What it means to do your best

28 May

I’ve discussed my love affair with introspection on this blog before, and how it’s not always good. Sometimes you just need to get shit done. Your head will have to wait.

For example, two days ago, by the time I got home from work I realized I was just old-fashioned sad. It took a few days, but it happened: getting laid off isn’t as fun as it was last weekend.

I had planned to make a pasta dish for dinner, bought the ingredients the night before and everything. But that part of me that was stuck in my head couldn’t get me to do it. I got halfway across the street to get sushi and turned around and came back. Instead of giving in to the urge to escape, I walked right back into my kitchen and started chopping peppers and onions, and prepping the turkey sausage…time to deliver. It was tough to move past the stagnation I was feeling but I did it because I knew it would give me something to write about. And right now the writing is saving me.

Sometimes you’ve just got to start chopping the peppers. You’ve got to remove the seeds and slice up the parts that nourish you. It wasn’t a fancy dinner; no one wants me to post a picture of it on Facebook.

But it tasted delicious. Because it was the best I could do at the time.

“Do your best” is one of the agreements in don Miguel Ruiz’s Toltec wisdom book, The Four Agreements. It seems obvious but the important distinction he makes is that your best isn’t always the same. You can’t compare your best at one time in your life to another. You haven’t failed if your best wears a different mask at times. This helps the perfectionist in all of us: you aren’t letting anyone down as long you give it your best.

While at times this book takes itself too seriously for my taste, this bit of wisdom is comforting right now as I wind down the final two weeks of school with even less emotional energy than usual. I’m not letting the kids down as long as I show up every day and say good morning, smile at them, and let them know they matter to me. That’s my best right now.

“Light and dark can live together,” Ben Gifford of Death Cab for Cutie said on VH1 Storytellers. He’s exactly right, and that concept has always comforted me. We spend our days mingling the two harmoniously.

Leonardo da Vinci still has my favorite related insight: “A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.” Leo, you complete me.

“Helplessness Blues,” the title track of the new album from Fleet Foxes, is my new song to play on repeat. First, the musical arrangements boast such rich texture that it takes repeated listening to even process what you’re hearing. This particular song becomes almost an opera: in the middle it shifts to a different tempo and you almost feel like it’s a different song. But the transition is so natural that you embrace it. The song details a person’s search for what he’s meant to do, even though he doesn’t know what it is yet. The line that has most captured my imagination comes during the second movement:

“If I had an orchard, I’d work ’til I’m sore.”

That’s the key in our lives: once your find your orchard, whatever it is that bears your favorite fruit, you won’t even notice how much work it is. Okay, you will, but you’ll keep doing it because you love the taste.

Your best will be different then.

My best will look different in two weeks.

I will cook again, too. (But probably not tomorrow.)

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3 Responses to “What it means to do your best”

  1. Amanda May 30, 2011 at 12:46 am #

    Kara,
    This post was so beautifully written I’m a little jealous. You know that feeling you get when you read an eloquent poem or the perfect line in a novel and you think, “Man, why didn’t I write that?” Yeah, I felt like that about portions of this blog entry — especially since I myself have lately been considering what it means to do my best. I often equate doing one’s best with one’s sense of and demonstration of integrity, a trait that ranks pretty high on my list of admirable and desirable characteristics.
    Amanda

  2. Katharine May 31, 2011 at 5:38 pm #

    I loved this post.

    During a particularly stressful time at work (and probably life in general), my yoga teacher said to the class, “Do your best. Nobody can ever ask more of you than that.” It was like a lightbulb moment for me. I thought, “Yeah … YEAH! My ‘best’ is not the same every day and even though it might be frustrating for me, the perfectionist, that’s ok. Nobody can ask any more of me because I’m giving them what I can give today.” It was like a weight lifted, and it felt ok to give myself a break for a change.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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