For most of us, “Are you doing your best?” is a loaded question. We may insist we want to do our best, but then stress ourselves out trying to be “perfect” –– whatever that means! Or we may feel afraid we will be judged for not doing our best and get stressed out about that!
Perfectionism and fear of failure may look like separate issues. The perfectionist in us seems to be self-motivated, and the part of us that’s afraid of being judged seems to be ruled by the opinions of others. What do you think?
The clue here is the level of stress. Stress always indicates that we are performing for an audience of one or more judges. We hope for their good opinion or fear their bad opinion of us. And that drains all the fun out of engaging in the challenge itself, whatever it is.
Here’s what I think doing your best means: “Do your best to have fun and enjoy whatever you’re doing.” Keep a sense of delight and gratitude for the gift of life and consciousness, for the ability to explore, experiment and learn. No performance necessary!
Ironically, and sadly, at an early age many of us are robbed of the ability to take delight in learning when well-meaning parents or teachers put pressure on us. They may have “wanted us to do well” out of love and concern, not realizing they had their wires crossed!
What happens when our wires get crossed
Which wires were crossed in this “do well” scenario”? Wire #1: Yes, they love us, but they FEAR for our well-being. By pushing us to “do our best” to excel and, as a byproduct, to fear making mistakes and disappointing them, they communicated way too much of the fear and not nearly enough of the love.
This crossing of wires, fear with love, instilled in us more or less the same programming that robbed our parents, when they were children, of enjoying their natural enthusiasm for learning. We human beings are hard-wired to be excited to learn new things, to look forward to learning as a delightful, surprising journey. On such a journey, our mistakes are merely opportunities to begin again with more knowledge and wisdom. Thank you, mistakes!
So what happens? We, and quite possibly our parents or caregivers and teachers before us, lost our natural joy. Life IS learning. Take away the joy of learning, and you take away the joy of being alive. Then, instead of engaging with life as a fascinating, ever-evolving series of learning curves we could follow as adventures, we pull back and stress out. Instead of appreciating and learning from our mistakes, we feel shamed and diminished by them.
Our stress is an indication that we have not learned to treat effort and engagement as adventures in learning. The joy comes from making effort and engaging fully — in life! We can engage in any activity sincerely, enjoying our effort and interest in whatever we’re doing. In this scenario, our personal worth and self-respect are never at stake.
The magic of maintaining sincere interest
The true meaning of “doing our best” is to practice living and acting with sincere interest. It helps to remember these 3 things:
- Life is a mysterious gift, moment by moment. It was not given just at your birth from your mother’s womb. We are literally birthed moment by moment, breath by breath, heartbeat by heartbeat. Miraculous!
- Appreciating that life is a gift protects us from the fear of others’ judgments. No one has the right to judge the value of your being –– we’re all receiving the same gift of life, moment by moment. No one is better than anyone else! Someone may have more skills or resources than we do, but that doesn’t make their essential Being any better than ours.
- The most enjoyable activities, and the best outcomes, occur when we are free of fear about an audience’s opinion, free of worry about the outcome. Pay attention to the many ways that Life is constantly teaching you how things work. Appreciate that you’re learning how to proceed, moment by moment, according to the laws of cause and effect –– not according to what other people will think.
How can you do your “best”? Develop a kind, encouraging habit of attention toward yourself, your body, and your breath. Check in right now, for example: are you keeping an easy, open, upright posture? Are you breathing with a soft belly? We can benefit greatly by attending gently to our mind-body’s fluid experience, moment to moment, in even the smallest of activities.
Every moment of our life is a precious moment of living that could be our last. There are no throwaway moments! If you don’t find an activity or situation interesting, don’t lose interest in your own aliveness in those moments.
It’s fun to stay interested and curious about being alive –– especially when activities or situations are not interesting! Learn to infuse every activity and situation with a vibrant aliveness, even if you are just sitting and quietly breathing.
Each breath itself is interesting when you remember it is the creative force giving rise to you and to everything you care about in life.
In the absence of others’ judgments, what does “doing your best” mean for you?
––Jack Elias & Ceci Miller