Doing Your Best

Practice makes perfect.
Give your all.
When you don’t succeed, try and try again.
Try and fail, but don’t fail to try.

We’re taught to do our best from a very early age, and our parents aren’t wrong for teaching us this. But unfortunately, most of our parental figures, coaches, teachers, and leaders, have taught us that to do our best we must put forth a lot of effort and try really really hard. We must push ourselves to the limit. We must work and work until we get it right. Mistakes are bad. Perfection is good.

When I was in 9th grade, I started having a lot of trouble in math. I was in an advanced math class as it had all come pretty effortlessly for me up until that point. I had never been a huge math enthusiast, but I hadn’t ever minded the class before either. Rather than have me drop down into the “average” class, my parents hired a tutor to help reinforce concepts so that I would get better grades on my exams. I remember feeling that that harder I tried—the more effort I put in–the less and less I seemed to “get it”. I remember leaving 1st period not only exhausted and frustrated, but with lots of anxiety and these strange tension headaches. In the end I think I squeaked by with a C to my frustration and my parents dismay. And from that point on, math was a joyless activity and still is to this day. I dropped the subject as soon as I could.

I think we all want the best for ourselves and our children. But if we ride ourselves too hard, if we over-effort, if we wreck ourselves in our desire to achieve a goal—even if we eventually achieve that goal—what did we really accomplish?

In the Alexander Technique, doing one’s best holds a very different meaning than it does in most of western culture. In an Alexander Technique lesson, the teacher will put forth an intention, whether it be getting out of a chair or playing a piece of difficult music, and at the same time, ask the student to let go of the desire to “get it right”. When the student truly lets go of their fear of making a mistake (not an easy thing by the way!), it not only creates physical and emotional ease and a greater sense of awareness, but invites the student to let go of a narrowed perspective and open themselves to new possibilities that may not have been there before. Trying—in other words effort—creates unnecessary tension. When the student moves towards their goal with a sense of ease and freedom (both mentally and physically), they accomplish their task more efficiently, with more joy, and without sacrificing themselves in the process.

I work a lot with actors, and what I’ve come to find is that most performing artists don’t feel like they are doing a good job unless they exude a lot of muscular effort and tension (generally what is thought to be the opposite of good acting). When I am able to get an actor to do less, to not push for results or emotional qualities, their performance often becomes exceptional. But what’s so very interesting is that most actors don’t believe me when I tell them how amazing their work was. “But it didn’t feel like I was doing anything!” they cry. “Exactly!” I say. What they failed to feel was the over-efforting and extra tension they are used to feeling when doing their work.

The next time you have an important goal—whether it is nailing a job interview, creating an impressive dinner party, participating in a 5K, or playing an exceptional golf game, see what happens—just for a moment—if you can let go of your desire to “get it right.” What happens if you acknowledge a mistake gracefully and with curiosity rather than let it lock you up? What if you open yourself up to other possible paths, even if the one you’re already on seems self-evident and clear?

Doing your best might just get a whole lot better.