“Do your best.” It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? We talk about doing our best (or the opposite) all the time, especially when it comes to writing. Failed to get that bid? “Well, at least we did our best.” People liked that advertising campaign? “You really turned in your best!”
That’s great for some people. It’s great to have a reminder that we all have limits, and no one can, by definition, do more than their best. That’s all we can possibly ask of someone. And when someone gives their best, it’s something to commend, to applaud. But what if you didn’t do your best and you know it? You’re presumably a pretty competent person. What if you failed at something when you were capable of doing more? Are you a horrible writer, employee, person?
Of course not.
While “best” is convenient shorthand, the truth is that none of us can ever truly do our best. There’s always something else that can be done, improved, made better. That essay could have stood to have a tweaked conclusion. Your business proposal could have had a couple more pictures and captions. That email to the boss might have used a slightly better word in the second paragraph.
It’s important to realize that best is an asymptote; that is, a line that an equation approaches but never manages to touch.
There comes a point where the amount of effort required to improve the quality of your work is simply not worth it. Even if it’s not your absolute best work, expecting more is just not reasonable, and that’s okay. It’s important to be cognizant of diminishing returns. Burning out trying to reach that asymptote on one project is a sure way to have less energy available for the next one.
A key ingredient to writing or any creative endeavor is knowing when to stop and call your work done. A key ingredient to mental health and avoiding burnout is understanding that your work can’t and won’t be perfect. The first is a skill that can be learned over time. The second takes experience to come to terms with. Ironically, acquiring both will allow you to create work that’s closer to your mythical best.
It’s unfortunate that “you did everything a reasonable person could have done” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “you did your best,” but as long as you (and your boss) understand the underlying meaning, it’s okay. The pithy-saying writers were trying their best, after all.