Thursday, June 5, 2008


A repeating theme in the back of my head for a great long time has been, what the heck constitutes one's best? I'm a long-time penitent at the altar of perfection, and coming from that perspective, there really is little which could constitute one's best.

Sure, every once in a long while, you nail something so well that you know no one could ever accomplish that task with a greater level of excellence. A really serious problem comes about, though, if you take that once-in-a-blue-moon episode on as your standard of performance.

The crisis is a simple one: if you cannot find satisfaction and happiness in your life somewhere between dereliction and perfection, you have made a miserable experience the likely outcome.

For me, the way to think about it which helps me emerge from that all-or-nothing mindset is the recognition that life is a marathon, not a sprint. Yes, there will be times when we are called upon, be it by our own internal drive or by someone else's emergency, to give all we possibly can give for a short period of time. We seem, as a species, to have enough grace to come through in a pinch. In a crisis, people pull together to get everyone safe and to help those who were harmed the most in the event.

The recent huge tornado which devastated a small town of a few thousand in Colorado is a good example. Within days, hundreds of people from all over Colorado, and some from other countries, even, had flocked to Windsor to help.

All of us are capable of this response, and I dare say most will be called upon at some point in their lives to come through, like it or not.

But what about our regular, day-to-day lives? You know, that life where it is not surprising to find yourself cut off in traffic by someone who then flips you off? That's one I have never quite figured out. That sense of entitlement above and beyond any limit which normal folks place on themselves whenever they reach another person's outer boundary? It's the opposite of that gracious response I was talking about.

It is just that type of response which, in much less-dramatic fashion, provides the push-back we actually need to avoid an obsession with doing things perfectly. Now, I'm not talking to all of you, I know. We don't all have this same thing going on that I do, but enough people I know share this sense of needing to do things better than just barely okay. A whole lot better.

Okay. So, if you cannot be perfect, and you cannot be a slob (most of us don't want the consequences of that), how do you know when you have done your best?

Here's my answer. If you have a different one, or a different take on the same one, please comment and 1) straighten me out, or 2) join me in rejoicing that there is an answer.

For me, it is a matter of going for the task with all I've got, and then stopping when I get a sense, a simple knowing, that "that's enough." It really happens like that, as if another voice is chiming in, in quotes.

Here's a simple example. My wife, darling soul that she is, does the dishes at night, usually after I have long disappeared to bed. In the morning, when I am getting ready for work and she is snoozing, I put away as much of the collection of pots, pans, spatulas, and other cooking implements left drying in the kitchen as I can easily accommodate. I usually don't put everything away, but I do take into consideration what she can easily do and not do, and do my best (Aha! There's that phrase!) to help with the "not do" parts.

And then, I go about my business, knowing the 'put stuff away' segment of her morning will be a bit easier for my efforts.

Perfect? Not hardly, as the perfect guy would have done the dishes in the first place. I'm not going to go into how this all works in my house, as there are chores I do which might not be considered typical Man Chores, and my lovely wife is perfectly capable of declaring any arrangement she finds unfair to be just that. So, don't bother with comments which are off-topic. Remember: the topic is, what is your best?

Just yesterday, as I was finishing making my oatmeal for breakfast, I thought about how I was not doing my best in this very arena, of putting things away in the morning.

This loops us around to the question again.

Yesterday, I thought to myself, "Hold it, there, buster! I did plenty this morning, and I'm happy to consider this a best-effort situation as I evaluate my performance." (sadly, I sometimes talk to myself just this strangely)

So, we come down to two different scenarios, and two different levels of performance.

Scenario Emergency: We do heroic things like lift cars off of children or raise $10,000 in a week for a person who needs an operation.

Scenario Every-Day Life: We go one step beyond what we need to do, and we do it because it makes us feel good. It's not heroic, but we are willing to do it every single day for the next 50 years.

