Against “doing your best”

Oct 3 JDN 2459491

It’s an appealing sentiment: Since we all have different skill levels, rather than be held to some constant standard which may be easy for some but hard for others, we should each do our best. This will ensure that we achieve the best possible outcome.

Yet it turns out that this advice is not so easy to follow: What is “your best”?

Is your best the theoretical ideal of what your performance could be if all obstacles were removed and you worked at your greatest possible potential? Then no one in history has ever done their best, and when people get close, they usually end up winning Nobel Prizes.

Is your best the performance you could attain if you pushed yourself to your limit, ignored all pain and fatigue, and forced yourself to work at maximum effort until you literally can’t anymore? Then doing your best doesn’t sound like such a great thing anymore—and you’re certainly not going to be able to do it all the time.

Is your best the performance you would attain by continuing to work at your usual level of effort? Then how is that “your best”? Is it the best you could attain if you work at a level of effort that is considered standard or normative? Is it the best you could do under some constraint limiting the amount of pain or fatigue you are willing to bear? If so, what constraint?

How does “your best” change under different circumstances? Does it become less demanding when you are sick, or when you have a migraine? What if you’re depressed? What if you’re simply not feeling motivated? What if you can’t tell whether this demotivation is a special circumstance, a depression system, a random fluctuation, or a failure to motivate yourself?

There’s another problem: Sometimes you really aren’t good at something.

A certain fraction of performance in most tasks is attributable to something we might call “innate talent”; be it truly genetic or fixed by your early environment, it nevertheless is something that as an adult you are basically powerless to change. Yes, you could always train and practice more, and your performance would thereby improve. But it can only improve so much; you are constrained by your innate talent or lack thereof. No amount of training effort will ever allow me to reach the basketball performance of Michael Jordan, the painting skill of Leonardo Da Vinci, or the mathematical insight of Leonhard Euler. (Of the three, only the third is even visible from my current horizon. As someone with considerable talent and training in mathematics, I can at least imagine what it would be like to be as good as Euler—though I surely never will be. I can do most of the mathematical methods that Euler was famous for; but could I have invented them?)

In fact it’s worse than this; there are levels of performance that would be theoretically possible for someone of your level of talent, yet would be so costly to obtain as to be clearly not worth it. Maybe, after all, there is some way I could become as good a mathematician as Euler—but if it would require me to work 16-hour days doing nothing but studying mathematics for the rest of my life, I am quite unwilling to do so.

With this in mind, what would it mean for me to “do my best” in mathematics? To commit those 16-hour days for the next 30 years and win my Fields Medal—if it doesn’t kill me first? If that’s not what we mean by “my best”, then what do we mean, after all?

Perhaps we should simply abandon the concept, and ask instead what successful people actually do.

This will of course depend on what they were successful at; the behavior of basketball superstars is considerably different from the behavior of Nobel Laureate physicists, which is in turn considerably different from the behavior of billionaire CEOs. But in theory we could each decide for ourselves which kind of success we actually would desire to emulate.

Another pitfall to avoid is looking only at superstars and not comparing them with a suitable control group. Every Nobel Laureate physicist eats food and breathes oxygen, but eating food and breathing oxygen will not automatically give you good odds of winning a Nobel (though I guess your odds are in fact a lot better relative to not doing them!). It is likely that many of the things we observe successful people doing—even less trivial things, like working hard and taking big risks—are in fact the sort of thing that a great many people do with far less success.

Upon making such a comparison, one of the first things that we would notice is that the vast majority of highly-successful people were born with a great deal of privilege. Most of them were born rich or at least upper-middle-class; nearly all of them were born healthy without major disabilities. Yes, there are exceptions to any particular form of privilege, and even particularly exceptional individuals who attained superstar status with more headwinds than tailwinds; but the overwhelming pattern is that people who get home runs in life tend to be people who started the game on third base.

But setting that aside, or recalibrating one’s expectations to try to attain a level of success often achieved by people with roughly the same level of privilege as oneself, we must ask: How often? Should you aspire to the median? The top 20%? The top 10%? The top 1%? And what is your proper comparison group? Should I be comparing against Americans, White male Americans, economists, queer economists, people with depression and chronic migraines, or White/Native American male queer economists with depression and chronic migraines who are American expatriates in Scotland? Make the criteria too narrow, and there won’t be many left in your sample. Make them instead too broad, and you’ll include people with very different circumstances who may not be a fair comparison. Perhaps some sort of weighted average of different groups could work—but with what weighting?

Or maybe it’s right to compare against a very broad group, since this is what ultimately decides our life prospects. What it would take to write the best novel you (or someone “like you” in whatever sense that means) can write may not be the relevant question: What you really needed to know was how likely it is that you could make a living as a novelist.


The depressing truth in such a broad comparison is that you may in fact find yourself faced with so many obstacles that there is no realistic path toward the level of success you were hoping for. If you are reading this, I doubt matters are so dire for you that you’re at serious risk of being homeless and starving—but there definitely are people in this world, millions of people, for whom that is not simply a risk but very likely the best they can hope for.

The question I think we are really trying to ask is this: What is the right standard to hold ourselves against?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a clear answer to this question. I have always been an extremely ambitious individual, and I have inclined toward comparisons with the whole world, or with the superstars of my own fields. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that I have consistently failed to live up to my own expectations for my own achievement—even as I surpass what many others expected for me, and have long-since left behind what most people expect for themselves and each other.

I would thus not exactly recommend my own standards. Yet I also can’t quite bear to abandon them, out of a deep-seated fear that it is only by holding myself to the patently unreasonable standard of trying to be the next Einstein or Schrodinger or Keynes or Nash that I have even managed what meager achievements I have made thus far.

Of course this could be entirely wrong: Perhaps I’d have achieved just as much if I held myself to a lower standard—or I could even have achieved more, by avoiding the pain and stress of continually failing to achieve such unattainable heights. But I also can’t rule out the possibility that it is true. I have no control group.

In general, what I think I want to say is this: Don’t try to do your best. You have no idea what your best is. Instead, try to find the highest standard you can consistently meet.

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