Bruce Hills tells the story in his book, Inside Out – A Biblical and Practical Guide To Self-Leadership, of a story he read in Gordon MacDonald’s book, Ordering Your Private World (1993, 103), who had borrowed it from a book he read by Polmar and Allen’s in their biography of Admiral Hyman Rickover, “the head of the United States Nuclear Navy from 1949-1982” (2017, 13). He writes, “By all accounts, Admiral Rickover (1900-1986) was a controversial man. He personally interviewed and selected every prospective officer to serve on a US nuclear vessel. Interviewees would often leave the Admiral’s office ‘shaking in fear, anger, or total intimidation.'” Bruce goes on to describe the time that a future US President was interviewed by Rickover after applying for an officer’s position on a nuclear submarine.
To do so, he too had to be interviewed by Rickover, whom he’d never met before. Carter wrote:
…we sat in a large room by ourselves for more than two hours, and he let me choose any subjects I wished to discuss. Very carefully, I chose those about which I knew most at the time – current events, seamanship, music, literature, naval tactics, electronics, gunnery – and he began to ask me a series of questions of increasing difficulty. In each instance, he soon proved that I knew relatively little about the subject I had chosen.
He always looked right into my eyes, and he never smiled. I was saturated with cold sweat.
Finally, he asked a question and I thought I could redeem myself. He asked, “How did you stand in your class at the naval Academy?” Since I had completed my sophomore year at Georgia Tech before entering Annapolis as a plebe, I had done very well, and I swelled my chest with pride and answered, “Sir, I stood fifty-ninth in a class of 820!” I sat back to await the congratulations – which never came. Instead, the question: “Did you do your best?” I started to say, “Yes, sir,” but I remembered who this was and recalled several of the many times at the Academy when I could have learned more about our allies, our enemies, weapons, strategy, and so forth. I was just human. I finally gulped and said, “No, sir, I didn’t always do my best.”
He looked at me for a long time, and then turned his chair around to end the interview. He asked one final question, which I have never been able to forget – or to answer. He said, “Why not?” I sat there for a while, shaken, and then slowly left the room.
President Jimmy Carter in the background with his former Naval Commanding Officer, Admiral Hyman Rickover
DID YOU DO YOUR BEST?
Bruce Hills, having retold this story of Jimmy Carter being interviewed by Admiral Rickover, writes, “That same question, ‘Why not’, shook me to the core.” But as Jimmy Carter discovered, when we look back, we can then see how we might have done better. But that’s the key to it: looking back. But life doesn’t afford us the luxury of hindsight in advance!
Last month, I was privileged to be the guest speaker at Catalyst in Ipswich, Queensland. One of the things I really enjoyed about being at this wonderful church was their multiple services. I have rarely ever preached any message twice. Whenever I am invited to a church, even if I am asked to speak on a particular topic, I always prayerfully consider what should be said and how it should be presented for that church. With this in mind, it has been said that every preacher always has three sermons: the one they prepare; the one they preach; and, the one they wish they’d preached! This brings me back to my time at Catalyst, a 900 member church, which has two multiple services on a Sunday morning. I preached my heart out in their 8:30AM service. I then had 30 minutes before the next service started at 10:30AM. In the break in between the services I had time to self-evaluate the message I’d just given. I saw several ways I could have done better and made some of the points clearer. At the 10:30AM service I preached my heart out again – but this time had the advantage of learning from my inadequacies in the first service. (I wish life was more like this!) I later overheard the pastor of Catalyst, Pastor Carl, tell someone, “Andrew did well in the first service, but he did better in the second service!”
But if Admiral Rickover had looked me in eye and asked, “Did you do your best?” I would honestly say, “Yes sir!” This is despite my confession that I knew I could do better if I had another go, because even in evaluating my efforts in delivering the message the first time, I really did do my best. I think this principle applies to life generally. Most of us do do our best most of the time – especially when it comes to the important things in life like being a friend, an employee, a team-mate, a wife, a husband, a politician, a sales executive, a medical doctor, or a parent. But life’s episodes don’t come with multiple services where we get to have another go.
