‘Doing Your Best’ is Good Enough

April 26, 2018 Morality, Motivation No Comments

The title of this piece can be seen as a ‘categorical invitation’, an (auto-)suggestion to strive and keep striving and at the same time not ego-wisely strive at all. The goal is to be human.

People do not act morally consistent much of the time.

An often used example is about a natural disaster striking some foreign country. Two possible scenarios:

  1. You are there as a tourist, safe and comfortable in your hotel.
  2. You are at home, while your friend is the tourist who mails you about it.

Now say that in both cases, you are touched by the misery of the locals and you want to donate an amount of money to alleviate their suffering. Very good!

If you are like most people, you donate more in the former scenario than in the latter. Yet everything is the same except your proximity to the disaster. Although in both cases you do a nice thing, there is still this difference. It’s human. It’s not consistent. Mr. Spock (remember?) would surely point it out. His verdict would be: ‘not bad, very humane, but definitely a human flaw’.

Is this inconsistency good enough?

In leadership

you may make mistakes, but your subordinates are very pleased if only – within limits – they are aware that you are doing the best you can.

As a doctor

you inevitably make mistakes sometimes, through which people get hurt. It’s better to acknowledge this. Your patients still like you and think you’re the best, really!

At school, a child

does his best. Yet the child isn’t good in complex mathematics. The parents are helping a bit and this way, there is no problem. Everybody happy.

‘Doing your best’ is good enough

You don’t need to spend all your resources trying to be perfect. Mistakes are OK. Suboptimal is good enough. Being human is OK, even to Mr. Spock – eventually.

AND: there’s more in this than it shows at first sight.

This is another morality altogether, than getting to strict standards. Instead of to praise-and-punish people into being ‘better’, this is a morality that is intent on heightening deep motivation (no manipulation). It is a morality of kindness and attention, of putting a lot of trust in the motivated individual. No carrot. No stick.

He who says that this doesn’t work, may have little idea about what ‘this’ is. He may confuse ‘this’ with neglect. The opposite is true. The difference lies in ‘motivated’: not easy to accomplish, but hugely important. The core: no one gets really motivated through coercion. It can only grow from inside.

Not being motivated, because of being de-motivated

When a child does his best and then is said the result ‘ain’t good enough’, the child may be quite/very/completely DE-motivated. Next time, the child may perform even less well -> a vicious circle is born. Sadly, this happens in very many cases. This way, children attain far less than their full potential – as citizens and as human beings. A main problem is that this may not be apparent to anyone, including the child. This perpetuates the story.

So, in the end I do need to just always praise?


This gives the praised-one no direction and is actually not motivating at all. This is neglect!

As a parent or teacher, of course you also ‘only do your best’. Very good! With more knowledge, this ‘best’ may be better. Indeed: it can always be better. This is the flip-side of the same philosophy.

What IS needed is deep attention

in order to see that the other one really ‘does his best’. This demands empathy. It won’t work without.

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