A Cordelian Conscience

I remember in 7th grade my coach for PE class often told us we should put 110% effort into our exercise. This annoyed me, of course. Is it 110% of my total capability of effort? Because then for me to exert that is clearly impossible. Is it 110% of someone else’s effort? Then under what assumptions about understanding of context is it that I could reasonably guess whose total effort I should exert an amount with respect to? (And if someone’s maximum capacity of effort was truly at least 9% lower than mine, isn’t it a bit mean to continuously demonstrate how you are exerting an amount of effort that just barely exceeds what they’re maximally capable of?)

On a more serious note, I do believe that suggesting the impossible is quite a way to lose credibility, even when presented as a suggestion of the spirit of mind. Someone who tells me I’m capable of running up all 20 flights of stairs in a 20-flight staircase will frankly be probably able to see me successfully scale more of the staircase than someone who tells me I’m capable of running 22 flights of the same staircase. Even if understood as hyperbole, such suggestions make the realistic situation lose value.

What I actually intend to deconstruct today, though, is the idea of putting 100% effort. How productive is it to suggest that one’s work should see the maximum of one’s effort, to suggest, as often is, that one must always try one’s best?

I’ve consistently been a little bothered inside when people in my life ask me to exert my full effort, to work as hard as I can on something. I could say that I’m using my maximum effort, but if I actually say so, I wouldn’t really be being honest, and by a long shot. Pretty much everywhere in life, I could probably do something that will surely cause me to be putting more effort into a certain task. I could choose to eat at a nearer restaurant. I could drop hobbies. I could take out time to work on other tasks I need to perform and put that time instead into this task. And I think it is not hard to conclude that if I actually dropped all of these things to actually put full effort into one task, this would certainly lead to suboptimal outcomes for me, for others, and for the world.

At the start of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Lear asks his three daughters Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia to pledge their unwavering love to him to qualify for inheriting a share of his kingdom. Goneril and Regan flatter him by declaring all their love to him, but Cordelia admits that honestly, there are other things in the world that deserve some of her love (like her husband), and due to this disappointing promise is disinherited from any of Lear’s land. Later on, Lear learns that Goneril and Regan truly didn’t have any semblance of love for Lear, only interested in declaring it as a means to the land, whereas Cordelia was truly actually still there to help him. (One would think that someone who has been King a lifetime would’ve learned this by now, no?) Needless to say, he (and not only he) pays dearly for reaching realizations this late.

Generally, we need to value and incentivize honestly stating what one can reasonably output. It may be courageous and enterprising to stretch one’s limits, but it is more respectable to be able to accept and admit where one’s limits are, at least for now. Admitting that one doesn’t currently have the capability to take something on does not exclude that one is trying to soon be able to. Even if someone could actually achieve something right now if they exerted 100% of their effort, it must be respected that it is very likely unreasonable to expect them to do so, given what might need to be dropped to make 100% effort happen. More will come out of a franker comparison of values and expectations, and we should remember to appreciate displays of Cordelian honesty.

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