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Dr. Mardy's Quotes of the Week
November 12—18, 2023 | THIS WEEK'S THEME: “Doing Your Best”
On Veteran’s Day 2023, Thanks to All Who’ve Served.
Opening Line of the Week
And write a book he did. Or more precisely, dictated a book. In the last year of his life, while sitting in a comfortable chair in his hospice room, Buchwald dictated the entire memoir—the last of his thirty books—to his longtime associate, Cathy Crowley.
When I couldn’t find a great opener on the precise theme of doing your best, I chose this one instead. But then, after giving the matter some thought, it seemed to me that it perfectly exemplified the theme. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a better example of living your best life than producing a memoir while you are suffering from a terminal illness that will soon take your life.
Buchwald retained his trademark sense of humor right up to the end. After his 2007 death at age 81 from kidney failure, the New York Times website posted a video obituary which began with him saying:
“Hi. I’m Art Buchwald, and I just died.”
One More Thought on Best Opening Lines of 2023
Thanks to the many subscribers who said they’d be on the lookout for great opening lines from books published in 2023 (none have been provided so far, but I have my fingers crossed!). A number of people said they were disappointed I didn’t provide a link to my compilations from the previous three years. You can find them here.
This Week’s Puzzler
On November 17, 2013, this woman died at age 94 in her London home. Six years earlier, in 2007, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The eleventh woman to receive the Prize, she was also, at age 88, the oldest recipient. In announcing the award, the Nobel Committee described her as an “epicist of the female experience.”
At her death, she was best remembered for The Golden Notebook (1962), a novel so popular with early feminists that it became a classic in feminist literature. According to this week’s Mystery Woman, though, there was '“nothing feminist” about the novel. She simply viewed it as the story of a strong but complicated protagonist trying to make her way in chaotic times.
Born in 1919 to British subjects living in Iran (her father was a clerk in The Imperial Bank of Persia), she was six when she moved with her family to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Her father tried his luck as a farmer, but struggled mightily. Growing up in a family with severe financial difficulties, she was determined from an early age to create a different future for herself.
When she dropped out of school at age thirteen, however, her life was directionless. But two years later, while working as a nursery maid in the household of a Rhodesian physician, she was encouraged by her employer to read widely and think more seriously about her future. This encouragement was all she needed, and it wasn’t long before she began to think about the possibility of a literary career.
In 1943, married and with two children under three, she left Zimbabwe to formally pursue a writing career in London, leaving her son and daughter with their father. She ultimately reconnected with the children, but in her 1994 autobiography Under My Skin, she expressed regret over the decision and acknowledged the pain it caused.
In her career, this week’s Mystery Woman went on to write more than fifty books, including The Grass Is Singing (1950), the Children of Violence series, five novels featuring protagonist Martha Quest (published from 1952 to 1969), and Memoirs of a Survivor (1974). She also wrote hundreds of short stories, countless essays and articles, and numerous critical reviews.
Shortly after she was named a Nobel laureate, an article in The Guardian said of her:
“[She] is the ideal winner of the Nobel Prize. After all, the prize is about idealism, and was founded in the belief that writers can make the world a better place.”
In The Golden Notebook, two separate characters made similar remarks:
Who is this person? (Answer below)
Have You Been Satisfied with Less Than Your Best?
The quotations in this week’s Puzzler describe a common phenomenon—the tendency to regard our own creations as excellent even when they are not. The problem is pervasive in human life, and I just got reminded of it while attending a local arts & crafts show. With a few wonderful exceptions, most of the works were amateurish—and often patently sub-standard. I’ve also seen the same thing show up when I’ve reviewed submissions for writing contests: a tiny percentage are first-rate, with the great majority of average quality, or worse. In both of these instances I’ve mentioned, the problem is essentially one of self-deception, with people regarding things they’ve personally created as much better than they truly are.
There is another problem suggested by the quotations in this week’s Puzzler, and that is the practice of shoddy workmanship—as when workers accept the inferior or second-rate as good enough. I got a good lesson in this when I was an eighteen-year-old working in a summer job on the new Air Force Base being built in Glasgow, Montana.
I was originally hired as a common laborer, but when the general supervisor—a guy we all called Supe—found out my father was a carpenter, he believed I had enough familiarity with the craft to be able to work as a carpenter’s helper. Supe was a stern taskmaster, but everybody was okay with that because his emphasis on quality raised the game of all those working under him.
