“Is that the best you can do?”

George Couros
5 min readJul 18, 2023

I started reading a fascinating book titled, “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene, and I have to admit it would not be my usual read, but it definitely is interesting. Here’s the description from the back cover:

“A moral, cunning, ruthless, and instructive, this piercing work distills three thousand years of the history of power into forty-eight well-explicated laws. As attention-grabbing in its design as it is in its content, this bold volume outlines the laws of power in their unvarnished essence, synthesizing the philosophies of Machiavelli, Sun-tzu, Carl von Clausewitz, and other great thinkers. Some laws require prudence (“Law 1: Never Outshine the Master”), some stealth (“Law 3: Conceal Your Intentions”), and some the total absence of mercy (“Law 15: Crush Your Enemy Totally”) but like it or not, all have applications in real-life situations. Illustrated through the tactics of Queen Elizabeth I, Henry Kissinger, P. T. Barnum, and other famous figures who have wielded — or been victimized by — power, these laws will fascinate any reader interested in gaining, observing, or defending against ultimate control.”

I must admit that “laws” such as “Crush your enemy totally” seem a bit much, but I haven’t read that part of the book yet.

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But, I have unknowingly shared some “laws” in the past.

For example, as I have consulted with many central office staff, they have shared with me that their bosses may have a bit of an “ego” and that it is getting in the way of them doing great work. My advice has often been that if you feed their ego and sometimes credit them for achievements they may not deserve, they will usually let you continue to do great work. As much as I hate that advice, there is truth to it.

Then I read the first “law” from the book:

LAW 1 — NEVER OUTSHINE THE MASTER

Always make those above you feel comfortably superior. In your desire to please or impress them, do not go too far in displaying your talents or you might accomplish the opposite inspire fear and insecurity. Make your masters appear more brilliant than they are and you will attain the heights of power.

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There are interesting stories throughout history to bring home the author’s points. One that stuck out to me was based on “Law 4 — ALWAYS SAY LESS THAN NECESSARY.” Here is the story from that chapter that caught my attention:

One oft-told tale about (Henry) Kissinger involved a report that Winston Lord had worked on for days.

After giving it to Kissinger, he got it back with the notation, “Is this the best you can do?” Lord rewrote and polished and finally resubmitted it; back it came with the same curt question.

After redrafting it one more time, and once again getting the same question from Kissinger, Lord snapped, “Damn it, yes, it’s the best I can do.”

To which Kissinger replied: “Fine, then I guess I’ll read it this time.”

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To be honest, I loved that story.

Simply asking, “Is this the best you can do?” led a person to look within and find their own way, while setting their own standard for excellence.

Part of the reason this story resonated is my belief in schools helping students find a pathway to success that is meaningful to them. I have argued that if at the end of the year or a student’s time in school, they still need the teacher to help them learn or find their own way, we haven’t truly done our job.

This is true outside the profession as well.

For example, a great personal trainer would help someone eventually figure out their own way to create habits to get the results they seek. They focus less on being a “motivator” and more on instilling “discipline.”

That story regarding Kissinger made me immediately think of what I wrote in “The Innovator’s Mindset” on 8 Things to Look for in Today’s Classroom, specifically regarding “Self-Assessment.”

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Here is a portion of what I wrote on “Self-Assessment” in the book:

“I have never heard a teacher say, “I can’t wait until we get to write report cards!” When you think about who is doing the work, often it’s teachers who are spending countless hours collecting evidence to show others what our students know and can do. If you can write in a report card that a student can do something in October, but they can’t do it in January, is that report card still relevant? Teaching students how to assess themselves, rather than just doing it for them, provides them another opportunity for reflection.

And they will take ownership of their learning.

I think we spend too much time documenting what students know and not enough time empowering them to invest in their own learning and helping them understand their strengths and areas of growth…Looking back helps students develop their own understanding of where they have been, where they are, and where they are going.”

The Innovator’s Mindset

In short, having students reflect and ask themselves, “Is that the best you can do?” can be a pretty valuable reflection question.

The highest standards we will ever attain will be those we set for ourselves.

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George Couros

Innovative Teaching, Learning, and Leadership Consultant. I also like dogs.