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When Is ‘the Best’ the Enemy of the Good?
by Sue Browning, UU Ministerial Studente July 24, 2011
Story for All Ages: How Can I Do My Best at Everything?
Good morning. My name is Sue Browning. In the Order of Service (hold it up) – explains what will happen during worship today. Next to my name is says I am a ‘UU Ministerial Student.’ Let’s figure out what that means.
Who knows what a student is? That’s right. A student is someone trying to figure out something new or different. I’m guessing many of you are students. Or at church we often use another term – we think of students as learners.
Being a ministerial student means I’m learning to be a special kind of leader at our church – a minister, like Reverend Michael or Reverend Linda or Reverend Carlton. And the UU part stands for Unitarian Universalist. I’m studying to be a UU minister.
The special type of college I go to learn to be a minister is a Seminary. At this school I’m learning how to write sermons, to design religious education programs, and to officiate at weddings. We learn ways to visit people in the hospital, and how to help make the world a fairer place to everyone.
Most of my classes are in a pretty big class room. Our teachers are called professors. They do lots of talking, and I take lots of notes. Sometimes I raise my hand to answer questions or to ask a question. I write lots and lots of long papers, and some courses have tests or exams.
Can I share something with you? Something I don’t tell everyone?
Most of the time I love learning how to be a minister, BUT sometimes when I take these tests, or hand in a paper for the professor to grade, I feel a little nervous. Even though I’m an adult, I worry I’ve made mistakes. When I feel nervous, I quickly tell myself that to learn, I need to make mistakes. Sometimes I have to say it to myself twice. I need to make mistakes to learn. Learning isn’t about being perfect.
Think about something you’ve learned. Maybe you learned how to bake cookies …and burned some? (Maybe you’ve been cooking a long time and still burn cookies once it a while?) Or maybe you’re learning to ride a bike or to rollerblade and you fall? Or maybe you’re learning how to play the piano and hit wrong notes? Mistakes are part of learning. Sometimes they are even funny.
Well when I tell my family or friends I’m a little worried, sometimes they say, “well, just try your best, it’ll be ok.”
It’s taken me a while to understand that when the people that love me say “try your best” they are usually telling me two things. First, give something new a try (like going to Seminary), and second that mistakes are ok – even good – we all make mistakes. Maybe my friends and family are also telling me a third thing, that they’ll love me, no matter what.
Sermon: “When Is ‘The Best’ the Enemy of the Good?”
Last month the youngest of our three children graduated from Washington-Lee High School. That’s right – big breath.
Our kids are close in age, so the three rounds of braces, the three first drivers’ licenses … and the three first fender benders…occurred in clumps. Bill and I have attended fall field hockey games in the snow, and actually spring baseball games and track meets in the snow, too. We’ve had to explain a few odd injuries in the Emergency Room. And, oh, one Sunday afternoon we snuck out of a piano recital right after our son’s turn and sped the length of Arlington so he could play in his Little League championship game. That episode was wrong for so many reasons, but at the time it seemed like our best option.
We tried not to be too “over the top” as parents, but, we wanted to do our very, very best to raise our children with love and strong values. We wanted them to have opportunities for growth and development, and of course fun. We’ve also tried to do our best at being partners in marriage… 25 years last month, and our best at contributing time and energy to our schools, community and church. And we’ve even tried to do our best at providing ‘down time’ for our kids and ourselves.
At church, I hear stories from members trying his or her best to care for an aging parent or friend, or their best to meet job requirements, or their best to lead a church ministry, and even their best to live “green,” … often wearing all of these hats on at once!
But hold on – how can any of us realistically do “our very best” at all of these big things at once? What are we saying to our children, our family members, our co-workers, or to one another here at church, when we say “all I ask, is that you do your best?” time and time again? I have an image of lab mice furiously trying their best to get out of the maze.
A few years ago the expression “just do your best” started bugging me. It seemed to be a mixed message – it implied you could measure of success against your own your own personal bar …which had merits, but the bar should always be set high. The goal was to always do your best work. And at times, I sensed the phrase was also about being better than another – to be the best in the class – the best in the neighborhood – the best in the office.
