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Why saying you’re doing your best is hardly ever good enough

Can one ever say faithfully ‘I am doing my best’?

It is one of those phrases that we reach for generally when we feel we are being questioned. Sometimes it is nothing more than a thoughtless, lazy riposte – a mere place-filler until we have synthesised our thoughts sufficiently to provide a more complete answer.

However, frequently we say it because we perceive that there is some doubt about our bona fides, and we wish to counter this perception. We deploy the phrase as a defence mechanism.

‘I’m doing my best’ is a phrase frequently used by those unwilling to work harder to improve.

‘I’m doing my best’ is a phrase frequently used by those unwilling to work harder to improve.Credit:Rich H Legg

What is it that we feel the need to defend? Essentially, we are trying to evade responsibility for what we worry is seen as a less than optimal outcome. We are trying to deflect attention away from our own performance and onto others or the environment.

It betrays a preoccupation with our presentation or image. It prioritises the need to be seen as competent over any mature reflection on how we might improve our performance. It’s more about a need for approval, than a desire or openness to change.

By getting the other party to accept the premise that we are unable to do any more, we reduce expectations, relieve pressure on ourselves and also gain tacit approval for our current level of achievement.

Sometimes the phrase is used as a method of coercion and therefore control. By getting the other party to accept the premise that we are unable to do any more, we reduce expectations, relieve pressure on ourselves and also gain tacit approval for our current level of achievement.

This may be legitimate if one can point to compelling objective evidence that demonstrates conclusively that there is nothing more that can be done. However, in reality, it is rarely the case. More frequently it is a cynical ploy to avoid responsibility.

The phrase smacks of absolutism, that a ‘best’ exists. It implies that this state of doing the ‘best’ is an upper limit and an end point. It is a form of closed thinking that invites us to believe the fallacy that the world consists only of a limited number of possibilities, all of which have been explored, and optimised. There is no growth mindset present. There is in fact, no open mind at all.

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