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Why 'Do It Well, Or Don't Do It At All' Is Terrible Advice!

Updated: 6 days ago

Today I came across the line “Do it well or don’t do it at all”, a piece of advice I’ve come across many times in my life but to which I’ve never really given much thought until now. On the face of it appears to be good advice, seemingly extolling the virtues of hard work and effort over a perhaps half-hearted or lackadaisical attitude. Who could argue with that?

Except the phrase doesn’t really have anything to do with hard work and effort but has everything to do with success and that is a big difference. Hard work and effort are mostly within our control, success on the other hand rarely is. Sure hard work and effort may increase our chances but success is never guaranteed, other factors are always at play. There is just no margin for error in the phrase, you have the option to do well or not, and if you can’t do well, then you shouldn’t bother at all. That is a pretty hard message if you take it to heart, and sadly lots of us do.

You see, the problem with the phrase is there is no scope for trying and failing to be seen as acceptable. No option for trial and error, or for a learning curve. You simply have to succeed or not bother at all, and that as you might imagine can be seriously problematic for most of us, normal fallible human beings. Who hasn’t failed at something? It’s part of the normal learning process. Even those people we most admire in whatever field will have had failures along the way – moments of poor performance from which they learnt in order to progress to become even better

So what, you might ask? It’s just a phrase! And you would be right. Except that words have more power than we sometimes credit them with, especially if we learn them early on. How many times during our childhood are we rewarded for success and our failures either ignored or worse actually responded to negatively? We learn it is being successful that makes us “good” and “worthwhile” in the eyes of others. We are told “good boy” or “good girl” when we succeed and we come to associate our”goodness” with our”success”.

Failure, however, brings uncomfortable thoughts emotions like shame, or embarrassment because good has come to meant success in our minds.. And this, unfortunately, often continues in to our adult lives. It’s perhaps no wonder that people can become demotivated, anxiety ridden or even paralyised by the possibility of not succeeding, or doing “well” because to risk the possibility of failure means risking the possibility of not being “good” and with that come feelings of embarrassment or shame.

These emotional consequences can appear too great a risk to take for many of us and it becomes easier to retreat in to our comfort zone, to not risk failure with all that it appears to say about us. The problem is if we do that we risk something greater, we risk not experiencing or learning things that may enrich our lives. Our lives become less satisfying and less purposeful because we are told, and then tell ourselves, that we must “do it well, or not do it at all”!

So, if we can see the problem with the phrase and it’s well meant but severely life limiting advice what can we do differently? Well firstly we can stop focussing on having to “do well” all the time and notice that that rule often puts more pressure on us than is necessary. We can also shift the focus from success to effort. Ironically, despite our focus on success effort remains the biggest predictor of success that an individual has control of, and yet we focus on the outcome (success) and not what it takes to get there (effort).

Ask yourself, would you consciously want to tell a child they weren’t “good” because they didn’t get an A in their exam, even if they studied hard? Surely not. Perhaps instead you might praise the effort they put in and the progress they have made over time? Maybe focusing on the distance they had covered rather than focusing on an arbitrary finish line? Would that be a more compassionate way to help a child and a better way to help them be motivated to continue putting the effort in so they can continue to progress and develop?

The answer is of course yes, so why not then extend that compassion to yourself…as hard as it is to accept the same rules apply to you too, it’s only your mind, having learned this phrase “do it well or don’t do it at all” that is telling you different in an effort to protect you from feeling uncomfortable. But perhaps we would feel less uncomfortable if we valued effort more, and also, perhaps just as importantly, feeling uncomfortable occasionally is worth it if we are able to try things we normally wouldn’t and enrich our lives as a result?

So if we want to reduce the power of this rule, “do it well…” in our lives an important skill is to learn to recognise when we are applying this “do it well…”rule to ourselves. We can ask is this helping me to live the life I want to be living? Mindfulness training can help with this, but even just knowing our own version of that rule and looking out for it when it shows up can help us make some big changes in our lives. When we notice it we can ask ourselves would I be better off trying something, doing my best but maybe not successfully, but in doing so learning from it so I can get better next time?

Would this let me live my life the way I want to live, and let me have the experiences I want to have in my life? Or would my life really be better off living by a rule that tells me not to bother if I can’t be great at something? Is that really the life I want to look back on when I’m much older?

Finally is it worth risking feeling a little uncomfortable emotion such as embarrassment if it means my life grows as a result?

A final note from one of the great inventors in history, Thomas Edison, who changed the world with the invention of, amongst other things, the lightbulb. A man who knew a thing or two about the value of effort over success…

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. Thomas A. Edison

Christian K Hughes is a Psychotherapist, Clinical Supervisor, and Clinical Trainer, specialising in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, with expertise in Trauma, PTSD, and a special interest in Moral Injury.

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