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When your best isn't good enough

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to never stay up late for an assignment. It was a pretty unrealistic goal, especially for me. In high school, I wrote essay conclusions on the bus and came to class ten minutes late because I still had to print the essay out. I spent my weekends telling myself I would start my work right after the Netflix episode ended, and my weeknights staying up to finish assignments that I meant to do over the weekend. 

I surprisingly managed to stick to this New Year’s resolution for the first few weeks of the semester. For the first time, I submitted a paper more than ten minutes before the deadline. I planned my days out hour-by-hour and did my readings on time. I thought I was doing great, that I finally had it together, until one afternoon when I came back from West to find my friends sitting outside my dorm. I had just spent an entire C1 ride staring at my planner and thinking about how I had two big projects due that week and not enough time to get them done. I told myself I would just talk to my friends for a couple minutes. When I asked them how they were, one of my friends said “I’ve done most of my work, so I basically have the whole afternoon free.”

I was so jealous. I couldn’t remember the last time I spontaneously had a free moment or time to spare. I realized in that moment how exhausting it had been to have every hour of my day straining under the weight of all the work I should be doing, and to feel as though I didn’t have the time to make mistakes. It was so defeating to know that I had been careful and made good decisions, and still had so much work to do that I didn’t have the time to just sit outside and talk with my friends. I had done my best, and it still wasn’t good enough. 

My definition of “good enough” is based on all the standards I’ve set for myself. I have to do well in my statistics class because I might want to economics research next year and statistics is important for that. I have to spend another hour editing this opinion column because I know it’s not as good as it could be. I have to take this house course because the course would qualify me for a club position that I want. I have to volunteer as a debate coach because I think everyone should have the opportunity to do debate and doing this work might help me get the job that I want this summer. I have to be the kind of person who has all these goals because I go to Duke. 

But I don’t actually have to do anything. Goals are important. It’s hard to be motivated without a deadline or something concrete to aim for. My ability to set high standards and feel as though it is necessary that I meet them is probably one of the reasons I got into Duke. But goals are just a means to an end. We don’t get the grade or research position or job for their own sake, but to serve the scarily abstract things we want for our lives: happiness, knowledge, helping others, feeling as though we’ve made the most out of the opportunities we have. It’s completely illogical to feel as though my best isn’t good enough. By definition, my best is all I can do. If the thought of facing another week of work at Duke immediately makes me anxious, I’m taking on too much. 

I used to think that if I could get something decent done last-minute, I’d be practically unstoppable if I started my work early. The beauty of procrastination is that you never have to confront the fact that you might not be as talented as you think you are. When you fail, you can blame the all-nighter instead of a lack of ability. But I realized that good time-management doesn’t give you unlimited time, it just means you’re more intentional with your time. Instead of frantically deciding what standards to loosen because I only have two hours to do three assignments, I have to acknowledge that I don’t have the time or capability to do everything I want to and coldly eliminate the work that isn’t a priority. It’s hard, but it means that I can actually align the way I spend my time with what’s important to me. I can plan my day knowing there’s a difference between being ambitious and feeling as though I’m a failure if I don’t meet xyz standards.

In a conversation between author Tim Ferriss and University of Houston professor Brené Brown, Ferriss asked: “How do you balance the wellbeing of having a mindset of ‘I am enough,’ versus...the discontent that seems to drive so many of those people to accomplish great things?”

Brown replied: “I would bet you a lot of money that if we listed the names of ten people...ten competitive, ambitious, just like crazy fighters...you could tell me the five who are motivated from a place of being enough but wanting to strive for excellence and learning, and the people who are trying to fill a hole in their self-worth and who are dangerous.” 

When I came up against my own limits, I had to ask myself: Which of these people do I want to be? 

I hope you do the same. 

Sarah Xu is a Trinity first-year. Her column usually runs on alternate Thursdays. 

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