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This Is All You Have To Do

Daily Stoic Emails

In 1952, Jimmy Carter secured the opportunity of a lifetime: an interview with Admiral Hyman Rickover for a chance to join the nuclear submarine program.

Admiral Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy, was not just one of history’s most brilliant minds, he was also one of history’s most hands-on leaders. He interviewed every single candidate for the submarine service himself, including the future president. These were long interviews. For two to three hours, Rickover asked Carter about strategy, tactics, physics, literature, and history. Carter had prepared for days, weeks even, and the interview seemed to be going well when Rickover asked, “Where were you ranked in your class at the Naval Academy?” Now, it’s only going to get better, Carter must have thought as he swelled up with pride, “I was ranked 59th in a class of 840 sir.” Carter would recall the surprise of not receiving congratulations, but instead another question:

“Did you always do your best?”

Carter began to instinctively answer that of course he always did his best, but something inside of him caused him to pause. “I 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,” Carter would say. So he was honest, “No, sir, I didn’t always do my best.” Rickover didn’t say anything and just looked at Carter for a long time before asking one final question “Why not?” Then he stood up and walked out of the room.

Carter would never forget this question. In fact, his campaign memoir from his run for governor of Georgia is titled, Why Not The Best? This question became the lodestar of Carter’s life, as it should be for ours.

Did I do my best? Am I giving my best? Am I really trying?

This is Stoicism, isn’t it? When the Stoics talk about how you don’t control much else but how you respond to the world around you, this is what they are talking about. All you control is that you do your best. “If you can manage this,” Marcus Aurelius would say, “that’s all even the gods can ask of you.”