At crew practice, we did a practice regatta on the water in singles. It was back and forth between me and another girl in my group the whole time, and at the end of the race, I fell just short of beating her. I was frustrated at myself because I wanted my bow to propel just past hers, and that was my goal the entire race. I wanted to be the best on the water that day. In the moment I didn’t think anything of this mindset, and didn’t realize it had held me back until I was listening to a podcast after practice that day.
I was listening to Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard. That episode, Tom Brady was being interviewed about his life and career, and he brought up a point that really made me think. He said, “I said to my kids the other day, is it most important to do your best or is it more important to do the best. What’s going to be more fulfilling for you in your life?”
In our lives we are so focused on always being the best. That day at practice, if I had focused on doing my best, I would have been proud of myself, instead of disappointed, because I had done the best I could for that day. Whether it’s regarding academics, athletics, or extracurriculars, we often find ourselves striving to be the best. We can find an inherent aspect of competitiveness in pretty much everything. We all have tendencies to want to be the best at whatever it is we are doing; it’s human nature. This desire to be the best gets in the way of seeing how far we have come since we started learning a new concept in school, a sport, or whatever it may be for you. So, what would happen if we all tried to focus on doing our best instead of doing the best?
We should stop basing our success off of others’. Our work becomes about topping others’ best and not pursuing your best, and while doing this, you will struggle to be content. If you are just comparing yourself to others, that’s all you focus on, and might stop, and limit your potential, once you’re barely ahead. Brady said, “if the goal is to be as good as someone else or marginally better, then it’s finite, as opposed to if I’m bettering myself, who knows where this goes.”
I understand that being the best is subjective and could mean a different thing for everyone. It’s about what being the best means for you in various areas of your life, and how that could differ from what your best is. “The whole phrase “doing your best” is different for everyone, but your potential for success is unmeasurable. It’s how much you put into it,” shared Alana Eisenberg (‘21). Some people might just want to be the best and don’t care about doing their best, and maybe they’re the same thing for them. If you’re someone who values personal growth, you may want to consider a shift in mindset. I believe it can be healthy, and helpful, to focus on doing our best versus doing the best.
As an alternative to competing with others, we can compete with ourselves, and strive to improve to beat our personal best. If we do this, we will be proud of our improvement, no matter how big or small it may be. In order to be the best, comparison with others is required. In order to do your best, competition can be avoided altogether, and has no chance of holding us back. It’s evident that competition can be very helpful for some. Competition can be a great driving force to get to a certain level, but should not be a sole focus. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to be the best at something. People are inherently competitive. There’s a certain level of healthiness when we compete in a way that’s beneficial for ourselves. When you do it at the exclusion of trying to learn something or cutting a corner, then it becomes problematic,” said Dave Hawley, ORHS Psychology teacher.
Where I see this concept being very relevant in my life is in academics, and this is where I think many people, including myself, can improve their mindset. Always wanting to get the best grade in the class, or get a better grade than a certain student in your class, fosters a sense of just caring about grades rather than the learning. I’m guilty of this too, and have caught myself caring more about the grades than the actual material I’m being evaluated on.
Looking back on my motivations for doing well academically, I was motivating myself to be the best and not do my best a lot of the time. After realizing that doing your best is more valuable, I began to stop caring, or asking, how others did on their assignments. This has proved to be helpful for me, and I am focusing more on just doing my best, and along with that am retaining more information I believe. If I know I did my best, I now have found even if it wasn’t quite the grade I wanted, I was happy because I did everything I could. I’ve felt much less stress around grades with this mindset. Part of this might be that I’m in a remote setting right now. There isn’t the same culture of sitting in class while everyone gets their tests handed back and then comparing, which has been one benefit of remote learning. When, and if, we are back in person I will strive to carry this mindset with me.
However, it’s a hard change to make. “[Wanting to be the best] is competitive nature. You can’t really help it. Even if you hear someone did better, even if you don’t consider yourself competitive, there’s still a little part of you that’s either ‘oh I got a couple points higher’ or ‘I got a couple points lower,” said Eisenberg.
In the past for me, it hasn’t been about beating a peer. To me, being the best would be getting close to a 100, or getting an A. After getting a grade that wasn’t what I wanted, I would often discredit the work I was once proud to submit, and am hard on myself, because it wasn’t the best grade for my standards.
“In some areas like academically, [if my best wasn’t the best] it would be like ‘wow I kind of stink.’ But if it’s things that I don’t really care about, I’m like ‘well, it’s fine,’” said Hazel Stasko (‘24). When this happens, self-confidence can plummet and a negative association with an experience prevents us from wanting to try again.
Sometimes, we do the best we possibly can, but a lot of your peers maybe got a few points higher, so you didn’t do the best. “If you use the highest grade in the class as your goal, you actually might miss a lot of things. One of the challenges of grades, competencies, or whatever we’re navigating, is that they always can be worked. If you focus on cultivating your own personal set of expectations for yourself, and producing the best work that you can, you’re less inclined to navigate that world through gaming it, and rather, engaging in it,” said Hawley.
Us high school seniors will also feel the impacts of a new set of comparisons when people start sharing where they’ll be going to college. “It’s hard because with social media, you also can see where people are going to colleges or you see all this data on the different types of people that got in. Suddenly, you’re not worried about doing your best. You’re trying to make your best match that person’s best because it’s what worked for them,” said Eisenberg.
Not being able to get into the best college, have the highest GPA, or get an A can lead to stress and anxiety. “There’s been a significant increase in anxiety as a result of not meeting the expectations [students] see in front of them. And they’re not expectations set up by [teachers]. They’re expectations set up by their friends and the algorithm that they partake in,” said Hawley.
I agree with what Hawley said. It’s not coming from the teachers. We, as students, put unnecessary pressure on ourselves, and each other, to get the best grades. A lot of this can come down to confidence. You have to have a certain level of confidence and security to be okay with not being the best.
This reality of not being the best can be a hard pill to swallow, since we’ve been conditioned to want that. To help this, have the reason you’re striving to improve be for yourself, and not because of anyone else. Motivate yourself from within. “For a while I would get really discouraged or just kind of write it off [if my best wasn’t the best], but I think with junior and senior year, as time went on, anything’s really possible so I just pushed myself more. Not necessarily because it was a competition, but it was more so just like ‘I know I can do better,’” said Eisenberg.
While this concept is fairly new to me too, and I have not mastered it at all, I feel this shift in mindset has begun to help me academically. I can focus on myself, and comprehending the material, and be okay if my best wasn’t as best as someone else’s. We are all different and have unique skill sets so there is no use in comparing ourselves so heavily to one another’s achievements.
A good way to achieve this shift in mindset comes down to being super aware of your personal expectations and goals. Have goals that are completely individual, and not tied to anyone else. For example, “I want to really learn this material, and know it inside and out.” Make sure you prepare yourself ahead of time to actively shift your mindset when about to receive a grade. Remind yourself of the preparation you did, how you felt it went, and then base your reaction off of that, but not off of another person’s success. That is what focusing on doing your best looks like. Changing your mindset on this won’t happen overnight, and it’s unlikely that in all areas of your life you’ll be able to completely focus on just doing your best, but just try it.
To take some of the pressure off of yourself and to potentially see more success, make an effort to avoid basing your success off others’. It inadvertently places limits on your personal success. Try being competitive with yourself. You could be selling yourself, and your potential, short, and might not know it.
Artwork by Sofia Testa