Personal best is a phrase we generally associate with athletics, a phrase that suggests we’re striving to run a faster mile, to power through a greater number of reps, to bench a more impressive weight — giving our all to achieve the highest possible level of performance we can, as mental focus and physical prowess join forces.
Going for our best performance may become a helpful habit when we’re young, as we get into the groove of competing not only on the track or field, in the pool or on the tennis court, but for some of us, in academics or the arts as we shoot for our version of an ever-moving brass ring; we want the rush, the laser focus, the heady pleasure of “going for it” and maybe, just maybe, getting it.
And then we quickly set our sights on something even bigger, bolder, better, and more challenging to our passionate pursuit of the next objective.
Personal Best and Mental Toughness
Consider this definition of personal best:
One’s best possible performance given the time and resources available.
Wherever we may choose to apply personal best as a standard, isn’t it really about striving for excellence? Isn’t it more about the striving than a static goal? Can’t we go for it at any stage of life, taking on a 5k run at 45 after years of being sedentary, or a marathon at 55 after a year of intensive training?
Any discussion of personal best surely leads to the concept of mental toughness, a subject I find fascinating, and that I once described in light of my experience of solo parenting:
As a single mother, going it alone… mental toughness has been a critical survival tool… The psychology of mental toughness is often referenced in sports – [it is] that ability to dig deep, to push through pain, to go the distance of the marathoner – to find a combination of relaxation, motivation, and mega-watt energy to meet the challenge of competition, and the limitations of your own body.
An ability to cope with and handle stress, pressure, and adversity; an ability to overcome or rebound from failures; an ability to persist or a refusal to quit.
And I came to understand:
It isn’t that we don’t recognize our limitations, but we develop the skills to push past them, using self-talk, our own positive energy, visualizing the end goal…
Personal Best Shifts Focus
Naturally, the areas in which we dig deep for that ability to cope, and where we persist in order to accomplish goals, will change as our lives change.
As an example, going through physical therapy for a number of months now, not only have I been battling back from a decade of chronic pain (and winning), but I am trying to regain strength and mobility in my back, legs, shoulders and arms, all of this the legacy of old injuries left untended.
Seeking to incrementally improve — which I have, and continue to do — my personal best will be a matter of what I can do with where I am in my life today, helped along by perspective on how far I’ve come from wondering if chronic pain would own me forever, or if I could somehow escape its grip. This “success” thus far is the result of my own stubborn persistence, sustained effort, and luck in finally finding a superb physician, not to mention two phenomenal physical therapists.
To feel well, to begin to feel well, to regain strength and stamina in my limbs after so many years of compromised capacity and constant pain, to have my physical self rejoining my intellectual and emotional self in simple activities, is a gift of inexpressible happiness.
And with continued work, a team approach, and a bit of good fortune, it will only get better from here.
The Pleasure of Process
Personal best, for me, is about process over result; about energy and desire for achievement as much as the achievement itself; about reining in any tendency to make comparisons to others whose “time and resources available” are dramatically different from my own, rendering those comparisons pointless exercises in undermining efforts rather than reinforcing them.
Personal best is an attitude, an approach, an adventure; it is a hunger, a dedicated process of simultaneously reaching inward and outward, of marshaling resources to seek something of value in ourselves, and of passionate interest in the world, and perhaps, to the world. Once in the flow of its pursuit, even as we are grasping it, for many of us personal best must include elements of giving back. Whether or not this is a function of maturity or means, I cannot say. The need to contribute is a driving force for many people I have known in my life, at every stage.
However “small” our goals in the realms that matter to us, when we give our best to them, I strongly believe the ripple effects to be powerful, exemplary, connective, contagious even, as a model of refusing stagnation, and even against the most obvious odds life will throw our way. After all, while much may be determined by genes or chemical makeup, aren’t we then molded by childhood and ongoing experience? By seeking options? As human beings open to possibility, aren’t we so much more than what we feel programmed to become?
