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April 14, 2024

Beyond Your Best: Unpacking Effort, Mastery, and Growth with ‘Always Do Your Best’

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One of my favorite books is “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz. It has genuinely become my reference book for life—my scripture for guidance. The book is straightforward and contains four rules. 

  1. Be Impeccable with Your Word
  2. Don’t Take Anything Personal
  3. Don’t Make Assumptions
  4. Always Do Your Best

 

Every time I read this book, I’m in a different mindset or place in my life. It’s interesting to me how you can read a book and revisit it later to find something new and different from the same literature. I love flipping back through the books I’ve highlighted because they reveal the passages and ideas that stood out to me in that place and time. It’s because we are constantly evolving, and what resonates with us in one moment will be different in the next.

After last week’s mishaps in the gym and to my garage door, I’m zooming in on the agreement, “Always do your best.” It’s such a trite phrase, and the complexity of it always seems to get glossed over. When my kids were running out the door, I’d tell them to “do good,” and our family motto is “be better” (we all literally have that phrase tattooed on our bodies).

But what is your best? How can you be better if it’s already your best? So let’s dissect the crap out of it.

Every one of us wants to get better at whatever we do. There are some exceptions, and we will get to those, but research reveals that human beings crave optimal performance. In his book “Drive: What motivates people,” author Daniel Pink posits that humans want MASTERY. The human condition is to get better at our endeavors. If you golf, you understand this because you keep showing up to hit the white ball and chase the white ball in pursuit of getting better. Whether in our jobs or hobbies, most of us don’t want to be mediocre. We are wired for improvement and achievement, which makes achieving the goal so gratifying — because we feel the struggle in pursuing it. When things come too easy for us, we become bored and disengaged. Perhaps the hunter-gatherer hardwired within us makes us crave a challenge. 

Several studies explain this:

Effort Justification: This is a concept from the cognitive dissonance theory, where individuals tend to assign greater value to outcomes they have achieved through hard effort compared to those that are handed to them with little to no effort. A classic study in this area by Aronson and Mills (1959) found that individuals who underwent a severe initiation to join a group valued the group more highly than those who underwent a mild initiation. This suggests that the effort put into achieving something makes it more valuable or worthwhile in our eyes.

This is Marketing 101. We want things more when they’re more challenging to get. 

Contrast Effect: When achievements come easily, they may not stand out significantly in our minds compared to those requiring substantial effort. This contrast in effort can affect how we perceive and value our achievements. For example, if someone puts in a great deal of effort to learn a new skill, the skill is likely to be perceived as more valuable than one that was easy to learn.

I know so many people who are terrified of public speaking, and when I talk with them about the tips I’ve discovered over the years, they put it into practice and get better. When they nail a presentation or speech, it is so gratifying — far more so than for the person to whom public speaking comes natural or easy. 

Predictable Rewards and Dopamine Response: Neuroscientific research suggests that dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure and reward in the brain, is released not just when we receive rewards but also in anticipation of them. When outcomes are too predictable or come too easily, the anticipation phase is diminished, making the reward less satisfying.

So we get it: Pursuing something challenging shoots us up with feel-good chemicals. But how do we know when we are achieving our best? Why do some people cut corners and do the bare minimum instead of pushing themselves to be their best? 

I can relay an example of this when I was tasked with assisting in administering the physical agility test to our police department applicants. Those aspiring to be cops had to take a written exam and pass the state PT test before moving on to the rest of the process. Based on my recollection, we would lose 40% of applicants because they failed the physical test. This was always puzzling because it’s the only test to which you have the answers in advance. You know how fast you have to run the mile and a half. You know how many sit-ups you must do, how much you have to bench, etc. And yet, people would show up and fail because they didn’t do the work to prepare. Maybe I’m heartless, but I never felt bad for those who couldn’t meet the minimum requirements. I deduced that they didn’t want it bad enough to do the disciplined work to achieve the goal. But another group bothered me even more — the ones who did the minimum and then stopped.

I’d be counting sit-ups and watching the clock for the applicants, and there were some people who achieved the number of sit-ups with time to spare and just stopped. I remember thinking this tells me everything I need to know about them — they do the bare minimum to get by. Doing it during the agility test will translate to every other aspect of their performance. I believe that how you do one thing is how you do everything. [Feel free to fight me on this]. My hypothesis almost always turned out to be true because those officers we hired who did enough to get by were mediocre. The ones who pushed past the requirement to maximum effort were the ones who displayed optimal performance in all aspects of their job. 

In his book, Ruiz says, “Under any circumstances, always do your best, no more and no less. But remember that your best will never be the same from one moment to the next.”

I feel that. Some days, your best is simply getting out of bed and putting your pants on. Just showing up to life is a battle when we are sick, lacking sleep, stressed, taking care of others, depressed — the list goes on.

Optimal Performance is the ability to do the best you can. But you have to know when you can push past what you think is your best. I remember when my daughter handed me an essay she wrote and asked me to read it. I finished and said, “It’s so good! But is that the best you can do?” She rolled her eyes at me and walked away in a huff, and I heard her clicking away on her laptop. The truth is, I thought it was great when I read the first draft, but when I challenged her, she knew she could do better. This is a prime example of being our own disrupter. My daughter was in pursuit of better, and she understood that she wasn’t quite there. 

But how can we know our best? Is that too abstract of a concept? Ashton Anderson and Stan Green conducted a study with the hypothesis that “specific and difficult goals have been shown to inspire greater motivation than vague pronouncements to ‘do your best.’ Their literature on goal setting concludes that appropriately difficult goals inspire greater motivation than vague pronouncements to “do your best.” 

So, when performance is quantifiable (that is, you can measure it in the form of sit-ups), doing one’s best is a specific goal. It is also calibrated to be appropriately difficult and, if too easy, quickly surpassed and reset. Anderson and Green concluded that performance is similar across the boundary. In their study, Players continued exerting effort after setting a new personal best, likely in pursuit of another. They continued to want to be better. 

So basically, “your best” is a dynamic standard and not always a fixed point. It changes based on physical health, emotional state, external circumstances, etc. Your best effort on one day might look different from your best on another day. So, the key is to recognize and accept the variability in what you can achieve daily. This acknowledgment can reduce self-criticism and unrealistic expectations. Give yourself a break. 

There is a significant connection between emotional well-being and performance. Taking care of your mental health can influence your ability to do your best.

Practical Tips for Optimizing Performance and DISRUPTING your mindset:

  1. Set Realistic Goals: set achievable goals based on your current circumstances, which can lead to a sense of accomplishment and motivate continued effort.
  2. Prioritize Self-Care: practices like adequate sleep, nutrition, exercise, and relaxation to enhance overall performance.
  3. Adapt and Adjust: Be flexible in your plans and goals, allowing adjustment based on how you feel on a given day.
  4. Seek and Accept Support: seeking help from others or using available resources is a smart strategy, not a sign of weakness.

 

Doing your best means being in tune with yourself, recognizing your limitations, and working within them to achieve your goals.

As Ernest Hemingway aptly said, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” 

With that friends, always do your best.

Onward and Upward.

P.S. You can also listen to this post on Spotify by clicking here!

 

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