Are People Really Always Doing the Best They Can?
A meditation on what the “best we can do” really means, and why sometimes it means taking the pressure to succeed off
“I don’t know. I really don’t. All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.”
— Steve Alley in response to his wife, Dr. Brené Brown’s, research question, “Do you think that, in general, people are doing the best they can?” (Rising Strong, 2015, pg. 113)
I finished reading my second Brené Brown book this past weekend, Rising Strong. The book is about ‘facedown’ moments: the moments in life when we fall, hard, in an arena, which Dr. Brown defines as any activity or moment of our life in which we’ve taken a chance, put ourselves out there, and “risked showing up and being seen” (for example, “leading a team at work is an arena. A tough parenting moment puts us in the arena. Being in love is definitely an arena.”).
Her goal is to focus with laser precision on the moments that people find themselves on the ground. She wants to avoid the glorification and “gold-plating” of the success that comes afterwards, when people have picked themselves up and are back on their feet in the arena (to continue the metaphor). So many of the success stories we hear gloss over the really important stuff that happens in between, failing to capture that people’s success comes as a result of the internal thought process and work done at our lowest moments, a point Dr. Brown makes on which I resoundingly agree. As she explains:
“I’d like to focus on one particular piece of Roosevelt’s speech: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…” — STOP. (Imagine the sound of a needle scratching across a record.) Stop here. Before I hear anything else about triumph or achievement, this is where I want to slow down time so I can figure out exactly what happens next.”
— Brené Brown, Rising Strong, pg. xxi
Almost mid-way through Rising Strong, Dr. Brown uses a personal example to demonstrate the ‘rising strong’ process as it relates to establishing boundaries, practicing generosity, and figuring out how to act with integrity.
In a nutshell, Brown is asked to speak at a weekend conference and reluctantly obliges only after the organizers shame her into it (albeit probably unintentionally). When she arrives, she finds that she’s sharing a room with a woman who disrespects the hotel room property and Brown’s own protests, smoking in the no-smoking space and wiping her sticky cinnamon-roll-stained fingers on the room’s communal couch. As a result, Brown has a miserable time at the conference and finds herself pissed off at almost everything and everyone she encounters all the way through to her therapist appointment on Monday.
After letting Brown vent her righteous anger, her therapist poses the question, “do you think it’s possible that your roommate was doing the best she could that weekend?”
This possibility infuriates Brown, but it also peaks her curiosity. She spends the rest of the chapter performing research, asking those around her, “Do you think that, in general, people are doing the best they can?”
My Gut Instinct: YES
Unlike Brown and those closest to me (yes, I also did my own mini-research after reading this chapter), my gut instinct is to say YES. In general, people are always doing the best they can.
But that’s too easy, and deserves further questioning. And I know for a fact I didn’t always believe it to be true.
Almost two years ago, when I was going through my own ‘rising strong’ process and was way, way, waaaaaay deep in the muck of the lowest parts, a friend passed along something her therapist had posited to her: “we are all doing the best we can with the tools we have in the moment.”
Turns out, this is also the answer Brown’s therapist provides when Brown turns the question back around on her: “Yes, I really do believe that most of us are doing the very best we can with the tools we have. I believe we can grow and get better, but I also believe that most of us are really doing our best” (pg. 108).
So I would like to expand on my own answer of YES, and on Steve’s answer of why, in general, even if we can never fully know it to be true, people really are doing the best they can.
The Best We Can do With the Tools We Have: A Personal Example
Today, my belief is that people are always doing the best they can do because our toolkit is constantly in flux, and the best we can do changes moment by moment as a result.
As a personal example, the reason that my friend’s contemplation struck a chord with me was because I had spent the last 6 months beating myself up for not finding joy nor feeling as appreciative as I told myself I should for the brand new career I had just begun one year prior. I tried to do the best I could by setting higher and higher standards for myself: wake up at 4am to get your workout in and write and read so that your day isn’t hijacked by your job; pack a healthy lunch; swallow your feelings and just work harder on the side if you want to move on to the next job because you’re not allowed to leave until you have another job or source of income; and if you’re not doing this consistently every day, you don’t want it badly enough. You know what you need to do so if you’re not doing all of that, how can you say you’re doing your best?
And on top of all of that, I was an absolutely horrific person to the people I lived with because I had nothing left to give them. I was a live wire, and they were walking around on eggshells trying not to do or say anything that might set me off. The problem is, everything frayed my nerves during this time. I made Brown’s roommate look like a Saint.
