Doing the best we can…?

Have you ever heard a quote and not been able to let it go? 

I was recently at a workshop with someone I haven’t seen in years. During dinner, I remembered how much I love listening to all the things she thinks about. At one point, she said something to the effect of, “You have to remember that everyone is doing the best they can – even when they know they’re not.” 

You’ve likely encountered a similar philosophy before. One of the things I heard from my mom while growing up, for example, was “No one starts their day planning to do the wrong thing.” And I often hear or read the “You never know what someone else is facing” line. Both are good reminders.

But I’ve still been wrestling with this other phrase, because of the “…even when they know they’re not” part. 

I understand there’s an argument that if a person was capable of doing something better or different, they’d be doing that thing. But wow, that’s frustrating. Do I have to believe that? Shouldn’t we be able to manage ourselves better? Don’t we want to try harder?

Perhaps not. After all, expecting more than what’s possible leaves me feeling frustrated. Impatient. Less compassionate than I’d like to be. 

If I could trust that people are doing the best they can, how much easier would it be to let go of the things that irk me? The things that hurt me? My own failings?

There may be benefit to this idea that if we could be doing better in any given moment, we would be. So, I go down that path a while. And then I resist. I worry that if I buy into the idea, I’m letting myself and others off the hook too easily.

On Monday, I woke up to a radio report that an organization serving at-risk youth would be closing due to lack of support. I used to work in a similar area as this organization, and I respect their approach. In my current job, however, I recently turned down a funding proposal from them because it wasn’t a fit with our strategy.

Lots of people let this organization down – let down the kids they serve – and I was one of those people. Is that what it means to do our best? As a speaker from the non-profit sector wrote this week for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, “We need to stop quoting Dr. King, feeling good about ourselves, and then continuing to do the same old crap that hasn’t worked for generations.” Am I perpetuating the same crap?

I was going around in circles with all this when one of my colleagues sent me a different blog post about doing our best. Written by Seth Godin, it goes like this:

Everyone is doing their best
What if that’s not actually true? Perhaps it’s more useful to consider that in every moment, on every project, no one is actually doing their best.

Because there’s always a need to hold a little bit in reserve.
Because there are always competing priorities.
Because everyone has a noise in their head.
Because there’s fear, a hundred kinds of fear.
Because no one has actually done the lopsided work of 100% preparation and commitment, not for this precise moment.
I’m not doing my best and neither are you. Because we’re not optimized algorithms, we’re people.
Okay, now that we can see that no one is doing their best, what are our options?

This piece sounds opposite to the quote I started with, but they both bring me back to the same place: we need to consider our expectations and what it means to have compassion for what we can each do – and who we can be. If we start from that place, maybe we can skip the parts where people burn out and stop trying. If we start from a place of recognizing that every single one of us is just a flawed human, maybe we can ultimately go further together. 

Maybe. At least some of the time, I’ll probably keep fighting this concept and wishing for better. But as two separate friends told me on the weekend, in two separate ways, sometimes it’s only when we reach a place of accepting the supposed shortcomings that we can begin to move forward. 

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