Many of us wholeheartedly believe that it is actually possible to tap into and therefore exemplify the apotheosis of our truest potential. Although we often hear such professions ad nauseam by athletes and entrepreneurs, when we look closely, it doesn’t take long before we unveil the illusoriness of this lie we all tell ourselves: “I did my best.”
The most honest thing you can possibly tell yourself with regards to your effort in whichever endeavor you choose to exert your effort in, is that you in fact did not do your best, nor could you have ever done so. This is not necessarily by virtue of apathy or indolence on your part, but rather it is because this is information that is absolutely impossible to procure.
In fact, the way in which you could ever truly acquire such absolute objective knowledge about your effort is completely mysterious and always will be mysterious. In no way would it ever be possible for you to truly measure whether or not you objectively did your best. This is because the metrics we use to unveil such information to ourselves is highly subjective.
The metrics that most of us use to determine how much effort we put into something is based on a slew of different factors, such as our individual perception of what it even means to put forth effort, our insecurities, the confidence we have in our abilities, the degree to which we want to semantically compensate for the corners we cut, the opinions of others, the lofty image of ourselves that we want to display to others, as well as our own perception about what it even means to do our best as we may not even be truly aware of what such effort would even look like.
To tell yourself that you indeed “could have done better” even after you have already put forth a prodigious amount of effort invokes several consequences with which you may be consciously unaware of, such as bringing forth further stress and suffering in the form of self-loathing. This is unfortunately the fate of many perfectionists.
As someone who believes there is no free will, to say that you could have acted in a way that was antithetical or even slightly different to how you initially acted makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. If the universe along with every constituent atom that comprises our very reality were to remain completely unchanged, it is not only nonsensical to entertain the delusion that you actually could have behaved differently, but it would also be impossible for you to do so as well.
As Sam Harris infamously stated in his book Free Will, “To say that you could have done otherwise is to say that you would have been a different person if you were in a different universe.”
How can you ever know that you truly did your best? Sure, anyone can just say that they did, but how do you know for sure? What are your metrics for unveiling this information to yourself? Are these metrics subjective or are they objective? The truth is that most people will try their absolute hardest to convince themselves they have indeed done their best even without actually having any sort of stable metrics in place to prove their claim.
Although there is absolutely no way in which we could ever truly do our best, nor know that we did our best even if it were possible to ever know or do such a thing, this does not mean that we should therefore embrace mediocrity and laziness. Indolence is not a consequence of my philosophy on this matter. In fact, what should be gained from this perspective is greater forgiveness for ourselves as we are oftentimes all guilty of being way too self-critical.
Did I do my best with writing this article? No, I didn’t. Not only did I not do my best, but there is also no way I could ever know how I could’ve done my best, objectively speaking that is. For example, it could’ve been 1,500 words long instead of 1,200 words. Or it could’ve been 2,000 words long, or better yet 2,500 words. And who’s to even say that the longer this article is the better it will be? All I can be sure of is that I know I am truly satisfied with the amount of effort I put into writing this article.
How about the straight A student who gets 100%’s on all of her tests. Assuredly she does her best, right? No, she doesn’t. Even in instances of excellence there are metrics which can be improved, such as the speed at which she took the test, limiting the amount of educated guesses she took, increasing the confidence she felt about each of her answers, and so on and so forth. Is she intellectually incapable of taking the test faster? Is there absolutely no way that she could have been more confident as she took the test and therefore limited the amount of educated guesses she took? If she were to claim that she was as confident as she could have possibly ever been while taking the test, then how could she definitively know this to be true? She simply can’t.
How about the track and field star who just broke the world record in the 400m dash. He obviously trained as hard as he possibly could and prepared to the best of his ability, right? After all, he made sure to remind us all of this while being interviewed moments after the race. The reality is that no, he didn’t try his best either, at least there’s no way in which we could ever know this for sure. How do we know definitively that he couldn’t have ran .10 seconds faster if he had trained differently or ate differently? The fact that we cannot answer this question alone is further proof that we cannot definitively know if he in fact did his “best” or not.
With regards to whatever endeavors that you personally pursue, insipidly uttering the meaningless mantra, “I did my best,” will do nothing but emotionally satisfy your subconscious insecurities as well as justify any shortcuts you took along the way of your finished product, whatever that finished product may be.
Simply put, you cannot do your best, but instead you can only behave and act on thoughts, emotions, and impulses that arise in consciousness at that moment in time. You cannot help that you were unmotivated last year to complete your project just as you cannot help that you are motivated this time around. You don’t get to decide what compels you to do something. You only get to observe the effects that such inclinations have on you.
You can’t do your best, nor will you ever. Paradoxically, this should come as great news as this should free you from the unrealistic standards so many of us have with regards to the effort we put forth in our chosen endeavors in life. Does it hurt to “try your best?” Well, obviously not. But to expect to meet this ever-changing standard or to ever even know what it would look like to meet such a standard is and will always be unknown to us.
Thomas is the founder and CEO of PsychTimes.com. He deeply enjoys writing about psychology, mental health, well-being, and ethics. Besides writing, he’s also deeply interested in the many different aspects of digital marketing, specifically search engine optimization. It is due to his love of both psychology and digital marketing, as well as his deep desire to help people who are suffering from mental illness which has inspired him to create this very site.