There is probably no single person alive in America today (and perhaps the world) who has not heard the advice, “whatever you do, always give it your best.” I grew up convinced this was expert advice, even noble and admirable. We should always give everything we do our best effort, I figured, but this is easier said than done. What does “best effort” mean? Weren’t our successes enabled by a series of conditions that we had nothing to do with and have no ability to reconstruct in the future? Isn’t that the case for everyone?

We pave the road to hell with good intentions

Not that our teachers, parents, and mentors—in their desire to help us flourish—had ill intentions for us, but they convinced us we could control our ability to win and succeed by the power of our best efforts. Failures and defeats, on the other hand, were a sign of our shortcomings and engendered from them caustic reactions like “you didn’t want it bad enough”, “you didn’t give it your best”, “you didn’t try hard”.

For the sake of transparency, I used these same values and beliefs in raising my kids.

But attaching our ability to win and prevail solely on providing our best efforts just isn’t true! I learned through years of athletic competition that some days you don’t move as fast, nor are you as strong as on some other days. Sometimes you are competing against someone who has more experience or is more skilled. This doesn’t mean that you lost because you didn’t want it bad enough, or you didn’t give it your best.

Think of other failures you experienced. You didn’t get that promotion, or your boyfriend broke up with you, or you got laid off. Did this all happen because of your lack of desire or your refusal to take responsibility? I doubt it, the promotion may have gone to someone more senior or better qualified. Perhaps your boyfriend broke up with you because he grew in a different direction. Economic circumstances beyond your control may have caused the company to cut back on personnel for its survival, and so they laid you off. None of this means you didn’t try hard enough.

This is all about fearing how others will judge us

One of the biggest mistakes we make as human beings is to compare ourselves to others. We learned this “skill” from our adult guides’ faulty teachings about winning and losing. Insisting you didn’t want something bad enough implies someone else wanted it more, and that is why they got it. The same things apply to the assertion you didn’t give it your best; this implies someone else gave their best and that is why they succeeded, and you failed. From this you learned to put too much value on success and treat failure as unacceptable.

When we are in this mindset, the possibility of failing fills us with anxiety from worrying we might lose the approval of others. When we fail, we either beat ourselves up for being incompetent, or we blame others. This is the worst thing we can do to ourselves, for thrashing ourselves or blaming others makes us ignore our opportunity to learn something important.

Conclusion

Failure teaches us, while success often feeds the illusion we were solely responsible for it. We are mistaken when we judge things in our lives as successes or failures without having the proper perspective. Over the years, I learned that my greatest “failures” have always led me to greater success. Winning and losing are immaterial, what matters is knowing that every day brings unique challenges and that you can only give what you possess at the time. The most important actions you can take is that you keep trying and learning.

Photo from Canva.com

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