Fifth Best

A hugely underrated skill is knowing when a task needs to be done, but absolutely does not require “your best.” This is a hard skill to master, even harder to teach (especially to children), and most people can’t even wrap their heads around why it’s important. But if you do get a handle on this skill, your life will be much, much better.

Consider: in the majority of cases, there is no outcome difference between your best effort and your fifth-best. But your best effort might take a hundred times more juice than your moderate effort! That’s not a good return on investment, obviously.

Of course, sometimes your best effort is warranted, and there’s the rub. Telling the difference. There’s no universal rule, but here’s a good general one: your best effort should be reserved for the things you want to do, the things where there is no outcome except whether or not you enjoy it. If you’re planting a garden for yourself because you’d like to grow your own tomatoes, then your best effort is warranted. Your best effort probably won’t grow much better tomatoes than your fifth-best effort, but if you aren’t doing your best at your hobbies, why bother at all? What you’re really growing isn’t tomatoes.

Until you have the calibration down, “try your best at everything you do” might be good “starter advice.” But it’s also a recipe for perfectionist burnout if you don’t quickly get a handle on it. I’m definitely not suggesting that you should “phone it in” when the outcome actually matters. I’m saying that there are many scenarios where the range of outcomes is much closer to “pass/fail” than you initially think. Take the time to examine the potential results of your best effort versus your fifth-best, and ask yourself honestly: in this instance, does it matter?

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