A New Year question: What does “Do your best mean?”

anglepoise-lamp“Kevin, your father and I don’t mind what your grades are, as long as you do your best.”

It’s just under half an hour before it is 2017 here in Japan.  This is a time for New Year resolutions, and there will be many more resolutions, hopefully in the course of the year ahead.  Here are some thoughts on what could be called, I guess, the mother of all resolutions: “I will do my best.”

What on earth do these words mean?  I wish I had known how to make them work for me when I was a kid, because in the name of trying to “do my best” I sure as heck wasted a lot of time studying unproductively,  wasting time and making myself feel bad.

Studying for A Levels, I would kill flies that were attracted to the light and warmth emanating from my Anglepoise desk lamp: they were all too easily trapped in the metal flyshade when I pressed it down onto the desk, and incinerated with a satisfyingly intense
final buzz, punishment for the unfairness of a  16-year-old’s self-torment at failing to be the best possible student he thought he was capable of.

Some time-wasting wasn’t quite so perverse, such as sitting in an armchair with an uninspiring history book and nodding off to sleep, or listening repeatedly to a favorite song, trying unsuccessfully to recreate the magic of the moment that it first touched me.

All these activities shared these elements in common: they were born of the admonition to do my best, and they left me with a vague feeling of guilt and lack of self-worth at not doing it.

So what change in my thinking was needed for me to actually do my best?  What I say now to encourage young people to do their best is based on a definition that contains the elements below.  Perhaps the list will be simplified and/or expanded in the future, but for now it is this:

  1. Living with guilt in your heart will never help you, and it will not help anyone else either.
  2. Looking down on others or encouraging others to do so is a way of improving your self-image that will only condemn you to mediocrity.  Excellence wants to raise people up.
  3. Listen to others, learn from them, and allow them to challenge you to improve yourself. But never forget that you deserve their respect as a human being, even if they seem to understand much more than you, and even when you make mistakes.
  4. The people you dislike may be the ones who have the most to teach you, so learn from the conflicts you find yourself in.
  5. Do not force your will on others except when not doing so will endanger or harm others.
  6. As long as it does not hurt others, enjoy fully whatever you decide to do at a given moment, whether it is a trivial pastime or a major project.
  7. Do not sacrifice your own self-respect or sense of self-worth in order to earn the approval of others. Do not fear the disapproval of others.
  8. As you practice doing all of the above you will understand more and more deeply that your life is something that truly belongs to you, and only to you. As such it will be the source of boundless joy for you, and will inspire others to do their best in their own way.

With these simple understandings at the heart of any family tradition  or any school curriculum we can create the kind of world that we want.  It really is simple.

A wonderful 2017 to all friends old, new and yet to meet!

Fuji-san from near our mountain cottage:


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