“At least I did my best.”
This is the most common and the most effective excuse in the world. It’s very dangerous.
There are two important things we need to know about this statement:
- There is no such thing as doing our best. There is always something we could have done better.
- We have to know when to stop anyway.
At some level, everyone knows that responsibility is not just important, but a fact of reality. It’s a fact in the sense that, whether you exercise it or not, you have the ability to respond in any way you choose to anything that happens to you in your life.
The thing about admitting this to yourself is that it removes the room for any excuse you might have, from the classic “the devil made me do it” to “I didn’t have enough time/resources/money.” We shout these excuses at the world and then feel content to sit down and do nothing else about our failures.
The founders that have shut their companies’ doors, the writers that have left their manuscripts unfinished, and all the rest may have had excellent reasons. Unprofitability, creative block, exhaustion, pain, family problems, loneliness, humiliation all are horrible things to face that we face everyday. But ultimately, we say that we’ve done our best and failed, we’re wrong.
This may seem like a harsh way to think, but it’s just a recognition of the reality: we always have options. It’s just that we don’t always choose to use them.
When we’re suffering from the worst of distractions, we can often eliminate them by simply working. Entrepreneurs running out of money can keep working even when they let go of their last employees. Options are bounded by reality, yes – but reality is more flexible than we tend to think. We can always be more creative if we choose.
These options come with costs. This is the flip side of the coin of responsibility – we have to make choices about the costs we’re willing to bear and the ones we’ll walk away from.
We could spend 24 straight hours editing our blog posts, but is the cost worth the benefit? We could keep running the marathon and injure ourselves. We could work for a negative salary on a project that we love but not have the money to raise the family we also want to have.
What do we choose? There’s no easy answer. Deciding what to walk away from might be harder than deciding to keep going. Excuses like “at least I did my best” are just as often used to avoid giving up as they’re used to avoid trying harder.
The responsibility that ties both choices together – and, more importantly, living like we have that responsibility – is far more important than what we choose in each challenge. As long as we’re respecting other people’s own responsibility and staying true to our values, there’s no guilt in giving up when the costs are too high for us. If it’s a self-interested choice, there’s also not always a reason to feel proud when we choose to try harder.
Holding ourselves to a higher standard and giving ourselves a break are both parts of working life, but they’re much better when you realize that we – not our circumstances – are at the center of each choice.