Around the time the phrase” just do your best” was bugging me, I had just started seminary -- and was being graded on my work. How could I not be absolutely sure to integrate all of the requirements into a paper? Or complete every section of the study guide? I was engrossed in the new studies. I loved learning and hanging out with twenty-somethings. But doing my best took on new meaning as my nights writing papers, and memorizing for exams, got later and later. If I give something my best effort, shouldn’t I be able to do everything close to perfectly?
Before I go too far, I want to be clear that there is a place for mastery and excellence. If you have passion to play the piano, and choose to struggle to get a piece just right, there may be satisfaction and purpose in the work. There is a healthy sense of pride in becoming a master gardener, and sharing this expertise with the community. And I sure want doctors and nurses to pass board exams showing they meet standards relevant to their work. Similarly, I want commercial truck driver’s to be safe, rested drivers, and early childhood educators to have excellent training on creative ways to connect with children.
But, there are times when striving for a mistake-free life, or to meet the standards of others, or to be better than another, we start to lose sight of what we are trying to learn, or why we ever wanted to learn it.
One symptom of being close to this edge is a sense that arbitrary comparisons and rankings dominate the process. Fresh in my mind -- maybe too fresh to be objective – we’ll see -- is the college application process.
During the last five years we’ve been through the college application process three times. Each time intellectually…logically…we knew as parents it was our job to provide perspective for our children and help them resist the hype – the external messages that flag college selection as a life-defining event – a process with little or no room for error.
Our kids seemed to have the process more or less in perspective. Nonetheless I’d dutifully try to reassure them -- “it’s just an application” and “I have confidence you will find a great match.” I actually believed these claims to be right. But I confess, late at night I was on my laptop using the College Board website’s ‘Compare feature’ to see what might be a best fit for my child.
And while the phrase “it’s just an application” wasn’t a bad mantra, I was also realistic. My kids and their friends were painfully aware that their years of “doing their best” were about to be measured. They knew some colleges were labeled, at least by some, as having more prestige than others.
In his book ‘Crazy U’ Andrew Ferguson shares his journey through the college ‘app’ process with his son. The book provides historical background on two of the standards fueling the angst – the US News and World Report College rankings and the SATs.
Annually US News and World Report issues a list of ‘America’s Best Colleges.’ It ranks colleges by evaluating the scores and grades of students entering the schools – the rankings are lists of the most selective to the least selective schools. Many kids and parents, inappropriately in my view, think they now know “the best” colleges. Though only part of the landscape since 1983, these US News rankings have become sacred text. Within a day of being issued each year, their website gets 10 million or more hits.
Yet, the rankings focus on students applying to schools, and are de-linked from success or happiness of graduates after graduation. Ferguson notes the colleges have a ‘Love – Hate’ with these rankings – claiming the rankings are meaningless and that it is impossible to make such comparisons, and then touting their rankings if they like their position.
Beyond these rankings, the kids also know they’ll be tagged with numerical values – their SAT scores. These scores are a label hang with you for a while. I speculate a few of you can recall your scores? I can. Yet, these scores have little correlation with long term happiness.
For those not in the midst of the process – some empathy for these kids is warranted.
Today’s Common Application,used by most schools, has predictable blanks for grades, and SAT scores. You then flag your advanced courses - the AP and the IB courses you hear about. You add “all academic and other honors” and note whether the award was at the School, State, Regional, National, or International level. (Realistically how many kids get international awards? Not many. Yet, for many students who fill out the applications each year, the form makes it sound almost routine.) Then there are twelve lines …twelve…for extracurricular activities, including the frequency of participation, and positions held (such as officer), honors won, letters earned. And then there are the essays, with strategies unto themselves.
What is the message to these students about the expectations of society? Being the very best – all the time -- appears to matter. At least this process, and the associated hype, signals it matters a lot.
Ultimately the decisions roll in, often first available online. Then the ‘who got in where’ results are posted on Facebook. And there are the careful conversations among parents in the grocery store.
