This week I have been painting fences. We share a boundary with no fewer than six neighbours, and all of those fences need a lick of paint. They have been neglected long enough; if we leave it any longer they will become warped, or worse, broken.

It takes me about five minutes to change into old clothes, five more minutes to wrestle with the shed door and retrieve the paint and brushes, then I get maybe ten minutes of painting time before someone interrupts me for something.

“Can I have a snack?”

“When I call for you, will you come wipe my bottom?”

“He hit me!”

When I first started painting those metres and metres of fence, I was using a small brush and doing very detailed work. But as time wore on, the interruptions became more frequent, and I tired of the never-ending task (SIX fences, friends. Six.). Instead I’d dip the brush into the gelatinous paint, dripping some onto the patio, and slap it up there any old way. As long as more paint is going on the fence than on me, I’m carrying on.

I know if I spent more time and gave it more care and attention, I could make a neater job of it. It’s not my best work, but it’ll do.

I’ve written before about releasing my desire to do my best. For a long time, doing my best meant getting it right. Doing my best meant getting the correct answer, acing the test, pleasing others. I thought that my best work had to be a cut above. Best is better than better. Best is superlative.

Not only do I not think that way anymore, I simply can’t be that way anymore. The things I do, the work I produce, the jobs that I carry out—none of it turns out as well as I imagine it might if I could give it more time, care and attention. In fact, even if I did have the time and the energy, it’s a simple fact of being a human that nothing I do will ever be perfect. I learned that in the most painful way when I had my first child and post-natal depression, wearing its leering grimace, perched itself on my shoulder for quite some time. I found out, more slowly and painfully than I care to remember, that “doing my best” had become a meaningless phrase. It didn’t matter that I’d done the evening routine perfectly: my baby still didn’t want to sleep. It didn’t matter that I began giving my baby solids in exactly the way the health visitor recommended: she still spat them out and eventually had allergies. The apparent futility and repetition of my daily tasks showed me what an energy drain it is to force myself to do things “just right.” (Wipe the table. Two hours later, wipe the table again. Three hours later, wipe the table again. Do it again tomorrow. And the next day.)

The days of precision are behind me. You might say that I have grown and changed. You might say that motherhood has kneaded the leavening into me and I have risen into something else altogether. You might say I’ve been through a mothermorphosis. Whatever it was, time and experience have taught me that nothing I do will be perfect, and that perfect isn’t actually my best anyway. My best is simply this: to be as authentically me as I can. For me that means releasing superlatives. It means letting the pressure hiss away. It means exhaling and moving on. It means opting out from pushing that huge boulder uphill, and finding out that there’s more to life than boulders. It means licking my fingers and turning the page.

At the end of the day, I’m simply glad that the fence is coated with paint. Who cares if there are splodges on the patio? They’ll wash away in the rain.

When my eldest child was in nursery she had a teacher who always said, in a singsong sort of voice, “It doesn’t matter.” My four year old began to copy the phrase and the voice inflection. She’d come home and squirt an entire tube of red poster paint on the floor then gently intone, “It doesn’t matter.” She’d lean over the table pulling her plate into her lap, rice scattering everywhere, then piously tell me, “It doesn’t matter.” Many a time I felt like a raging bull, internally gritting my teeth and silently groaning, “BUT IT DOES!” Everything did matter, because I wanting things to be just right.

The tables turned when I, myself, made mistakes. In my mind I’d say, “Oh! You’re so —-!” (Insert: clumsy/stupid/embarrassing/idiotic/ridiculous) Dropping my face into my hands, any time I didn’t do my best I felt like a fool. Then a four year old pops up and reminds you, “It doesn’t matter,” and that phrase loses its sanctimony and becomes absolution.

The spectre of “best” hung over me and harmed me for many years. It’s time to slap that paint up there any old way, and simply be grateful that it’s there. It’s good enough and so am I.

© Lisa Hassan Scott 2016.

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8 thoughts on “Just do your best

  • 14/04/2016 at 7:39 pm

    Love it Lisa! Just what us ‘perfectionists’ need to hear!

    • 14/04/2016 at 10:17 pm

      Thank you, Sahir. I hope you and your family are well 🙂

  • 14/04/2016 at 8:47 pm

    Well said. What has helped me is trying to think of “do your best” in terms of the sum of the parts rather than for each individual part. That means letting some things slide so I can do my best overall.

    • 14/04/2016 at 10:18 pm

      Yes, that’s a really helpful way to think about it Steven. I like that!

  • 14/04/2016 at 8:50 pm

    I love this post, Lisa. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my desire for perfection and just not being able to get anything done with three young children. I think a lot of us strive to be perfect, when actually “good enough” is indeed “good enough”. It doesn’t matter is a great mantra to have. Thank you. Just what I needed to read x

    • 14/04/2016 at 10:20 pm

      I really appreciate you stopping by, Cathryn. That feeling of not getting much done is hard, but we do manage to do little bits, eh? Even if they’re only “good enough.”

  • 14/04/2016 at 9:17 pm

    Around here, when things are dropped and broken, a child voice pipes up with “it’s okay!” Because over the many years of breaking things, I’ve finally learned, and passed on to them that it really is okay. Letting go of perfect is a tough but worthwhile endeavor. I’m glad I get to engage in it with you as my friend and compatriot in the effort. xo

    • 14/04/2016 at 10:22 pm

      Friends and compatriots in the effort we certainly are. We make mistakes and it’s ok. It doesn’t matter. xo

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