One day, the carpenter I was assisting told Mac he had just finished a series of fairly complicated door jambs. Supe took one look at the work, and the expression on his face was one of clear disappointment. Instead of commenting, though, he asked, “So, what do you think?” After my guy shrugged his shoulders and replied, “I don’t know, it looks good enough to me,” Supe blurted: “Your good enough is not even close to my good enough!” He then carefully disassembled the man’s construction, offering a helpful critique at each step. Walking away, he said:
“Okay, do the goddam thing again, and this time I expect you to build a door jamb that God himself would like to walk through!”
The incident made quite an impression on me at the time, and a number of years later the memory came flooding back in an instant when I read the following words:
In general, the wording of admonitions to “Do Your Best” have a hackneyed quality that is pretty easy to tune out. But these words from Dr. King—just like the words I heard Supe utter a few years earlier—are characterized by both flourish and style.
Another example of exceptional do your best phrasing comes from Ole Kirk Christiansen, a Danish carpenter who began making wooden toys in 1932. In 1934, his company formally became known as Lego, from the Danish word for “play well.” In 1936, he created a motto to remind the firm’s employees to never skimp on quality. The original Danish phrasing was det bedste er ikke for godt. Translated into English, it was striking in its originality:
“Only the best is good enough.”
In 1949, based on a design from an American toy manufacturer, the company began producing interlocking plastic bricks they called Automatic Binding Bricks. Almost immediately, the product began to be called legos, and it went on to make The LEGO Group the world’s largest toy company. In 1957, after Ole’s son Godtfred became the firm’s Managing Director, one of his first actions was to create a wood-cut plaque of his father’s motto. The original plaque—seen below—was first hung in his father’s original workshop and is now displayed in The Lego House in Billund, Denmark:
Over the years, I’ve seen countless parents, teachers, bosses, and clergy offer “do your best” admonitions, but few have taken the additional step of explaining the rationale behind the advice. At its core, the underlying idea is about a commitment to excellence and the many benefits—personal and societal—that result from such a commitment. John W. Gardner expressed it beautifully when he wrote in Excellence (1961):
“We must recognize that there may be excellence or shoddiness in every line of human endeavor. We must learn to honor excellence in every socially accepted human activity, however humble the activity, and to scorn shoddiness, however exalted the activity. An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”
To achieve excellence in one’s work means that only the best is good enough. And this requires dedication, determination, and discipline—three habits that are not only essential for success but are at the core of a meaningful and fulfilling life. They also markedly differentiate quality-oriented people from the many others in the world who routinely sell themselves short by regarding second-rate efforts as acceptable.
Let me close by featuring one of my very favorite “do your best” quotations:
This week, think about the people you’ve known who have embraced the “do your best” concept early in life and carried it with them into adulthood. Are you one of them? And are you still? Ask yourself: “In my most important roles—spouse, parent, boss, employee, student, friend, lover, and citizen—have I been truly committed to the idea of doing my best?” If, after giving the matter some thought, you conclude that you have not, perhaps it’s time to think about getting things back on the right track. As usual, let the following quotations assist you in your thinking:
Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better. — Maya Angelou
One of the rarest things that a man ever does is to do the best he can. — Josh Billings (pen name of Henry Wheeler Shaw)
The best preparation for tomorrow is doing your best today. — H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Do you know that doing your best is not good enough? You have to know what to do. Then do your best. — W. Edward Deming
All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence. — Martin Luther King, Jr.,
We are going to relentlessly chase [perfection], because in the process we will catch excellence. I am not remotely interested in just being good. — Vince Lombardi
To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift. — Steve Prefontaine
Happiness does not come from doing easy work but from the afterglow of satisfaction that comes after the achievement of a difficult task that demanded our best. — Theodore Isaac Rubin
The answer to the big questions in running is the same as the answer to the big questions in life: do the best with what you’ve got. — George Sheehan
For source information on these quotations, and many others on the topic of DOING YOUR BEST, go here.
Cartoon of the Week
Answer to This Week’s Puzzler:
Doris Lessing (1919-2013)
Dr. Mardy’s Observation of the Week
Thanks for joining me this week. See you next Sunday morning, when the theme will be “Illness.”
Regarding My Lifelong Love of Quotations: A Personal Note
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