Every man does his best.

For every man in the world functions to the best of his ability, and no one does less than his best, no matter what he may think about it.  — John Steinbeck, The Pearl

These words got me thinking, though I don’t know if I’m interpreting them correctly.  This school year has been one of tensions, and among those tensions perhaps the strongest was the tension between what I thought I was capable of doing and what I ended up doing. I’m not talking about grades, because I couldn’t have asked for better grades. Instead, I’m thinking of my own evaluation of my work.

I think I’ve mentioned before that going into seminary I did not want papers to become just a product that would please the professor or meet assignment requirements, but I wanted them to be something I did just as much for my own benefit. This was, of course, a bit of an idealist picture of what the school year would look like. Between the 4 or 5 classes in a semester, assignments, family responsibilities and rest there is really only so much a person can do. Especially as the end of a semester approaches and deadlines loom, the balance almost by necessity has to shift to making a product. Assignments simply need to be completed on time.

For some reason Steinbeck’s line got me thinking about this tension.

…no one does less than his best…

Is it even possible for me to reasonably accurately evaluate my own work? When I think this paper could be better, is that a fact or do I simply think too little of my work (or too much of my potential)? I often think that if I had a couple more days a paper could be much better than it is the day I hand it in. All else being equal (e.g. being well rested), would a couple of days really make a difference?

…no matter what he may think about it.

What if my best is just what it is I’m doing? What if my best includes not only how I write, but the influence of my personality, work habits, etc.? In this way, my best is simply what I am able to at this moment–including my faults and shortcomings–rather than what I could do given any number of factors (i.e. my potential).

I’m still thinking this through. It has an effect on how I feel about assignments. I can live in regret about what could have been, or can accept what simply is or even had to be under the circumstances.

5 thoughts on “Every man does his best.

  1. Toni

    I may be slightly cynical, but some people I know really aren’t fussed about doing their best, and sometime even seem to wonder why they’re there at all.

    Unless I’ve completely missed the point of this quote?

  2. Simon

    The fact that you’re thinking this way at all, and even agonising over it to the degree you are (which is unsurprising) is, from the perspective of you Preachin’ for a Livin’ some time, a VERY GOOD SIGN.

    At least that’s what I think.

  3. Marc

    It’s interesting that you should say that, Simon, because I struggle with this exact same tension when I am preparing a sermon. Often afterwards I will regret not saying this or that or not shaping it a certain way. It always “could have been better”–the question is, could it really have been?

  4. Marc

    …that is, someone else likely could have preached a significantly better sermon on the same subject or passage of scripture, but could *I* have done better?

    The assumption is always that we can do better than we do and I think it’s generally true in a “potential” sense. Potential in people is often taken, I think, to mean something you just need to figure out how to access, implying that I could in access it right now. But potential is not, in my opinion, necessarily something which is accessible now, but something we may reach at some point. And not simply through effort and achievement, but also in terms of character, health, etc.

    Even then, how will we know when we have reached our potential in an area? Conceptually, potential tends to be an infinite thing so that we will never reach our potential, because we could, theoretically, always improve.

    But perhaps potential isn’t what we think it is…

    But now I’m getting into abstract thought that may not even make sense.

  5. Linea

    You do your best and you learn to live with your inability to reach perfection. What else can you do and maintain your sanity?

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