For me, both of these scenarios qualify as one who is doing one's best. I'm one of those Scenario Every-Day Life guys. I bring my next-door neighbor's paper up from the street to his front door every morning because he is older and less able than I. It is such a little thing it would not merit mention, but it is exactly the kind of thing which I mean to describe.

My best is defined, by me, as doing all I can on a repeatable basis. After all, I want to feel like I am doing my best most of the time, and since I know I am, I need to carefully define it so it is understandable. I have that whole, right-brain, left-brain discussion inside my own head to facilitate, you know?

Please do let me know what this little thought-dump brings up for you.


Olivia said...

Bravo, Rick! I am rejoicing with you that there is an answer.

Much of the time, for me, doing my best is pushing myself to go beyond what was previously my limit. It is especially hard if no one will see and no one but me will know, but I still do it.

It may be little things that will go unnoticed. For example, I recently began separating my husband's underwear in his drawer into "old" and "new"---this because he told me that the old pairs he doesn't like to wear to work because they are almost ready for the rag bag and don't hold up for all-day endeavors like the new ones do. Now, he may notice or he may not, but to me, doing this is an example of "love in action", of me trying to be a more caring and loving person, and it makes me feel good.

I don't try to fold the underwear perfectly or get them to look any special way (because that would be perfectionism---extra effort for no good reason---extra effort that doesn't result in any discernible payoff). However, I do try to have them stationed in the drawer in the most useful way, and now, separated to help him do what he needs to do quickly.

For me, perfectionism (which has no payoffs that are not mainly for the sake of being perfect) is different from growing, doing one's best, or improving and becoming better.

Provocative post...I'll follow this discussion closely to see what others have to say!

A topic for another day = "Man Chores" :)

Peace and love,


Rick Hamrick said...

I like very much your description of perfectionist behavior, Olivia. As a person who can sometimes go overboard, past the point where my doing something any better offers any external reward at all, I can easily identify with the way you describe it.

It is hard to adjust to the fact that my memory, as an example, is not what it once was. Now, unpredictably, I will forget something that happened recently or fail to be able to call a word to mind in a conversation. But, my current mindset is not to bemoan what is clearly true: my brain is doing the very same thing that brains of lots of people well past 50 years of age experience.

Instead, I adjust to the new reality. I use my calendar a great deal more than I used to, I write notes to myself, I rely on email from my wife and loved ones to help me remember to do things. In other words, I do exactly what people do better than any other species on the planet: I adapt.

"Love in action" is marvelously accurate. I am Love in Action when I put stuff away for my wife in the morning, and when I do all of her laundry and usually lay it out (she does that part herself if she is available) on the bed so it doesn't get too wrinkled. Not the underwear, though! (grinning) That's left in a pile next to the clothes which are laid out carefully to minimize any ironing.

I also agree with you that seeking improvement in one's methods and outcomes is a great goal. And, as I have learned, you have to pick your battles when you get a bit older. At this point, I don't think I am likely to beat my best score on the golf course, but I could have the most fun I have ever had on the golf course, instead. That's still possible!

That 'Man Chores' reference was not one I ever intend to write a post about! It is a subject which is indicative of a lack of imagination and any understanding of how real people interact. And, I was being a bit of a wiseacre to include it at all (gasp!). I know you are all stunned.

Thanks so much, O! You always add a lot when you stop by, and I'm appreciative of your time.

Jane said...

Echo what Olivia said! For me, perfectionism is not my bag. I'm far to laid back and I tend to "rush to the end" causing much imperfection (especially in my art work). I think we just have to toss aside the idea of anything being perfect and just set ourselves in motion to the task at hand.

Post Note: after reading Sark's e-letter today, I thought it would be a fun experiment to sit down with markers and paper and create "badly" on purpose. I wonder if some lovely things would come out of it?

Rick Hamrick said...

Jane--thanks for adding to the discussion!

I like the idea of getting some paper and markers and just going to town with no intent but to create 'badly'--you can bet there will be something emerge which will surprise!

By the way, I like your new blogger profile photo. It just looks more like you than did the "Jane the blurry ghost" one you had for a long time.