Leaving my studio after a fourteen hour work/teaching day, I saw a student and we walked out together. He was beaten down, and told me (quite dramatically) "this week already SUCKS!" I couldn't help but add the customary smart ass reply, "and today is only Tuesday!" He looked at me and shook his head and asked, "when you went to college," (in the olden days, thought I) "how did you do it? How do you go on when you just ... just can't?"
"To Be is To Do" (Socrates)
I wanted to give this kid a grade-A eye roll, but he was serious and I thought I should give him an answer. After all, I've been around the block a few times myself, and surely I should have something profound to share that would give him a little hope, insight and inspiration. Unfortunately, the best I could come up with on too little sleep and not enough time to prepare was, "I do the best I can."
Lame. Lame. Lame.
I wished I had better advice. I wished it came a sense of gravitas, or awe, or wonderment. I wished, at the very least, it came with a halfway decent soundtrack. Instead, as he outlined his awful week to come, we were now halfway across the parking lot walking in separate directions, yelling across the cars that were left. Finally I said, "Look, take everything one tiny step at a time and make small, achievable goals. That's how you do it."
I got in my car and ripped up my Oprah/Dr. Phil Junior Armchair Lifecoach/Analyst membership card. But as I drove home, I wondered, was my advice all that bad? As a college student I certainly was familiar with the drill of classes, rehearsals, practicing, homework and work-work; all of which added up to more hours than there were in a day. Even today, out of college, it's a variation on the same theme with the addition of a house, finances and a teenager. In my world, "doing the best you can" isn't a cop-out, it's survival.
"To Do is To Be" (Sartre)
Of course, we all want to be successful, but today that seems to mean "ahead of everybody else any way you can". The goal is to win, and to win big. But at what cost? This philosophy of being faster than, better than, smarter than, richer than, or you-name-it more-than everybody else is unsustainable. Nobody wins all the time. Fortunes fade, regimes fall, and those who have succeeded on the backs of others can find themselves on the bottom of the heap faster than you can say Yertle the Turtle.
"Do your best" tells you everything you need to know. YOU do it -- you DO it -- and you do it to the very BEST of your abilities. The result won't be winning or losing; it will be achieving personal success, which is singular, definitive, and healthy. So maybe "do your best" isn't so lame after all. But to my drowning student, I should add, If you feel like you're sinking when you're sure the rest of the world is swimming away, try treading water. Take a minute to breathe, relax, focus, and think. Then and only then will you find yourself mentally and physically able to make an achievable goal and do your best. Believe in baby steps. Trust yourself. You'll make it. You might even come out singing.
"Do Be Do Be Do" (Sinatra)