Do your best work.
You’ve heard this statement your whole life. It’s a phrase that is loved by school teachers, employers, friends, and self-help gurus. Presumably, this “call to action” is meant to motivate, to encourage you to push yourself to be better.
But I believe a misunderstanding of this statement has mislead many people and has had disastrous effects on countless creative projects.
The Problem with “Best”
Say this sentence out loud: do your best work.
What word do you emphasize?
If you’re like most people, you emphasize the word best. Here’s how the dictionary defines that word:
best. adj. excelling all others; better than all others in quality or value; the peak of condition; the highest standard or level that a person or thing can reach.
That’s a daunting definition to live up to!
Best is a superlative, meaning there can be nothing better. And if nothing can be better now or in the future, then the work done in the present must be better than anything that may come into existence: it must be perfect.
It’s easy to see how the idea of best leads to a struggle with perfectionism. You might feel that if you do anything less than your best — anything less than perfect — your work should be destroyed, hidden away in a closet, or never created in the first place.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Debilitating Effects of Perfectionism
Perfectionism is followed by two other debilitating “p” words: paralysis and procrastination.
The idea of having to create something that cannot be outdone is so daunting that many people are frozen by fear into inaction. They hesitate to create anything at all. Others may work a little bit at a time, but they put off the majority of their work until their project slowly withers and dies.
A more disturbing conclusion can also be drawn from this line of reasoning: if I create my best work now, then by definition I will never create anything better in the future. And if everything I create in the future is doomed to fall short, then this work must contain not only all of the creative genius I now possess, but all that I will ever possess.
Such an ideal is not only false, it is counterproductive and impossible to live up to.
What was initially meant as a call to promote action — “do your best work” — has now become an incubator for inaction.
Do Your Good Enough
I honestly don’t think people mean it this way.
I think when people say, “do your best work,” they actually mean “do the best work you can given all of the limitations you face.” What I think they are saying is, in effect, “do your good enough work.”
Limitations are inherent in any project you undertake. There are internal limitations — lack of self-confidence or skill, discouragement, physical challenges, mental burdens — and there are external limitations — family demands, your job, daily time constraints, impending deadlines, or no deadlines at all.
Each of these factors limits the quantity and quality of work you create. Instead of viewing these limitations as impediments to perfection, it’s time to view them as necessary concessions for productivity.
By admitting to yourself that you have neither the time, the energy, nor the skill to create perfect work, you give yourself permission to say, “I may have done better if I had more time, but I did not, so I did the best I could do under the circumstances.”
Do not mistake this as a call for mediocrity.
This is just the opposite: it is a call to produce exceptional, yet imperfect, work within the bounds of your limitations. To still push hard, to still test the limits, to edit, to rework, to rewrite, and to rethink, but to do these realistically and with the goal of finishing; to make concessions in the name of getting things done.
By focusing on action and doing your good enough work, you give yourself license to say, “this sentence I have just written may have been rewritten 1000 ways, and one of them may have turned out better than this, but I had neither the time nor the means to do it. What I have written is the best I could do under the circumstances, and although it may not be perfect, it is good enough and it is done.”