Letter XI: Ideals and expectations

My letters are typically published via email to your inbox, and I select a few every now and again to feature on the blog. Letter XI was originally published by email on 3rd July 2019, and was re-published on the blog on 6th September 2019. Subscribe at chrismarr.co.uk

Do you think people are doing the best that they can?

When Brené Brown asked this question, my immediate answer was “yeah, of course I think people are doing the best they can” – because it felt like the right answer.

However, after thinking about it for a while, and reflecting on my own behaviour, the truth is that I don’t think people are doing the best they can. 

  • I judge people I don’t know for being incompetent, lazy or stupid
  • I complain about people I care about because they don’t live up to my expectations
  • I talk about how my friends aren’t being good parents
  • I get angry when someone lets me down
  • I even complain about people complaining!

In my head, I know that I *should* believe that people are doing their best, but my actions and behaviour tell the truth.

I wouldn’t behave or think like this if I truly believed people we’re doing their best.

I think that people can do better. I expect more from people. 

But what if believed that people were all doing the best that they can? How would that change my behaviour? 

Let’s talk through it.


Can you think of someone you know that isn’t doing the best that they can?

I’m sure you can think of at least one person. 

I want you to reflect on that person for a moment. 

  1. What is it about the way they live their life that makes you think they could do better?
  2. What do you then say or think about them and the way they live their life? 
  3. How do you act and behave towards them? 

Take the time. 

Read through the questions. 

Think about it before you read on. 


In this video interview with Russell Brand and Brené Brown, Brené asks her husband the same question. 

After a moment he comes back to her and says “I have no idea [if people are doing the best they can]. But what I do know is that my life is better when I assume they are”.

In that moment I realised that if I want to be a better and more caring person to those that I love and care about the most, I have to believe that they are doing the best they can. 

We look at the people we love and judge their behaviour. We have our own ideals for how we should behave and we expect other people to live up to them. When they don’t, we think they can do better. 

We make the mistake of letting our ideals become our expectations. 

We can’t live like this. We can’t go through each day being frustrated, angry and hateful towards the people we care about the most. 

We have to stop wishing for and forcing people to change and accept them for who they are.

Back to the exercise…

I want you to pretend for a moment that you believe that the person you thought about earlier is doing everything that they can. That he or she is doing their best.

How does altering your perspective change your behaviour? 

With a small tweak in how you think, your behaviour can change dramatically. 

You haven’t changed their behaviour. You haven’t said anything to them. You haven’t tried to change them. 

You simply changed your perspective…and it changes everything.


Is it possible that because you don’t think you’re doing your best, that that’s why you think other people aren’t doing their best?

Think about what it means to ‘do your best’.

Best is not linear. Best is not a consistent level of performance. 

Your best will sometimes produce high quality work and good behaviour, and sometimes it won’t be as good. 

You’re best at 11pm after a long day at work is not the same as your best at 6am the next day after a good night of sleep.

  • Do you feel like you are doing your best? 
  • Do you think other people feel like you are doing your best?
  • How does it feel that other people might be thinking that you aren’t doing your best? 

You might say to yourself “They don’t know who I am”“They don’t know what I’ve been through”“They have no idea what’s going on in my life”.

It’s true. 

So why do we judge other people more harshly than we judge ourselves? 

What’s missing? 

We need to have more self-awareness, more empathy, and more compassion for others. 

If we believe that others are doing their best, we will think and behave differently. 

Similar to forgiveness. We don’t forgive to help other people move on, we forgive so we can move on. 

We don’t change the way we think for others, we do it for ourselves. 

We will be better people because of it, and everyone around us benefits as a result. 


Going forward, be more self-aware about the times when you get annoyed, when you complain or when you are frustrated by other people.

Before you react, before you say something, think to yourself – “They are doing the best they can”.

  • You will stop turning your ideals into expectations
  • You’ll reserve your judgements
  • You’ll talk and complain about other people less
  • You’ll react better in stressful situations
  • You’ll communicate better with people that frustrate you or annoy you
  • You’ll forgive faster
  • You won’t hold on to grudges, anger and hate

You’ll be free. 

It’s not up to us to change people. We can’t help someone that doesn’t want to be helped. 

Everyone is trying to do the best they can, with what they have, in the situation they are in. 

We’re all different. We’re all on our own journey. We all have our own story. We all have our own troubles. 

But we’re all the same too – we all want to to be seen, heard and understood.

If we assume that people are doing their best, I think it makes the world a better place for us all to live in. 

What do you think?