The college application process feels indicative to broader trends. Everything from competitive youth sports to competitive youth music is about making some ‘cut.’ While many children seem pretty resilient – at least more resistant to the craziness than the parents, the consequences are there. There is notable stress. Some avoid of taking chances, afraid to make mistakes. Without question, some feel excluded. And what messages are going to those who consistently make the cuts?
Beyond our children, there is pressure to be perfect at work, or to sustain a perfect home, or to be a perfect caregiver. A culture of always doing your best is draining.
What are the options? What messages can we offer to counter these societal pressures?
As you heard in the Story for All Ages, I try to hear the phrase “just try your best” as encouragement, rather than an imperative to actually be the best. When we genuinely encourage a child, or one another, and we honor our mistakes, we send an important signal. Risks are a necessary part of life.
It also helps to minimize comparisons. In his book on non-violent communications, Marshall Rosenberg looks at destructive forces that pull us away from our natural inclination toward being compassionate. He sees making comparisons (comparisons being nothing more than judgments) as one of these destructive forces.
He considers having musicians each compare themselves to Mozart, and then dwelling, for a long time, on the difference. It’s not a very productive use of energy. In the same spirit I recently saw a bumper sticker -- “There are 3 billion women that don’t look like supermodels and only eight that do.” This begs the question, is Barbie the right norm? a healthy norm? It is in this dwelling on deficiencies, that we are distracted from a spirit of compassion. There is wisdom in ignoring standards that just deflate.
As we attempt to offset the pressures of perfection or unrealistic standards, there is value in knowing when to set the bar at ‘good enough.’
For years, my vision was for my Christmas dinner table to look like one of the tables I’d see in catalogs. I hoped to miraculously implement this vision – appearing casual about it all. On gifts, I wanted to seem unmaterialistic, while not disappointing anyone. You can picture the drill – full time working mom of three, my own parents were divorced, and there were differences between my family traditions and my husband’s. I’d try my very best to make the perfect Christmas happen – even try my best not to be bossy and my best to be patient. Often not a picture perfect.
Well, about five years ago, my baby brother – at the time single – always the fun uncle - flew into DC a few days before the Holidays. Uncle Billy announced this was to be ‘LSC’– Low Stress Christmas. This didn’t seem to be part of the family DNA, but he was determined.
As the busy-ness ramped up – the missing gift for a neighbor, or the forgotten bacon and OJ for Christmas breakfast – he’d say “LSC – we’ll skip that.” I thought, “why not drop the neighbor some baked goods a few days after the holiday, when I had time to enjoy baking?” I didn’t run out and buy a gift for my brother – he appreciated a check to help cover his travel costs. We had grilled chicken and baked potatoes for dinner. Way less dishes. And my brother spent hours playing basketball in the driveway with the kids. We’ve continued with LSC.
Lately I’ve being thinking about what this sense of “being best” carries as a price for our congregation. Our individual and collective sense of always “doing our best” means we press; we sometimes press hard. We want to collectively excel…to set a high bar …to press onward in more and more programs. We feel the world’s needs and want to act – we feel a compulsion “to do”…and we dive in and try for spectacular – our very best.
At a recent church meeting, a fellow lay leader noted “as a church, we often lose sight of how much we do – we worry about what we haven’t done yet.” She was right. We often look to other congregations for better practices than our own, or to recent Unitarian Universalist Association recommendations to add to our ‘to do’ list.
In this measuring, and yes, in our relentless comparing, to be the best at saving the world, sometimes we forget to slow down. We forget to give ourselves room for mistakes. As a church, maybe we could be proud of having fewer programs, and knowing a few more of each other’s names?
So, when is the best the enemy of the good? Maybe the ‘best is the enemy of the good’ when in pursuit of perfection and we hold back for fear of mistakes. Maybe ‘the best is the enemy of the good’ when it drives our energies toward comparison and judgment, rather than toward kindness and encouragement.
Moving toward a standard of ‘good enough’ seems to be about making space … space for slowing down, space to take a few risks, and space to hold one another gently in greater and greater compassion.
Photos of The Service