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The Woulds Are Deep and the Path Is Hard to Find

February 7, 2010

Never neglect the little things. Never skimp on that extra effort, that additional few minutes, that soft word of praise or thanks, that delivery of the very best that you can do. It does not matter what others think, it is of prime importance, however, what you think, about you. You can never do your best, which should always be your trademark, if you are cutting corners and shirking responsibilities. You are special. Act it. Never neglect the little things.
• Og Mandino

Mea culpa. I am a neglector. I am a shirker. I am a skimper too. I do not always do my best. I neglect not only the little things, but sometimes the big ones too. None of this means that I am not working hard or that I am not genuinely trying to live a good life. But what I should do and what I could do sometimes overwhelm me. How about you?

Advice from well-meaning experts is not of much help. Always doing my best is an impossibility. I only do what I can. Would I do better somehow if only I tried harder? Those woulds are very deep. What I would do if time and energy were unlimited is very different from what I actually can do. How about you?

It is difficult to live with this. I see many things that need to be done. I have many dreams for myself. I have a picture in my head of who I ought to be and how I ought to interact with others and I do not always measure up to my own expectations, much less to what others think I should do or who others think I could be if only. . . . . How about you?

It is easier to write the words “always do your best” than it is to accomplish this. Yet we often recommend this strategy in school. I see it posted in schoolrooms and delivered as a mantra of success. Do Your Best! There is good work, there is better work, and there is the best work. Sometimes, for me, good is good enough. I need to save time and energy for the things that matter more. If everything is to be the best, there is no prioritizing, no determining the worth—to others and yourself—of the various shoulds and coulds in your life. I struggle with differentiating these things in the press of endless demands for my time and energy. How about you?

Jim Valvano, Basketball coach for North Carolina State University from 1980 to 1990, said this about the things we should all do every day:

Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.

There is great irony in writing any kind of advice about student success because even as I write, I am aware of those who will find it difficult or impossible to follow my advice no matter how sensible it might seem. The woulds are deep and each of us must find the way through the coulds and shoulds of our lives as we make our own path.

How about you? What are the three things you know you should do every day?

Please give me some good advice in your next letter. I promise not to follow it.
• Edna St. Vincent Millay

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