We make choices and we allow them to pass. We stand up and we stand by. We are actors and agents. We bear the responsibility for our words and our silence, our initiatives and our hesitation. We own the capacity for change, even if changes are “only” incremental and subtle shifts in awareness and behavior. We know ourselves to be capable of surprising depth and breadth of emotion, and in particular, joy.
Joy, too, is contagious when we allow it to fill us at will, and to spill over and “infect” those around us.
Hello… Practical Limits?
Naturally, there are practical limitations that rear their heads. At (barely) five feet tall, had I dreamed of a career as a basketball player or runway model, I would have been sorely disappointed.
More generally, we all understand that priorities and pragmatism assert themselves in any discussion of this sort — we’re back to the issue of resources — especially once we enter the adult world. There, typically, we find ourselves responsible for the monthly mortgage, raising children, maneuvering workplace politics, keeping the boss satisfied with our performance, and compromising — perhaps too much, too long, too readily. And then we look up, only to find ourselves middle-aged, quite possibly caring for our elderly parents.
Any notion of the best self gets lost in the wash, sometimes literally, as we discover that muddling through is as much as we can hope for, and managing anything more is wearily deemed “success.”
Beyond familial roles, we can look to the business world for examples; we pick and choose how to allocate expensive or scarce resources, where “best” is neither smart nor sustainable, but “better” (than your competitors) owns the day.
We may also look to something as commonplace as a blog. Surely, I am my own example of that — arranging thoughts and words quickly, and with little time to edit (as revenue-generating tasks will call); consequently, rare are the essays or columns here that satisfy my deepest desire to reach for my personal best. Yet I haven’t lost my love for writing in all its forms, for the meticulous machinery of language, and for its magnificent capacity to inspire, inform, entertain, encourage, mesmerize, motivate, and ultimately, to create positive change.
Personal Best in Relationships
Oh, there are so many ways we could interpret these “easy” questions!
I haven’t been shy in writing about relationships, referring not only to my own, but to those closely observed, and those discussed with friends or family. I have clearly stated my belief that we ought to go for “good” in relationships, or at least, to recognize and appreciate its value, to understand that no person and no couple can be a shining beacon of all things spectacular, in all ways and at all times, that we cannot be all things to each other (how dull is that!), and that we must allow for the ebb and flow of one another’s growth, struggles, dreams, desires.
Sometimes, changes will separate us. Sometimes, we can grow together, even if seemingly in different directions.
Personal Best of the Most Personal Sort
In the longing for relationships that awaken our best selves, in the exploration of relationships that are newly budding, in the delights of love’s earliest and most intimate discoveries, experience teaches us to enjoy the sensations of soaring while keeping our feet on the ground.
Beyond limerence, however delicious, lies the reality of the work that goes into developing and maintaining meaningful connections, and just as important, the complexity and unpredictability of factors that must be taken into account as time goes on.
We may see personal best as the union of focus on a challenging (moving) target as well as the rigorous process that gets us there, an approach that values an egalitarian marriage of effort and results, and an evolutionary concept that we reshape to suit our activities as needs and priorities change — applicable from domain to domain, from the physical to the intellectual, from the professional to the relational, and in myriad other ways — yet never entirely clear-cut, never solely sequential, always interrelated, often mysterious.
In all the aspects of life about which I feel passionately and also constrained, I insist on the importance of my personal best: I love its underlying principle that reminds us of the significance not only of context, but of striving; of going for it and pushing ourselves — which doesn’t eliminate the moments we savor that coexist with the pursuit, the chase, the hunt, the race — whatever you wish to call it.
The very fact that we can rethink the influence, relevance, and usefulness of our personal best; that we can revive its vitality, its audacity, its capacity to kick aging apathy in the ass; the conviction that we can ride its enormous energetic wave toward something new — a source of personal pride, a loving partnership, a meaningful contribution — is a wondrous reminder that we are alive.
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