Have you ever read something that immediately changed your life?
I want to tell you about something that I read about a year ago that immediately changed my life for the better. Before I dive into what this was, let me pose a question:
“Do you think, in general, that people are doing the best they can?”
When I first read this question posed by Brené Brown, in her book Rising Strong, I was taken aback. While I had never really asked myself this question before, I immediately knew what my answer was.
Let me try to explain how this question came up in Rising Strong as I think you will find the story fascinating.
The story begins with Brené arriving at a hotel the night before a speaking engagement. Because of the conference’s budget, Brené was asked to share a room with another speaker, which she wasn’t excited about. Upon entering her non-smoking room, Brené met her roommate, who was feet up on the couch eating a messy cinnamon roll. In an attempt to greet Brené, the roommate proceeded to wipe her icing covered hands on the couch. Shortly thereafter, the roommate went out onto the balcony, where she began smoking a cigarette. Brené was infuriated, not only because it was a non-smoking room, but Brené is a former smoker.
The next morning, Brené delivered her speech and shortly thereafter left to go to the airport. As she was waiting to board her plane, she recognized that everyone around her was bothering her in some way. She realized that she was still infuriated about being stuck with a lousy roommate. And, she continued to dwell upon the woman and how disgusting she was.
The day following, Brené met with her therapists still fuming about the woman that was her roommate. In their session, Brené vented her feelings about the roommate, labeling the roommate as a sewer rat. At the height of Brené’s venting, her therapist asked her the question that has since come to change my life. The therapist asked: “Do you think it’s possible that your roommate was doing the best she could that weekend?” To which, Brené responded with an incensed are-you-kidding-me? “No!”
Putting the question back on the therapist, Brené asked, “Do you?” To which, the therapist responded with, “I’m not sure. I do, however, think that in general people are doing the best they can.”
This was something Brené was unwilling to accept. With their time up, Brené left to go to the bank. Standing in line waiting for the next available teller, there was an older white woman who began yelling at an African American teller that was helping her, saying, “This can’t be right! I didn’t make these withdrawals. I want to see a manager!”
The teller pointed to his supervisor, who was helping another customer a few windows down. The supervisor was a middle-aged African American woman. Upon this the customer then said, “No! I want a different supervisor!” Implying that she wanted to speak to someone who was not African American. And, a different supervisor escorted the woman to an office.
Brené then stepped to the counter, and the teller asked, “Can I help you?”
Still being incensed from her therapy session, Brené asked, “Do you think people are doing the best they can?”
After a bit of back and forth, the teller responded with, “Yeah. Probably. She’s scared about her money. Who knows? Something Brené was unwilling to accept.
Not wanting to let this question—“Are people, in general, doing the best that they can?—rest, Brené went on to conduct research on the question, conducting interviews where she asked participants the question. Very early on into her research, a clear pattern developed. Either people responded with something along the lines of, “You can’t be sure, but I think so,” or with an emphatic “No!”
As she was wrapping up her research, she went out to dinner with a friend. At dinner, Brené asked her the question. Her friend shot back with a defiant: “Oh, hell no!”
Brené responded with: “Right? I totally agree.”
Then, her friend went on to say: “Let’s take breastfeeding for example. I’m nursing my daughter right now. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s exhausting. Yes, I’ve had three infections and it feels like glass cutting into my nipple every time she latches on. But, please. Do not tell me about needing your body back or feeling tired or needing to supplement for work. I don’t want to hear it. If you’re not going to breastfeed for at least a year, you should think twice about having children. You are not doing the best you can, and don’t you think your children deserve your best? Quitting is lazy. And if quitting really is your best, maybe your best isn’t good enough.”
This hit Brené like a ton of bricks because even though she desperately wanted to, she was unable to breastfeed her children. In that moment, she wanted to convince her friend that she loved her kids as much as her friend did, and she wanted to tell her friend that she did the best she could.
Brené awakened to how it felt to be seen as someone who wasn’t doing her best, when she felt like she was.
Upon arriving home from dinner, Brené then asked her husband the question. His response after carefully pondering was, “My life is better when I assume people are doing the best they can,” which Brené came to agree with.
Through her research, Brené found a startling finding: The research participants who answered “no” were also people who struggled with perfectionism.
When I read this story, I was immediately changed. I was changed because I became awake to something that, until then, had been hidden in my subconscious: I generally believed that others were not doing the best they can.
When I awakened to this, I saw how my subconscious processing affected how I thought about and treated others. Let me give you a couple examples.
I am now ashamed of this, but before I read this story, I often viewed homeless people as people who were not doing the best they could. As such, my thoughts upon seeing them would often be something along the lines of, “Go get a job instead of stand here asking for money.” But now, I approach those who are homeless with the thought, “What has happened in your life that has led you to believe that this is the best way to live?” By believing they are doing the best they can, I have become much more empathetic.
Similarly, my relationships with my family members and students have changed. In the past, when people have not lived up to my expectations, I was inclined to be somewhat condescending and point my fingers at them, thinking: “What is wrong with you?”
But now, when people underperform, I ask myself two questions that require I point my finders back at myself: (1) “Who am I being that their life is not shining?” or (2) “What resources are they lacking that prevented them from doing a better job?” The first question invites me to change and the second question invites me to better empower those I am living and working with.
Now I ask you: “Do you think, in general, that people are trying the best they can?”
In the end, I hope three things will come of this article:
- I hope this helps you awaken more to how you see and approach others
- I hope this helps you see others as generally trying their best, resulting in you being much more empathetic toward others
- I hope you will be willing to share something that you have read that immediately changed your life (comment below)