Freshman year, my roommate was fond of a saying attributed to Winston Churchill: “Sometimes it is not enough to do your best. You must do what is required.”
This phrase intrigues and terrifies me. How often do we justify our less-than-satisfactory performance by claiming that we did our best?
Usually when I say I did my best, in a situation where I fell short, what I mean is that I did my best given the low priority I gave the activity. I did my best despite the fact that I don’t care and don’t have time or found the event unnecessary and burdensome. In fact, I didn’t even realize how much just-doing-our-best was an internalized standard for me until I took a statistics class this semester.
You have to appreciate just how funny it is to my friends that I am in statistics. Math is an area of life that I have pretty much written off. My small and very supportive high school found creative ways for me to pass required math courses. Let’s just say that I wrote a lot of humanities papers about math and learned very little algebra. Finding two QR credits at Yale has been a fear I’ve carried since I received my acceptance letter.
I knew I was going to have to work hard in statistics. Pay attention, take notes, read the textbook. Yet I also inherently felt I would need to develop a good relationship with my professor and TA. It was these people I would have to win over with my dedication, embellished interest in the subject and willingness to work hard despite my poor math background. I would have to convince them I was doing my best.
It is now six weeks in (or eight, depending on your professor and his or her syllabus), and my professor has no idea who I am. Yes, I know that he is teaching over 300 students this semester. But I come to his weekly sessions once a week, and I have emailed him numerous times when my second problem set of the year was lost for a few weeks. In any other course I’ve taken at Yale, this professor would be my best friend, or at least recognize who I was.
But I’m still only doing my Yale best. I don’t own the highly recommended textbook. I asked to postpone my midterm the night before.
For the first time in my Yale career, my effort — whether I’m giving my best or it just comes off that way — will have no relevance on my final grade. I have literally never seen the TA who has been grading my homework for the past however many weeks. He likewise has no idea who I am. His office hours are during another course of mine, and I can never find him at lectures. He doesn’t know that I go to other TA office hours, that I stop by the professor’s drop-in sessions, or how annoying it is for me to open Minitab, the statistical software we use, on my Mac laptop.
It doesn’t matter that I have only the most basic math background, that sometimes I forget how to convert percentages into statistics, or that the first few weeks of school were consumed in an endless cycle of Jewish holidays that only finally ended last week. My personal struggles in the course and how hard I am working stand completely independent of my grade. Here, no one cares if I am doing my best. When it comes to my problem set answers or the midterm, I just need to have the answer that is required.
Being in a course where my work is bifurcated from my effort has made me re-evaluate the honesty with which I assess my own effort. Even in my areas of passion and interest I know there are situations where I wish I could say with absolute confidence — whether it is an event I planned or a paper I wrote — that I did my absolute best. But I can’t.
There is rarely the time or the need to do one’s absolute best in most of our daily activities. Something worth doing may be worth doing well, but it is probably also worth doing poorly. Sometimes we just need to do what’s required.
Shira Telushkin is a junior in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.