As parents, we all want our kids to grow up to be happy, successful, well-adjusted adults. So, along with our many parenting duties, we encourage our kids with various bits of “sage” advice that we have picked up over the years (and perhaps our parents told us!). I want to make a case against some advice that we commonly tell our kids: Always try your best.
Clearly, our intentions are good when we offer this advice. But, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Now, let’s take a closer look at this phrase: ALWAYS try your BEST. When we really examine what we are saying, that’s when it falls apart. Do we really want our kids to always try their best? How about this: Do WE always try our best? I sure don’t. When I wash dishes, cook, fold the laundry, write a blog, and do a myriad of other activities, I don’t always try my best. I usually aim for “good enough.” I calibrate my effort depending upon the nature of the task and the need (or desire) to do well on the task. Sure, sometimes I try my best, but certainly not every time. I strategically try my best.
I am by no means an elite runner, but I go at a pretty nice clip. I’ve run a number of races, including 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons, marathons, and some adventure races as well. Now, when I am running a race, I typically try really hard to finish in a good time. I’m hesitant to say that I try my best because I could imagine that, if someone were to say that they were going to blow up the world if I didn’t run faster, I could probably find it in me somewhere to pick up the pace a bit.
But when I think of trying my best, I think that I would also train my hardest between races. Maybe I hire a running coach, maintain a very intensive daily training regimen, overhaul my diet, totally give up eating any junk food, start taking the best supplements, get a massage therapist, and so on. Basically, I would start to train like an Olympian. The way I see it, that would be trying my best. I definitely don’t do that. Now ponder the advice to always try your best. Doesn’t it imply that one is pulling out all of the stops?
Let’s pretend that I’m trying to use this “sage” advice in my own life and trying to be the best husband, father, neighbor, psychologist, blogger, gardener, brother, runner, supervisor, presenter, laundry folder, and so on. The list is endless. Now, you can probably see how ridiculous AND inherently contradictory this is. At a certain point, being the best husband comes into conflict with being the best presenter, father, psychologist, etc. I just can’t be the best at all of them. My time is finite. There’s only so much effort and energy that I can use in a day. I have to judiciously pick and choose how to spend them.
Let’s turn this advice on our kids now. How can our kids be the best student AND best soccer player AND best doer of chores AND best pianist AND best chess player AND best friend AND best at Fortnite (You see, you don’t even want to go there!).
Let’s take a more specific example. Suppose your high school son has two big finals the next day – one in chemistry and one in history, and he has an 69 average in chemistry and a 97 in history. When studying the night before, should he “try his best” on both finals? With limited time available and being on the brink of failing chemistry and earning a high “A” in history, it would seem that he should spend more time in chemistry to ensure that he passes the class rather than history. So, in this case, it would be unwise for him to “try his best” in history. However, we might encourage him to try his best to do well and that chemistry final while doing “good enough” to maintain a solid “A” in history.
There are countless other examples that we could use to see how always try your best is bad advice (e.g., softball game at the company picnic). As parents, when we really examine the advice to always try your best we can see that it doesn’t make much sense at all. In fact, it is a recipe for failure (because the maxim inherently cannot be achieved) and can contribute to the development of perfectionism, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy.
When it comes to advising our kids, let’s be careful about our pithy maxims. What do we really want for them? We want them to be happy. By that, we really mean the deep-rooted sense of contentment that comes from having strong social connections and being engaged with life. True happiness in life is not achieved through always trying our best. Thus, advising our kids to do this does not serve the goal of raising our children to be happy and well-adjusted. In fact, it diverts their attention from what matters most in life.
Ultimately, we want our kids to make mindful, judicious decisions in life. Time and energy are limited resources, and it is critical that they learn how to spend them wisely. Our kids need to learn when it is important to turn on the juice, and when they can take their effort down a few notches. Blindly following a maxim to always try your best does not fit the bill. While this advice is well-intended, it is unrealistic and misses the mark. For me, I like the advice: Don’t always work hard. Work smart. I’m sure we can poke holes in that one too, but it is closer to what we want for our kids…and what we strive for ourselves.