The Mixed Message of 'Just Do Your Best'
“Just do your best,” it’s not that hard right? You don’t have to ace the math test or perform a flawless dance routine, or even be an amazing friend, you just have to make the effort to. No one is grading you, only you are, which is really helpful right because it’s not like we’re all our own worst critics or anything!
Oprah Winfrey once said, “Doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment,” and rewind to the 19th century when James DeKoven preached, “work hard, play hard, (pray hard)”; and now fast forward to yesterday right before my in-class final writing report when my teacher told us we’d all do great “if you just do your best,” of course. The point is, these words of proactiveness and self determination have been around forever, and I’m sure they’ve motivated many to become who they are; but they’ve also caused many to not become what they could have become, and I know this because I’ve gone through it.
As inspirational as it may sound for someone to tell a wary person that there are no expectations for them, but to only put forth their best effort, it’s also a lot of pressure, especially internally. It’s almost the equivalent of telling a teenager to “be themselves,” which is a whole other story, of course. When someone tells me I should “do my best,” I’m immediately sent spiraling into: ‘Well, what is my best? How will I know when I’ve done my best? Is my best as good as someone else's best? How do I improve my ‘best’? It’s painstaking and ultimately just so stressful, which is ironic, because these words are supposed to relieve someone of their stress.
According to recent estimations, over 30% of the world’s population are perfectionists, and you can imagine what it’s like to be told to work hard when you’re constantly already working hard. It’s not fun. There’s also something that feels so icky to me about the phrase “work hard, play hard.” In my perspective it gives the impression that in order to deserve to relax, to find some joy in leisure, you have to first push yourself to the standards of what society labels as self-discipline. Of course it’s important to have a balance between striving to feel accomplished and having some indulgence as well, but it’s also important to understand how these sorts of mottos can impact over-achievers. In the past I struggled to find an adequate definition of “hard,” and what it truly meant to work hard. I fell into a pattern of pushing myself so much, anticipating the time where I would finally feel satisfied and would essentially be allowed to relax. I worked so hard there wasn’t any time to play hard, but I kept at it, hoping that if I just studied a bit longer, ran a bit longer, or smiled a bit bigger, then I might possibly be able to pop open a bag of Doritos and watch some TV. This never happened, and it was a sad time, especially because now I have to rewatch all the episodes of Kanye and Kim that I missed knowing that they're currently having petty Twitter wars over Pete Davidson. Soon after though I started to give up, I felt that there was no point in doing my best when I would never reach it. This of course came with consequences of its own.
Yes, not everyone ends up burnt out after too many years of being told to “put in your best effort,” but the people that do reach their dreams are not always actually happy. Take Alexander Hamilton for example, do you really think he was happy when he stayed up all night writing 51 essays about the U.S Constitution? Or Harry Houdini who literally died saying “I’m tired of fighting?” I don’t know. But what I do know is that we need to start approaching inspiration from a different angle, and rather than encouraging kids to push themselves “as hard as they can,” tell them to live life. Yeah, they’ll start wondering what life really is, but all of us do, constantly, and that’s what keeps us alive. When it comes down to it, as much as we believe we enjoy being lazy and doing legitimately nothing, we also like to get out of the house and do something we’re passionate about and put our ideas into action.
We don’t need to be constantly told to “be our best,” because we already are. When we “live hard” we are also working hard, we are playing hard, and most importantly we’re being ourselves, without even realizing it. It’s effortless, actually.
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