourself, your teammates, and your opponents.”
Even in competitive sports, the great coaches recognize that attributes such as bravery and compassion for others are necessary.
Doing our best takes effort, and at times, it can be just plain hard. Be it mentally or physically, it can test our endurance and push us to our limits. It may require reaching beyond what we thought we were capable of and for a search deep within for strength and clarity.
As the great Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz said, “Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.”
While it may not be easy, I think most of us would agree that when we lay our heads down at night, we sleep better knowing that we’ve tried to do our best that day. It fills a deep need in our soul in a way that nothing else can.
Look for the Lesson
In striving to do our best, things may not always work out as we’d like. But even if the results aren’t great, if we remember to focus on the process, rather than the result, we can see it’s really in the process that we learn and grow. No matter the result, we can reflect on what we’ve learned and use that to help us improve and do even better the next time.
In fact, it’s often in our failures and difficulties that we learn the most.
Even knowing this, there have been times when I’ve tried to protect my son from hardship. I’ve come to understand that doing this was more about me and less about him. While it might be hard for me to see him fail or go through a difficulty, if I shield him from all of life’s hardships, he’ll never learn how to handle them. In reality, when I try to make his life too easy, I rob him of valuable lessons that were meant to help him improve.
It is in our adversities that we grow stronger, learn how to do better, and develop our moral character. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.”
Life inevitably has its share of ups and downs. If I don’t give my son the chance to experience this, and to learn how to handle adversity and develop resiliency, how will he ever manage life’s challenges as an adult?
When we face adversity, this is when we stop and reflect within. Our tribulations, hard though they may be, are truly a gift, if we can allow our minds to view them as such. As a quote from Arthur Golden says, “Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.”
We have seen our lives turned upside down by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, popularly known as COVID-19, and some have even lost their loved ones. There are other hardships as well, be they the loss of a job and income, concerns over keeping ourselves and those we love healthy, the pressure of homeschooling our children, and uncertainty of what the future holds.
Having been mandated to remain within the confines of our homes, we may struggle with the loss of human contact and companionship as well. But since we have been forced to slow down and put things on pause, perhaps we can view this as an opportunity to reflect within.
Taking a closer look at our thoughts and actions can help reveal where we can improve. For example, when life was busier, perhaps we were not doing our best to take care of our health or watching our thoughts and actions.
Maybe we’d let anger, fear, or jealousy control our thoughts and behaviors. By using this time to take an honest look at our hearts and minds, we can make sure we are aligning with the values we want to uphold.
In doing so, maybe we can be a little kinder to our neighbors, help one another when we see the chance, call to check in on those we care about, and ultimately remember what is truly important in life. By holding good things in our hearts and minds, and by taking good care of our health, we are less vulnerable to illness of not just the body, but of the mind and spirit as well.
The ancients believed that when tribulations befell a society, it was a wake-up call, a sign from the heavens, warning people that the morals and values of society had degenerated to a dangerous point. It was understood that when the people recognized their wrongdoing, felt sincere remorse, and were determined to improve themselves and do what is right and good, the calamity would be resolved and blessings would follow.
Perhaps we, too, are each being given a chance to improve our hearts, to let go of what is self-serving, and do what is right and just—to truly do and be our best. While our modern ways of thinking may find these things hard to believe, this pandemic is certainly enough to give one pause to think things over. The fundamental principles of right and wrong are eternal and still apply today.
Each of us has a purpose and a strength that we may not even recognize. We have resiliency, and goodness within. When we experience difficulties, when things are tough or don’t turn out as we’d like, we learn. Falling down and picking ourselves up is part of the process. Through this process—falling, getting back up, and growing— we learn to do better, and be better people.
Mind Your Thoughts and Actions
Conversely, if we take the easy way out, we may become lazy, complacent, and perhaps even apathetic. In taking this path, we never truly feel good about ourselves, at least not deep down inside. While we may have gotten away with something, gotten something over on someone, or moved ahead of another, where does this really get us in the end? In harming another, in wanting something for nothing, or when we don’t put forth an effort, who we really harm is ourselves.
The danger in striving to be the best is that we may not actually be doing our best. If we see others getting ahead of us, we could find ourselves doing whatever it takes to achieve our goal. We may even lessen our own standards for ourselves, forgetting that we should abide by certain values, for, after all, being the best is what matters most.
With this focus, we may cut corners, infringe upon others, put our work onto another, or worse. If the goal is to outdo others in order to be the best, then we may do any manner of things, from lying, to cheating, to stealing.
It’s long been held that hard work and doing our best builds character, something the older generation knows very well. They were raised on it.
I came across these wise words in The Wisconsin Farmer, dated February 14, 1908 “A thoughtful writer says: “We cannot all have talent, we cannot all have great powers, we cannot all do great work, but we can all, by slow and patient endeavor, build up character, which may do good work, even though it may be small and humble. We do not improve the character of anybody else in any other way so well as by improving our own character, and that is in the power of each one of us; we can begin at once, and we can always go on with this work, wherever our lot is cast.”
Though what we do may not be great or grand things, and while we may not excel at everything we do, if we strive to do our best, to do good work, no matter how menial the task may be, we will be better for it. Whatever our job or role in life may be, whether the president of a company or the janitor of a company, we should always do things to the best of our ability.
Joshua Becker, on his blog Becoming Minimalist, discusses putting in our best effort, even for tasks, we may not love. He says, “I understand that not every job is enjoyable, and feeling motivated to work hard comes easier to someone who looks forward to punching in the clock each morning (or evening).
Sometimes, we are required to do work we do not enjoy. If that’s you, please remember, your enjoyment of work does not diminish the inherent value in it.”
By realizing that even the smallest task has value, perhaps we can find the motivation to give our best effort and to look more deeply at what can be learned from the experience.
Becker goes on to say, “If you are working a job you hate in order to provide for your family, you are doing a noble thing and should be commended. And working hard at it, in the place you are today, is your most important step out of it.”
Being the best and doing our best does not have to be mutually exclusive; it’s our hearts and intentions that matter. Sometimes, in striving to do our best, we may naturally find ourselves in a better place for having given of ourselves, for pushing ourselves, even when it’s physically or mentally challenging.
But even more importantly, when we know that we’ve done our best, that we’ve given our all, we are sure to have few regrets.
The next time a task or a situation presents itself, even if it’s one you don’t like or don’t relish doing, try putting forth your best effort, such that all the hosts of heaven and earth pause to take notice, and see what happens. You may just find that you learn and grow and succeed in ways you never imagined!
Tatiana Denning, D.O., is a family medicine physician who focuses on wellness and prevention. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health.