Do you remember the sweetest peach you ever ate? I do. It’s why I don’t eat peaches in New York. Having grown up in the heart of peach country, I compare all northern varieties to the sweet taste and juicy texture of those fruits of my childhood. They were the best.
But recently, I was reminded that “the best” is not always what we need the most.
A client was trying to arrange a birthday party for her child. “I want it to be the best party ever!” she said. “I want her to have memories of this party for the rest of her life.”
I asked this client what she would do next year, and the year after. “If this one is the best, will you just have to stop having parties? Or will you have to keep trying to top it every year after?”
We all fall into this trap at sometime or another, whether it has to do with a party, a holiday celebration, work, a relationship, or even finding a doctor. Our culture’s emphasis on being and having “the best” is not always the most successful or satisfying way to live.
1. The Best Parents.
The British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott famously wrote that when it comes to parenting, “good enough” is far better than “best.” He wrote that parents who are “good enough” leave room for their children to grow, whereas when we aim for perfection, we can intimidate and overwhelm children, interfering with their healthy development instead of aiding it.
2. The Best Doctor.
One somewhat surprising situation when “the best” may not be the most valuable is when we’re seeking medical treatment. Sometimes “the best” in the field is a famous researcher who has little experience with actual clinical treatment; sometimes it’s someone who has become so famous or in-demand that they don’t pay a lot of attention to individual patients. The medical professional who may be right for us could be someone who may not be as well-recognized, but who will spend extra time talking with us, or who has a mentor who will help her think out some of the troubling aspects of our specific medical situation. (My PT colleague Alex Lickerman has written about this in a terrific post: In Search of the Mythical Best-Redux.)
3.The Best Job.
A common complaint about recent college graduates is that they—and often their parents—have unrealistic expectations about the kind of jobs they should be applying for and getting. They are frustrated when their abilities are not recognized by potential employers. What they often do not realize is that the right job for a recent graduate is not going to be the “best” job in the eyes of the world—or even in their own eyes. The first job out of school may seem menial or beneath them; but what many of my clients have discovered is that a good first job is one in which they do a good job. Their performance is what will inevitably lead to the job they want.
4. Your Personal Best.
There is a myth that we can strive not to be better than others, but always to do our personal best. That’s a fine myth if we’re willing to recognize that our personal best today may be worse than our personal best yesterday or last week. I had a wonderful supervisor at my first job as a clinical social worker, where I was always frustrated with my own learning curve. His mantra, which became mine as well, is a powerful tool for managing the desire to “do your best":
“You can only work with what you have today. Yesterday you may have been able to do more. Tomorrow you might be able to do better. But today, you can only do the best you can for today.”
The concept of “the best” deprives us of many pleasurable moments in life. Maybe you long to be the best at your job, or to be the best parent, child, student, or teacher. Maybe you want to find the best job in your field, or to be the best possible husband or wife, or to top your personal best at a sport or athletic activity.
But consider this: striving to be, have, or do the best could be costing you the pleasure of the “good enough” moments sprinkled through every day.
It is not always easy to accept, but the truth is that there will always be someone else who is better than we are; and if they are not better yet, they will be sometime in the future. There will always be a better moment, a better view, a better taste, a better job. The other side of that coin is that there will always be someone who is not as good as we are, or a moment, view, taste or job that is less wonderful. So why not try to notice and enjoy the “good enough” instead of demanding that it be the best?
What comes after “the best”?
There is tremendous pleasure to be attained from learning more and getting better. Psychoanalyst Alfred Adler believed that striving to overcome a difficult situation or experience is what helps us to experience not only success but also a feeling of competence. Without such feelings, we cannot trust ourselves. If we do not enjoy the process of getting better, we will not have the capacity to enjoy the “best,” if it ever should come.
Always demanding the best is not so different from demanding perfection, which is not, as we know, humanly possible. As long as that is what we are looking for, we will never be satisfied with what we have; and that leaves us, often, doing without something, or feeling dissatisfied with what we already have.
A friend tells me that she wants me to try some locally grown northern peaches. “They might not taste like the ones you remember,” she said. “But I think you’ll like them. They’re good!”
My client realized that while she was trying to make her daughter’s birthday party “the best,” she had lost the ability to enjoy her child’s excitement at sending out invitations and dressing up in her new dress. She had forgotten how much she could enjoy baking a cake with her little girl—a cake that was lopsided, had crumbs in the frosting, and was decidedly not her image of “the best"—but also one that her daughter proudly declared to her friends, “Mommy and me baked it ourselves!”
I think I’ll try those peaches.
My thanks to Ilana Siegel for this idea.