He tried to do his best
But he could not.
Neil Young – Tired Eyes
“Just do your best.”
“I give 100% (or, illogically but enthusiastically, 110% or 1000%) every day.”
“I tried my best.”
“Leave it all on the field.”
“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” -Henry “Red” Sanders
For some reason, I've been thinking about percentages lately. This ideal has been chewing my ass forever. I took it to heart as a child and have only recovered from it (a little) at an intellectual level; I still feel it at my core. Confession: I do not give 100% every day, in the way that those exhortations imply. Maybe I should state that “in the way that I hear these aphorisms”; but I think I’m hearing exactly what they mean. If you have any tendency toward self-doubt, or maybe even merely introspection, isn’t there always the opportunity to question your total commitment? Did I really give a full 100% to that effort? Isn’t there something I could have done… Better? Faster? Cleaner? Prettier? More? Whatever?
“Do you best.“ is not an exhortation, it’s an order, with an implied consequence for failure to do so.
As always, I only speak knowledgeably from myself and of myself, but I’ve known a lotta other guys over the years and I’m gonna bravely generalize from that experience and a Bergsonian intuition, ok? American boys/men are indoctrinated from their earliest age that life is a competition and ya gotta win, presumably by doing your best and giving 100%. The inescapable lemma of that is that you’re competing against others and the way to win is to beat them. They must lose. The very definition of a zero-sum game.
Happily, I got over that particular belief early on. I was never very comfortable with the zero-sum model for human interactions and I was smugly pleased with myself for not being suckered into an endless nightmare life of feeling eternally competed against in all aspects of my existence with the consequence of being the LOSER if I wasn’t the winner. That shit wears ya down. However, the competition model I did hold onto is competition with myself. Well, the “myself” which is actually the demon I allowed to possess me, lo!, those many years ago, the demon whose name is Legion and whose cognomen is (Asinine) Culturally Imposed Beliefs.
A while back I did a post where I referenced my delight with myself for being less interested in defeating my opponent than in bettering my own skills, in the example/metaphor of a tennis game. How superior and enlightened of me. Well, maybe. At a simplistic level, anyway. But let’s dissect that a bit.
In that post I said:
I'm rushing the net. My opponent just made a poor return which is floating toward me and which I can do anything I want with. I can choose to make the high-percentage put-away shot, which I can make 99 times out of 100 and which will certainly win me the point, game, set, or even match. It's the sure winner. Or I can try for the high-skill shot, the difficult one which I make maybe 30 times out of 100, the shot which challenges me but which doesn't really benefit my score in the game. Quite the opposite, by trying that shot, I have a 70% chance of giving away a sure point.
If the important thing to me is winning this particular game or, more generally, playing the game with an overall philosophy that winning is the most important part of the game to me, then I'll probably choose the 99% sure shot. However, if my philosophy is more inclined toward challenging myself rather than being concerned with a particular outcome of a particular game, then I'm thinking about trying the low-percentage shot.
Perhaps this is merely the ultimate egotistical version of “Do your best.” Is it possible that what I’m really saying here is that my opponent is so far beneath my level that he’s not really a factor in my game? He’s no more important or meaningful than a practice wall or ball machine. The true competition is against me, the incredible, transcendental, striving-for-perfection demigod incarnate, Frank the Nonpareil, Emperor of Eternity, Imperator of Infinity. Ave, Franko, morituri te salutamus!
In that context, I’m even more of an indoctrinated prole than the guy who follows “Do your best.” to the point of besting his opponents and stopping there. When he’s accomplished that, he can take a well-deserved rest and kick back with a beer and an entertaining football game on the tv, feeling like a winner. The competition against the self is literally eternal and infinite. It’s worse than a zero-sum game. It is the Kobayashi Maru of the soul.
I dislike that idea very much.
Come to think of it, speaking in populist postulates, why throw the baby out with the bathwater? When I wasn’t writing about tennis, I once wrote about perception. In that post, I wisely stated there that perception is everything. Everything. Is competing against myself necessarily a “bad” thing or is it just the psychological baggage I impose on it which makes it something it actually isn’t at its root? For the sake of my own sanity, and peace in my troubled soul, I choose to believe that striving to increase my personal body of knowledge/skills is not congruent with merciless competition against my (inadequate) present self to create a perfected future me.
Many of my friends have written lovely posts about being kind to yourself, as kind as you would be to a cherished friend. That’s something which I, again, accept intellectually, but have never really internalized. I can easily and happily do that for others but it’s difficult to do that for myself.
Maybe it’s as simple as that. If I choose to try/do something to stretch myself simply for its own sake, that’s not only ok, it’s delightful. If I feel compelled to compete against myself mercilessly and endlessly, that’s not the same thing and it’s not a pleasant way to live. I can choose to live happily with myself rather than always living in competition with my current self.
Today, I will NOT do my best or give 100%. Or maybe I will. If I feel like it. But I refuse to feel pressured to do so, especially at unrealistic levels.