Are you doing the best you can?

I’ve always been troubled hearing the phrase “I’m doing the best I can.” (Or “S/he is doing the best s/he can.”)
My immediate thought is: “Really? Are you (or they) *really* doing the best you (they) can?”
It’s usually meant to say “I working hard am OK with where I am.”
I nearly never use it myself because I know I could always do better, even if I don’t know what that is. I see the phrase as a cop-out, a reason to justify mediocrity. When someone says it, I want to reply, “You’re not really doing the best you can. You’re doing the best you’re willing to do. Or the best you can with your current strategy, information or skills, but if you worked at it, you’d be able to do better.” But I don’t utter this aloud, as it is confrontational and anti-social.
My take is not a popular one. “I’m doing the best I can” is a way to say, “Give me a break. I’m trying.”
A friend and I had a discussion about this today. He believes when one says, “I’m doing the best I can,” you’re acknowledging you’re not perfect, you’re a work in progress, accepting where you are and not beating yourself up for your inadequacies. You’re saying, “Based on my time contestants, my energy level, my lack of sleep, my stress, my obligations to my work, family, and others, this is the best I can do right now.”
It was a new viewpoint for me to ponder.
Not coming from a family that valued or strived for excellence, it was common for me to hear, “It’s good enough” for nearly every effort. While it’s great to know what not to sweat over, my parents didn’t encourage any effort toward exemplariness. A common phrase was, “It’s good enough for government work,” which meant it was good enough to get by. So “I’m doing the best I can” came to stand for, “I’m doing just enough to pass.”
Somewhere along the way, I got rewarded by my teachers for good grades, class leadership and striving for excellence. I can’t remember any of them uttering, “I’m doing the best I can.”
We can always improve anything we’re doing.
Do you feel “I’m doing the best I can” allows you to sit on your laurels — or acknowledges you’re performing at the top of your capabilities today? Do you feel it’s a cop out or allows you some grace?

2 thoughts on “Are you doing the best you can?”

  1. It depends on the person and circumstances. It could be both cases but not at the same time. If the person is performing at the limit of their physical or skill level then some grace should be called for. If the person is definately coasting then perhaps some coaching is called for. The ability to correctly discern which dynamic is in place would be critical to avoid misunderstanding or hurt feelings.

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