It’s easy to take pride in things you shouldn’t, even when you’re old, but especially when you’re young.
Looking cool. Not caring. Getting into trouble. We all pick our poison.
For me it was not trying my hardest at school. I always excelled, often without putting in the work. I was smart, paid attention, sought to understand and always crammed before exams, but I knew others worked far harder, far more consistently than me.
Yet, I could still win at academics, even while doing less work, and that quickly became a point of pride—something I could fall back on or lord over others. If I failed to get the best mark on a test or in a class, I could always say it was because I wasn’t trying my hardest.
It’s easy to deceive yourself into thinking you’re being awfully clever when you’re actually being incredibly dumb. Because of course not trying was something I never should’ve been proud of. Taking pride in refusing to even try to reach your potential? Sounds shameful when you put it like that, doesn't it?
At some point along the way I realized how foolish it was, that it was a self-defence mechanism masquerading as a virtue. But it’s been hard to outgrow the impulse, to break the habit. Even though I know the comfort it seems to provide is ultimately a false one, that falling back on not trying is no fallback at all, it’s difficult to give up our self-defence mechanisms. Even when we know they’re not serving us. Even when we know they’re sowing the seeds of regret.
It’s scary to try as hard as you can. What if I do and still fail? What if my full effort isn’t good enough? Or worse, what if not trying my hardest is just a lie I’ve been telling myself this whole time? What if I’m really not capable of giving more or doing better? What if this is already my best? That's a reality I'm not sure I want to face.
Or even scarier still, what if I am capable of more and I’ve spent decades of my life accomplishing less, contributing less, being less, all for some false comfort and foolish pride? That would be an even tougher pill to swallow.
To try your hardest is to put yourself in danger. Facing your fears of inadequacy is a terrifying prospect because you might be right to be afraid. It’s hard to reckon with the fact that you might not have the talent, skill, dedication or commitment to reach your biggest dreams and highest aspirations. It’s so much easier, safer, more comfortable to coast—to make excuses, to keep playing small, to be able to say you never really tried and to go on believing you could do anything if only you really wanted to.
People spend their whole lives telling that story, believing that story, living that story. Naive and hopeful in the beginning, discouraging and frustrating in the middle, sad in the end.
I think we all use the not-trying-your-hardest defence mechanism to some extent, in one area of life or another. Sometimes it stops us from trying altogether. We never really try to make it as an artist or give that second career a chance. Never try to learn a new language or pick up a new skill or meet new people. Never try to travel to all the places we always said we’d go. Never try to be a better parent or more supportive partner. Never try to be more empathetic or less angry. Never try to be the best version of ourselves. Never try to grow, or change the world, or live the life we always thought deep down one day we would.
Instead we look for reasons not to, and find plenty. Some better than others.
We say it's a matter of priorities, finding balance and being practical. There's some truth in that.
And besides, you can’t go all out all the time. Life’s long. Generally, consistency matters more than intensity. Direction more than speed. There’s something to be said for giving 80 or 90% rather than 100. It’s just easy to let that slip to 50, and no one becomes great giving 50.
And of course, we can’t all be great anyway. There’s only so much attention, so much money, so many medals and awards to go around, so much room at the top. There’s nothing wrong with going to work, paying the bills, watching sports or Netflix, having some beers, throwing barbecues and chilling with friends. There always needs to be some room for rest and relaxation, for learning to be content. It’s just easy to let that become complacency.
It’s hard to find the line between making excuses and being realistic. And living in a society that’s built to encourage, inspire, and manipulate us into wanting and expecting more certainly doesn’t help. Capitalism stokes ambition. Advertising breeds dissatisfaction, manufactures want. You’re supposed to feel like you’re not living up to your potential. That’s what pushes people forward, fuels their work ethic, convinces them to give more of themselves.
There’s no doubt that there’s a toxic version of this narrative. Many people come to regret working so hard, trying to live up to an unachievable ideal, trying to reach something that was never truly in their grasp, that was always just out of reach by design. I have no interest in sacrificing my health and wellbeing, time with the ones I love—the things that matter most—to chase a mirage, a destination that can never be reached, or even if it can, is never as satisfying as it’s promised to be.
There are no easy answers or simple solutions, which I find agonizing at times.
I agonize over whether I exercise hard enough, eat well enough, meditate often enough. I want to be calm and healthy and to live a long life, and I constantly wonder whether I’m doing enough to make that a reality.
I agonize over whether I’m doing enough to make it as a writer. I know it’s a low-odds game. Many great writers never make a living at it, and I’m not nearly as great as many. That’s why I got into copywriting. I knew it was a far more reliable way to make a living, and I convinced myself I could continue to hone my craft and write the stuff I wanted to write in my spare time. Play the long game.
And maybe to some extent I’ve been able to do that for the past few years with some success. I’ve managed to write a thing or two I’m proud of, that I think matters. But even that story quickly becomes a crutch to not try to do more, faster. I tell myself I’m being patient, that I’m already doing enough, that I’m continuing to improve, but deep down I can never shake the feeling that I’m really just scared to try harder.
On my worst days, that eats at me. Claws at my soul. Fills my bones with dread.
I don’t want to wake up one day and realize I never even tried. I want to be able to look myself in the mirror and know I gave it everything I had. That I really did try to make it, really did try to succeed, to live my values, to reach my goals, to have an impact on as many lives as I could, to contribute and raise people up and help them live better lives and bend the arc of history toward a better, fairer future. That I really did try to make something of myself, become the person so many people always believed I could be, that somewhere inside me I know without a doubt I can be.
It’s complicated and circumstances matter. We often expect too much of individuals, of ourselves. Heroic individual effort should not be required to live a good life.
That's all true. But I know deep down I’m not trying my hardest to reach my potential. I just do. I know I’m still allowing false comfort and foolish pride to get in the way of chasing everything I want in life. And I know it’s time to do better.
I owe it to myself to dare to try harder. My hardest. For once.
Maybe you do too?