Doing your best
Doing my best—my very best—was once a total mystery to me. I had no idea of how to do it, and really wasn’t even aware that I wasn’t doing it. I coasted through school because coasting (for me, at least) was sufficient. When I did study, it was sporadic rather than sustained.
I did learn how to write a paper, along the way, because a tutor demanded it:
In my sophomore year at St. John’s College (Annapolis MD), I had a tutor, Ford K. Brown, who asked for a 4-sentence outline of my proposed sophomore essay:
1. The first sentence is what the essays says—not what it’s “about,” but what it says.
2. The next three sentences support and lead to the first sentence—that is, the first sentence logically follows from the next three sentences.
I was not even to start writing the paper until he had approved the four sentences. He had me go away, review my notes, and return a day or two later with 4 sentences. I did, and he read them, handed the slip of paper back to me, and reiterated 1 and 2 above, slowly, carefully, and emphatically.
I went away, read the play again (I was writing an essay on Othello), thought about it, made more notes, reviewed all my notes, and wrote 4 more sentences. This took about a week.
I took the 4 sentences to him, he read them, then he once again handed me back the slip of paper, once more repeating 1 and 2 slowly, carefully, emphatically.
I think this happened once more, and then he said, “I think we’re running out of time. Go ahead and write the paper, but…” and he repeated 1 and 2 once more.
I wrote the paper, and I was astounded. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and where I was going. At one point, I got off track and realized it (never before possible when I was writing—improvising—a paper), excised the digression, and continued. Each of the three sentences became a section of the paper, and the paper really did say what I wanted it to say. It was an eye-opening exercise.
With that exception, I still had no knowledge of doing my best. But in graduate school (at the University of Iowa), I found myself with a new daughter and no job and no money. Desperate, I searched for work, found a job as an apprentice programmer, and started work.
Once again I was coasting—all I knew—and then the Big Boss called in me and two other new programmers and chewed us out. Did he chew our ass out? No, he chewed all around until it fell out. He told us specifically that if we wanted a “9-to-5 dick-around job” to leave now.
Man, I was scared. Just got the job, still with daughter and wife to support, and I was about to lose it. Right then was when I learned how to make a maximum effort—which turned out to require only one thing: to ask myself “Is there anything else I could do or should do?” and if the answer was “Yes,” then to do that thing.
By doing—literally—everything I could think of, I was at least comfortable that, if it didn’t work out, it would not find me saying to myself, “I knew I should have done X.” If I could possibly think of X, I did X. Nothing—nothing—was left undone.
The result was that I did more than I ever thought I could, and better.
So that was how I learned to work—to put forth maximum effort. Some years later, a colleague told me a story about a guy he knew who was working for Henry Kissinger. The guy had to write a report, which he turned in to Kissinger. The next day, Kissinger asked the guy, “Is that the best you can do?”
The guy gulped, asked if he could have the report back, and spent another week on it. He handed it in again, Kissinger kept it overnight, and the next day again asked, “Is that the best you can do?”
The guy took the report back again, spent a solid week on it—researching, rewriting, editing, revising more, condensing, polishing, rereading, and so on—and handed it in one more time.
Kissinger the next day asked the question the guy was dreading: “Is that the best you can do?” The guy swallowed, prepared himself internally for being fired on the spot, looked Kissinger in the eye, and said, “Yes, sir, that is the best I can do.” Whereupon Kissinger put the report under his arm and said, “Good. Now I’ll read it.”