Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Don't Do Your Best!?

I recently spoke with my son and daughter before their exams. Would you believe that I advised both of them not to do their best?

Here’s a surprise. Telling ourselves that we are going to do our best is really a limiting attitude.

I am sure, some of you may be wondering:

What is he talking about?

Don’t do my best? I have always been taught to do my best, I have always tried to do my best, and I have always encouraged others to do their best. How can that possibly be wrong?

In my opinion, there are two fatal flaws with the “I’ll do my best” attitude.


When we set out to do our best, we limit ourselves to whatever we feel our best is. But do we really know what our best is? How do we know that we are really doing our best? In my opinion, there is really no reliable way to know whether we are really doing our best or not.

If we just say we are doing our best, chances are we may be unknowingly performing at a suboptimal level. What can we do to eliminate such a mistake?

I suggest we don’t say we’ll do our best since we actually don’t know for sure what that is. Instead, set a clear aim for ourselves, and do what is required to achieve it.

American Florence Chadwick was the first woman to swim the 42 kilometres between Catalina Island and the California coast. During her first attempt, Florence had no clear aim but had in mind only to try her best to reach the Californian shore. A thick fog set in about 15 hours after she set off. Florence tried her very best but she was unable to see the coast due to the fog.

With no clear aim she began to doubt her own ability. She told her mother, who was following her in a safety boat, that she had given her best but didn’t think she could make it. Florence swam for another hour before asking to be pulled aboard. As she sat in the boat, she realised that she had given up barely 2 kilometers from the shore.

Two months later, Florence took another plunge. This time her mindstate was different. Florence wasn’t just trying her best and hoped that that will be enough to get her to wade ashore triumphantly at the other end. This time she had a clear aim.

The same thick fog set in, but Florence made it because she kept a vivid mental image of the shoreline in her mind while she swam.

Florence showed us that we don’t know what our best is until we complete a task with full commitment, focus, energy, and positive attitude. We’ll be surprised to find strengths we didn’t know we have. We’ll achieve things we would not have otherwise.


Just doing our best sounds good, but if you think about it, it really is a cop out.

When we face a challenge, by only resolving to do our best, we are setting ourselves up mentally to accept defeat. Having supposedly “done our best”, we can accept defeat with serenity.

However, if we want to bring out our best, we need to tell ourselves specifically what we want to achieve. We must have a clear aim.

Every time you get onto the pitch, don’t just do your best, focus on winning the match. Every time you sit before an interview board, don’t just do your best, focus on snagging that coveted job. Every time you take an exam, don’t just do your best, focus on scoring the top grade.

When Singapore swim queen Joscelin Yeo competed in Southeast Asian swimming meets, she would leap off the starting platform with her mind set on winning. And win she did. Yeo produced numerous personal best times and bagged 40 gold medals at various Southeast Asian Games.

On the other hand, though Joscelin Yeo competed in four Olympic Games (the most times by a Singaporean athlete), none of her personal best times came from the Olympic Games. Joscelin Yeo had not set her sights an Olympic gold medal.


All of us find fulfilment in being able to be the best that we can be. Note, I stressed “the best that we can be”, not in being better than other people.

Yet, there is a paradox. While we only want to run our own race and not to compare with others, the best way to be our best is by aiming to be the best.

Of course, you will not always win. But you will only produce your best result by playing to win. If your personal best is not enough to win this round, just take it as feed back and go for it again.

You shouldn’t be focusing on the fact that you think you’re doing your best and still coming up short. You should focus on figuring out what you can do, how you can change, to ensure that you will be able to do what is required of you.

Your persistence will pay off.


To sum up, firstly don’t say we’ll do our best because we really don’t know what our best is. Instead have a clear aim that will draw out the best in you.

Secondly, don’t say you’ll do your best when you want to perform at your best. Instead have a clear aim that is further than your grasp, forcing your best self to stand up.

I leave you with wise words from Michelangelo who said that: “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it”.


  1. Fantastic, counter-intuitive post. I was struck by the title, but then completely agreed with you by the time I followed the flow of ideas in your post. There are a few cop-outs of the same type "I was really busy" as an excuse for a poor quality result. "I tried hard" as an excuse for stopping short of the goal. "I did my best" is almost the most insipid as it sounds so "professional". Thanks for a great thought.

  2. Thanks Conor for your feedback and the additional points about excuses people often use. Glad that you find the ideas useful.