Recently, people in my life have been telling me that they’re “done their best,” and it made me question what exactly that phrase meant for them, compared to what it means to me. Does it include staying up all night on a project and then immediately throwing yourself into the hellscape that is a full 9 AM to 9 PM day? Or does it mean doing everything you can do within the time frame available to you and then going to bed because damn, you’re tired.
There is a misconception that in order to feel like you’ve done your best work, you have to work until the moment you burn out. Often I get anxiety in the form of a weird spur of energy that I’m not creating enough or making the most of my time, so I go into a frenzy of picking up new hobbies then dropping them after I’m no longer interested.
I had always considered giving my best effort something that required me hitting a high standard that I’ve set for myself alongside standards other people have set for me. After a lot of reflection, I realized the standards of “doing one’s best” can be whatever you want it to be. What I’ve learned is that effort doesn’t have to be an exhausting merry-go-round of “I could have done that better” or “I wish I had said something;” It can just be the acknowledging “Yeah that happened, I can’t change it, and I don’t regret it.”
In high school, the notion of doing your best always seemed to be giving 110% of what you could give. On average, I find myself giving roughly 90% and then calling it quits. However, this failure to reach that high standard always leaves a feeling of dissatisfaction and a self-reflective guilt trip. Should I have gone further? Do I need to completely burn myself out in order to have done my best? That level of effort is exactly what I don’t do, although I certainly try.
In art school, doing your best is determined by the parameters of how much time you have and what tools, materials, and methods of making are available to you. Many times, I’ve had a piece that I’m satisfied with — to a certain degree — but it would have been better if I had x,y, or z done before critique. The thing is, not everyone can get to that point of being totally satisfied with a piece. Let’s be honest: We all have other priorities too. There are distinctions between what you could do, what you should do, and what you’ve done, but that doesn’t mean that you haven’t done your best, if what you’ve done isn’t what you should or could have done. Being happy with a piece can depend on the critique of it or on your capacity to work with it until you feel it is done.
Sometimes it feels like you’re trying so hard to make something work, and it just doesn’t. It’s frustrating, and it starts to erode at your emotional and mental capacity. Much like a nightmare, you experience these feelings while they are happening but aren’t aware of the reality of it until it’s over. The best choice is often to let go and take a break. Even just a tiny pause for a moment to allow yourself to catch up.
It’s an important reminder to you that not everything or every day has to count. Sometimes doing nothing and taking that time for yourself is the best you can do. People might consider it selfish, but that’s because you’re being selfish for you, not selfish for them. It is okay to be selfish for yourself if that’s what it takes. Of course people are still going to have expectations of you — it’s impossible to avoid that. What’s important is knowing whose expectations matter to you and how you’re going to work to reach that level. They will understand that you can’t always hit those expectations every second of every day.
When you really care about something, you make time for it. It doesn’t always have to be a lot of time — a few minutes is okay. Even just thinking or remembering how much you enjoy a thing (or people) can make an impact on spending a little more time taking care of yourself. Some days maybe you won’t do anything but stay in bed. We’re only human after all; We can’t perform at 100% capacity all the time. Doing your best can fluctuate depending on you, because you are the most important person you have to keep in mind. When you meet your own expectations, no matter how high or low, that’s when you can work to meeting someone else’s.