Part Four of Five
Introduction: Don Miguel Ruiz was born in rural Mexico, a descendant of the Toltecs, an ancient people who lived in the central valley of Mexico. Their philosophy held that we live in a dream state, with the quality of our lives determined by how we dream. Most of us fail to transcend to a higher awareness, living with the belief that life must be composed of suffering. But we can change how we dream and achieve happiness. Discovering love and respect for one’s self is the beginning of that process. These essays are my reflections on Ruiz’s best-selling books, The Four Agreements and his book The Fifth Agreement.
The Fourth Agreement: Always Do Your Best
Ruiz shares his knowledge of ancestral teachings through these Agreements. In previous editions of El Ojo del Lago we have considered these Agreements: 1. Be Impeccable with Your Word. 2. Don’t Take Anything Personally. 3. Don’t Assume Anything.
Today we will explore the Fourth Agreement: Always Do Your Best. I will use Ruiz’s thoughts as a springboard for what I want to say.
When we look at that term Always Do Your Best various voices might come back to us from our childhood.
A parent’s, a teacher’s— some authority figure who guided us when we were young. But the voices might have different tones or inflection, thereby showing the diverse intentions of the person uttering the phrase.
Always Do Your Best! (Voice #1): A commanding, demanding voice indicating that if you aren’t the best—the best in the class, the best on the field, the best at the recital, the best in the school play— then you are inferior.
It is illustrated by overly-zealous parents and educators who push children into a success-driven mode—”success” measured by accomplishment. By what one does, not by what one is.
We see this in institutions—even religious ones—where the bottom line is measured by numbers in the pews, numbers on the ledger, numbers “saved,” numbers “repented.”
I remember how my father measured success among the students (including me) in his Sunday School class: by how fast we could recite the names of all the books in the Bible without making mistakes. And if we did this, he would reward us with a pen—not just an ordinary pen, but one that had a bejeweled cross on the handle and a slit in the cross through which we could view the Ten Commandments!
Fortunately, my father was not a demanding father. But others were not so lucky and might still be struggling with self-esteem issues because of these early messages from authority figures.
Always Do Your Best! (Voice #2): This is a more understanding voice, one suggesting that as long as you do your personal best— even if you come in last—it is okay.
Being conditioned by our competitive culture, we often don’t know how to practice such an affirming sense of self.
Think about education.
Were you ever in a class situation where you got academic credit for a course, but not an actual grade?
I was. In fact, all the courses of the three-year program in the seminary I attended in Berkeley in the 1970’s were ungraded. Instead, we were evaluated by what the professors and we the students thought of our accomplishments. Voice #2 is a humane one – allowing the listener to affirm one’s own dignity and worth.
Why did you do your best? What motivated you?
I got straight “A’s” until the ninth grade because my father gave me $5 for every “A” I got.
I loved some of those subjects but hated others. So even if I got an “A” in every subject, I didn’t have a passionate love for every subject—but I did have a passionate love for the money!
Still, I think that Ruiz is telling us that we must really love what we are doing; this passion for action needs to be the motivating factor.
There is purity about intention when we really choose to do well in something because we love doing it—not for any tangible reward at the end of the task, but simply for the joy of it all.
I envy those who are the best in doing what they love to do.
They are in a state of Flow—as described by a book of the same name written by Mihaly-Csikszentmihaly—where a person is passionate and completely absorbed by what one is doing.
I do think, however, that some people are passionate about not doing their best. And perhaps it can be said that they are doing their best to achieve the worst.
Consider the thought of Somerset Maugham in this regard when he opines:
Only a mediocre person is always at his best.
Doing Your Best—Not Always Doing the Most
Consider Ruiz’s illustration about the Master and the Student concerning attaining awareness:
The Student asked: “But why will it take me longer if I meditate more?”
The Master replied, “Do your best and perhaps you will learn that no matter how long you meditate, you can live, love, and be happy.”
Perhaps the geniuses of the world have discovered that if you are doing your best, sometimes “less is more” (to quote one of the great modern architects, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe).
Certainly, there is profundity, subtlety, and exquisiteness in brevity and simplicity.
My most brilliant of professors was W. Edward Brown, a renowned Classical Scholar who literally climbed very big mountains as a hobby.
Dr. Brown also spoke 27 languages and taught all his classes without notes or excess verbiage. He taught me that genius is not in wordiness, verbosity, loquaciousness, or circumlocutionary conundrums – but in simple, direct language.
Obviously, having stated what I just stated with all those unnecessary words, I am not a genius of brevity like Dr. Brown. Instead, my perspicacious preponderance of punctiliousness pusillanimity peeks through persistently, thereby pointing to my prevarication!
But truly, Dr. Brown could put even the most complex of ideas into language that was clearly understood by most of his students.
He did not have to overdo to do his best
So, in considering what Ruiz might mean by “Always Do Your Best,” let us consider a few further factors:
Doing the bestyou can is affirmation.
Whereas, striving to be the best of all others can be a negation of your true character or inclination.
Indeed, you can “live, love, and be happy” (Ruiz’s words) by doing the best you can and not worrying about being #1.
But be aware, too, that your best varies due to timing, circumstance and motivation. As Ruiz reminds us:
Everything is alive and changing all the time, so your best will sometimes be high quality, and other times it will not be as good…Regardless of the quality, keep doing your best—no more and no less than your best.
A personal hero of mine in regard to the subject of Always Do Your Best is the incomparable inventor Thomas Edison. Now here was a man who always seemed to be in FLOW, i.e. in a state of passion for what he was doing. He knew that, in effect, doing his best was its own rewards, its own success—not necessarily the achieving of what he set out to accomplish. (But oh what he did achieve changed the course of civilization!) And yet he could say when things did not go as he had planned: I haven’t failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that don’t work.
And he kept on working, always doing his best.
May we do so, as well.
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