Looking back, the irony is that the tools I was using to try to improve myself — self-judgement, criticism, pressure, beration, — were causing me to do the exact opposite. I became paralyzed from the pressure I was putting on myself, and instead of taking the productive action I so desperately wanted to take, I would literally spend my weekends, the only days I had away from my job, frozen in inaction on my bedroom floor. The tools I was trying to use were hurting me and those I loved, badly — but still, applying my friend’s wisdom, I was doing the best I could with the tools I had at the time.
I didn’t have the awareness to recognize that my attempts to pull myself out of the pit were merely serving to further bury me. So I kept piling on the dirt.
Finally I went to see my own therapist, who helped me recognize and come to terms with the unhelpful tools I had been wielding. And it was only then that I started to replace and expand my toolkit with tools like self-compassion, self-love, and self-awareness — it was only then that I started to grow.
And once I started wielding those tools, I finally, FINALLY, started to look, feel, and act like the person I thought I could force myself to be by just being stricter with myself. Doing the best I could do started to look like what we all imagine people doing the best they can do looks like — progress, kindness, some success and a lot of failure that I’m learning to overcome.
So even though it’s easy to judge ourselves and others for not meeting the standards we perceive to define “the best we can do”, I look back on myself from one year ago and I KNOW that that woman was honestly doing the best she could with the tools she had at the time. I feel compassion for her struggle, and gratitude for the toolbox I’ve grown from what she started with. Thinking this way, I agree with Steve — believing that people, in general, are always doing the best they can do allows me to stop wasting energy judging others, and myself. Having compassion is what allows me to grow my toolkit, and perhaps help others grow theirs.
A Toolkit in Constant Motion
Of course, this leads to the question: If it doesn’t look like what I think it looks like, how do I identify someone who’s not doing the best they can do? People have agency; we have to own the choices we make and be held accountable to them. And the reality is, some days I’m super productive and feel like I’m on top of the world and other times I can spend days on end binge-watching Love is Blind on Netflix and not lift a single finger. Surely, you aren’t suggesting that when I choose to spend my time doing the latter, I’m really doing the best I can do?
Well, actually…yes. I mean, the truth is I think that it’s impossible to define what exactly the best a person can do is.
A marathoner can run a personal best marathon one day, but that doesn’t mean the next day, if they don’t run the exact same time or better, that they aren’t doing the best they can do. We’re human beings, not robots, and we need to rest and recover. A marathon runner’s toolbox — their energy, their muscle strength, their mental strength, etc., — would be at least somewhat depleted the day after a marathon, and perhaps for several days or even weeks afterwards. It’s absurd to expect them to have the exact same marathon performance every day with an ever-depleting toolbox.
And yes, I did just analogize my own Netflix binge-watching habits to a marathoner’s need to recover. Maybe my toolkit is depleted because of the stress I’m feeling at work or in my personal life, or from the pressure I’m feeling to succeed at something that’s important to me, and I don’t know how to productively deal with those feelings so I’m turning to a vice to cope.
And yeah, that vice could absolutely deplete my toolbox further. The optimal amount of sleep for an adult human being in general is between 7–9 hours, and anything drastically under or over can leave us feeling groggy, exhausted, and even more tired than we were when we fell asleep in the first place.
Basically, I could be put in the exact same situation and handle it in two completely opposite ways, and still, each time, I would be doing the best I can do at that time, with the tools I have. Because my toolkit is contextual, always evolving, and hopefully always growing. Actually, perhaps that’s the best we can ever hope to achieve — to have a toolkit that we are consistently cultivating and improving.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that a person who subscribes to the idea that people, in general, are doing the best they can recognizes that people are always working with the tools they have, and just because you consider your toolkit more evolved than theirs doesn’t mean that they aren’t doing their best. We cannot define someone else’s best in comparison to how we perceive our own — and vice versa.
It’s impossible for anybody, including a marathoner, to consistently reach the same high standards day in and day out. Even you. Especially you. We can be harsh on each other, but many of us are harshest on ourselves. You will fall short of what you perceive your best to be time and time again.
But a person who subscribes to the notion that we are all doing our best with the tools we have will say: My best was less than what I know I am capable of, but it was the best I was capable of doing in that moment. I will feel self-compassion, assess the toolkit I was working with, right what needs to be righted, and grow from there.
And they will take the same approach with others.