Life is a sequence of unchangeable events in which we are usually doing our best with what we have and what we know.
DOING YOUR BEST IS NOT A COMPETITION
For some people the word “best” implies being better than anyone else. But the only best we can be expected to do, is the best that we can do! This kind of best is our best effort, our best attitude, and our best focus. The apostle Paul warns against thinking in terms of a competitive best being equated to ourbest.
Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding. Second Corinthians 10:12
Of course, there are times when a challenge from someone we respect is able to bring out our best. I remember being in a church planting directors meeting with David Cartledge who asked about our church in Legana. I shared with him what we had done, and what we still hoped to achieve for the Lord. His parting words to me were, “Andrew, if anyone can do it, you can!” I don’t know if he said that to every young pastor, but his words to me that day filled my motivation tank for at least the next year. I tried harder. I wasn’t trying to compete with anyone else, I was simply trying harder to give my best to the Lord and His church.
WHAT DO YOU DO IF YOU HAVEN’T DONE YOUR BEST?
In André Agassi’s book, Open, he describes his demise from world number 4 to world number 140. He has put on weight. He didn’t train much. And his recent marriage to Brooke Shields was on the rocks. His brother suggested that he get a coach to help him turn things around. He took the advice and engaged Brad Gilbert (1994-2002) who began to help him rebuild his game. He also went back to Gil Reyes, his fitness trainer who helped him to rebuild his body. Gilbert told Agassi that he wasn’t worthy to continue playing the pro-tour; instead, Gilbert told him, he had to go back to basics and begin playing club tournaments. Agassi had the humility to accept Gilbert’s humiliating rebuke and did indeed go back to play club tournaments. To his shock, the first club tournament he played saw him losing in the first round! It was then that he realised just how much trouble he was in. He continued to work hard and entered in more tournaments. After he eventually won one of these club tournaments, his brother was driving him back to the motel in the heat of a Californian summer’s day when André told him, “Pull the car over!” His brother asked why. “Because I didn’t give my best!” André told him. “But you won! And we’re still miles away from our motel – and besides, it’s blistering hot out there!” his brother replied. “I did win, but I only did the minimum I needed to do – and from now on, I’m only going to give my best! I’m running the rest of the way back to our motel.” Indeed he did. After the age of 29, when it was usual for most professional tennis players to have retired, André Agassi went on to win another 4 Grand Slam titles (largely due to his next coach, Darren Cahill).
What do you do when you haven’t given your best?
Recognise how you could have done better.
Do better next time.
In life there are times when we know we have not only not done our best, but we have, in fact, done our worst. When this involves hurting or harming others – especially God – we have a serious problem. I think of the young girl who rebels against her Christian upbringing and gets involved with the wrong crowd. In time she learns to drown her guilt with alcohol, pills and needles. But despite her numbness there is still that feint divine beckoning to come home that she feels is the right thing to do. The good news is, for anyone who has wandered, that God’s Word gives the hope that if we: 1) acknowledge what we have done has been wrong; 2) recognise that actions have hurt those we love, or at least the One who loves us more – God; and, 3) ask for forgiveness, then God promises to forgive us and wipe our slates clean.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. First John 1:8-9
There is tremendous power in an authentic apology. It can begin to heal a fractured friendship, a strained marriage, an injured daughter, or an offended father.
GOD’S HELP TO DO OUR BEST
Paul charges his protégés, Titus and Timothy, several times to do their best. His words to Timothy resound in my heart two thousand years or so later and I would covet your prayers to help me to do my best to be your pastor.
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. Second Timothy 2:15
The future will reveal that we could have done better – but none of us live in the future; we live in the now, and we do the best we can with what we have and what we know. For me, as a friend, husband, parent, pastor, the good news is that as I strive to do my best, I am not yet who I will one day be, and God’s Word tells me that it is God who works in the heart and life of those who strive to do their best for Him.
for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Philippians 2:13