I can still hear my parents saying to us, “Just do your best.”

It seems harmless enough, a great way to encourage your kid while at the same time, subtlly implying that maybe everyone’s best is not the same.  But lately, I’ve been examining that common piece of parenting and I think it deserves some reconsideration.

To begin with, do you do your best? At EVERYTHING? ALL THE TIME? I’ll confess that I do not. If I did, I’d be exhausted, neurotic, cranky, burned out by the side of the road somewhere about twenty years ago! The truth is that if you saw my desk or my kitchen sink cabinet, you’d know that I’m NOT doing my best. I’d give them a C- on most days.

But then again, does EVERYTHING require our best? Isn’t part of maturity learning to discern what matters and what can slide? One great mom I know says something like, “In the Land of Big and Little, you have to know which is which.” Wearing the same t-shirt two days in a row: not so big; denying using your mom’s credit card: pretty darn big. Sometimes when I have an anxious coaching client, one who is typically burning the candle at both ends, about to drop, frazzled and self-critical, I ask, “At what in your life do you allow yourself to make a C?” Truth be told, I look around me at a sea of A’s…A’s in home decorating, A’s in soccer practice, A’s in Facebook maintenance, A’s in nail care…A’s big and little. And I wonder, is all this excellence necessary? And, what is it costing us?

Recently, I’ve been getting a measure of the cost of non-stop excellence in the lives of some outstanding young women I know. They were the type of girls who took high school and college by storm. They really DID give everything their best. And people noticed and wanted them in the study group and the work team and the sorority committee. They came prepared with their assignments. They went the extra miles. But somewhere along the way, they internalized the message, “Do your best,” in such a way that they seldom feel as if they’ve done enough. This week, three such young women have flopped into my coaching practice, plopped onto the couch, flung their arms out and sighed, “I’m tired.” Sometimes tears followed. As I listened, I heard similar tales of self-flagellation, pushing, pushing, pushing, exhaustion, bone-weariness. No longer is anyone on the outside pushing them. . . .

I am reminded of a saying I heard, “For the one seeking excellence, nothing every quite measures up.” Is it time to reconsider how we speak about attainment, effort, and doing our best?

I’d love to hear your comments.