©2020 by Will van Zyl. Proudly created with Wix.com

Privacy Notice

Terms and Conditions

Have you really done your best?

Think about that question.

Don Miguel Ruiz lists “Always do your best” as the 4th Agreement in his best-selling book, “The 4 agreements”.

It is through this agreement, he says, that you set out to master the other 3 agreements.

As a reminder, these are: “Be impeccable with your word”, “Don’t Make Assumptions” and “Don’t take things personally”.

It is through this agreement that you are able to avoid the misery that comes from beating yourself up over failure, turning failure into a rich learning experience as opposed a shameful personal shortcoming.

An important point from the book is this: Your best differs from day to day and moment to moment. If you are ill, your best may not be as good as when you are healthy. When you are tired, not as good as when well rested.

So, with this kind of variability and the importance (lets take it for granted for now) of this agreement, how do yo know you have or have not done your best?

If I ask my kids this question they normally answer within a second…”Yes!” Emphatic, I’ll give them that, but sometimes not quite true.

They then roll their eyes when they realise I am going ask them to play back to me everything they considered when deciding their specific course of action. Whether they have succeeded in their goals or failed (oops, I used the F word again!!) it is the same. They are learning to play back what they did, how they did it and how they behaved…and how this resulted in their success or failure.

Honestly, I don’t do this with them every time they do something. Can you imagine these poor kids if I did? No fun or play, just constant reflection. Learning comes from more places than just sitting and reflecting all the time.

Finding the right balance of reflection versus action in life is important though. Without reflection - on the right things and at the right times - I do not believe it is possible to ‘Do your best’.

Reflection is the first step to consciously learning. You could do it alone or you could do it with someone you trust to give you honest and objective feedback…so long as you create the opportunity to answer the question:

“Did I do my best?”

In the event of outright failure (There is that F word again!!) the questioning may start with: “So why did that not work?”, followed rapidly by “How should I do it next time to achieve a different outcome?”

The key is to question, to interrogate yourself and your process and to come up with an honest answer to “Have I done my best?”

There may be times when you really have done your best, but you still uncover things that could be done differently to achieve better; To succeed where you have previously failed or to perform even better where you are already succeeding.

There are times when, not doing your best, you will still succeed in your goal, but only just. Or there will be times when you, for whatever reason, do the same things over and over again, failing every time or only partially succeeding. It is in these times, if you are still saying “I did my best.”, that you are not being honest with yourself. You are not reflecting and asking your self all the questions that uncover an honest answer to: “Did I do my best?”

It is in these situations where failure is not a positive force. Failure that is a result of NOT doing your best is not necessarily healthy failure, because doing your best includes being honest about why you have failed. Doing your best also involves being honest that anything you are about to do you set out to do to the best of your ability.

If you are running toward a cliff, with the intent to jump off the edge to try to fly, you probably want to do your best to fly.

If there is someone with you and they ask: “Have you considered strapping a parachute to your back, just in case you don’t flap fast enough?”


Some chap in a wheel chair says to you: “I tried this a few years ago and, well, now I use this chair every day. Let me spend 30 minutes sharing what I learned with you so you can benefit from my experience.”


Your grandmother points you to the stories of Icarus, Daedalus, the Wright brothers and others and says: “You seem passionate about learning to fly. Have a look at how these guys went about it and what worked and did not.”


You have a nagging feeling in your gut, an emotion you feel every time you consider the final step off the cliff…

If, as you take that final step, you can honestly say that you have considered all these things (and more?) and have decided on the best way to fly off the edge of that cliff, then you can hold your head high…whether above the clouds as you soar or as you hurtle in the opposite direction, to a sure injury.

If you did not consider all that you had available you, you have not done your best. If you have ignored advice, the experiences of others (positive or negative) or your own intuition or “gut feel”, you have not done your best. You have been unconscious.

Failure in these scenarios is not the rich learning ground it could be. Instead, failure is the result of unconscious, egoic and reckless behaviour; a blind and destructive approach the leads to frustration and drains passion and creativity. Some say it is insanity; doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different outcome.

In the book, Black Box Thinking, author Matthew Syed compares the approaches to learning in the NHS (UK health service) and the airline industry. The clear view he gives is that the airline industry aims to always do their best, by placing learning and improvement at the heart of every flight … the 2 black boxes...and the investigation and remediation process that follows any accident. After all, tens of thousands of lives are at stake every day on flights across the globe.

The NHS, on the other hand, he portrays as an institution where the culture does not allow challenge to convention or hierarchy. Rather, it assumes an element of infallibility in the professionals and chastises upward challenge, even if, likewise, tens of thousands of lives are in the hands of the NHS every day across the UK. Possibly a broad brush stroke, but by how much?

The death rates in the NHS being significantly higher than those in air travel as a back drop to this book.

The point I am making is this (in this longer than planned article)…

  • To ALWAYS DO YOUR BEST requires a learning and growth mindset - be conscious and curious about how to do things better

  • Learning and growth mindsets demand that you embrace failure and are open to challenge and support from others - leave your ego at the door

  • To truly do your best you need to think at your best - make the time to think and consider your options to pick the best one

In corporate life, it is a matter of culture that can be clarified by answering two questions.

"Do you work in a culture that encourages and embraces failure?"

"Do you work in a culture of Trust, Communication, Collaboration, Transparency and Learning through Reflection and Constructive Challenge?"

If your answer to both these questions is an emphatic YES!, then you re being set up to always do your best, individually and collectively. You probably really enjoy working where you do and, on most days at least, look forward to heading into the office to be a part of that team.

If the first answer is an emphatic YES!, but the second answer is NO!, no? or…I don’t feel like it is…then your failures may not be the kind you want keep experiencing.

They may be the avoidable kind, the ‘un-thought-through’, reckless kind. The kind where you have not been set up to always do your best. In fact, over time, it may become the norm to never aim to do your best, because there is no room or expectation for that in the culture.

Regardless how your environment may or may not support you, though...Always do YOUR best.

When you do that, there really is no such thing as pointless failure. It is all learning and growth...and no-one can put you down.

#alwaysdoyourbest #learningculture #embracefailure #4agreements #consciouslearning