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Photo of John R. Miles and President Jimmy Carter about the article Did You Always Do Your Best

3 Lessons I Learned from Jimmy Carter: Did You Always Do Your Best?


In the annals of leadership and personal development, few stories resonate as profoundly as the encounter between a young Jimmy Carter and the formidable Admiral Hyman Rickover. This defining moment, etched into history, occurred during Carter’s interview for a position in the Navy’s burgeoning nuclear submarine program. Known for his exacting standards and relentless pursuit of excellence, Admiral Rickover posed a question to Carter that would forever shape his life and legacy: “Did you always do your best?”

Carter’s honest response, “No, sir, I didn’t always do my best,” followed by Rickover’s piercing inquiry, “Why not?” serves as a powerful catalyst for self-reflection and intentional living. This simple yet profound exchange highlights the importance of striving for excellence, being truthful with ourselves, and harnessing our personal agency to become the best versions of ourselves.

In this article, we delve into the depths of this transformative story, exploring the vital lessons it holds about the importance of not settling for less than you’re most capable of achieving. We will uncover how this moment of humility and self-awareness propelled Carter toward a lifetime of distinguished service and leadership, and how we can apply these principles to our own lives. Join me as we reflect on the power of asking ourselves, “Did I do my best?” and the path to living intentionally in the pursuit of greatness.

The Story of Carter and Rickover – Did You Always Do Your Best?

Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, often hailed as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” was a towering figure in the history of the U.S. Navy. Born in Poland and immigrating to the United States as a child, Rickover graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and went on to revolutionize naval warfare by spearheading the development of nuclear propulsion for submarines and ships. His pioneering work not only transformed naval operations but also set new standards for safety, efficiency, and technological innovation. Rickover would serve a total of 63 years of active duty service making him the longest-serving naval officer, as well as the longest-serving member of the U.S armed forces in history

Rickover was renowned for his uncompromising standards and relentless pursuit of excellence. He was a man of exacting principles who demanded nothing short of the best from himself and those around him. His leadership style was often described as autocratic, yet his dedication to his mission and his insistence on accountability and integrity earned him respect and admiration. Under his guidance, the U.S. Navy’s nuclear program became a paragon of precision and reliability, setting benchmarks that have influenced naval and civilian nuclear engineering to this day.

Jimmy Carter’s Interview:

In 1952, a young Jimmy Carter, having recently graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and serving as a midshipman, found himself facing an interview with Admiral Rickover. Carter had applied to join the Navy’s elite nuclear submarine program, an opportunity that promised both challenge and prestige.

During the interview, Rickover’s intense and probing questions were designed to assess not only Carter’s technical knowledge but also his character and commitment. Carter initially felt confident, recounting his academic achievements and accomplishments with pride. 

Jimmy Carter highlighted this conversational interview in his 1976 presidential campaign biography called ‘Why Not the Best?’ He narrates: 

“I had applied for the nuclear submarine program, and Admiral Rickover was interviewing me for the job. It was the first time I met Admiral Rickover, and we sat in a large room by ourselves for more than two hours. 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 a cold sweat.”

Picture of President Jimmy Carter wearing a Midshipmen uniform. He is know for the saying Did you always do your best

However, Rickover’s final question cut through this veneer: “Did you always do your best?”

Carter’s narration continues:

“I started to say, ‘Yes sir,’ but I remembered who this was and recalled several times 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.”

This simple yet profound question left Carter speechless and introspective.

The Turning Point:

This moment of humility and introspection was pivotal for Carter. The encounter with Rickover exposed a fundamental truth about personal accountability and the pursuit of excellence. It highlighted the gap between his potential and his performance, urging him to strive harder and aim higher.

For Carter, this was more than just a challenging interview; it was a catalyst for change. He realized that to truly excel and lead, he needed to commit fully to doing his best in all endeavors, no matter how small or routine. This encounter shaped his future approach to leadership and personal growth, instilling in him the values of integrity, perseverance, and intentionality.

The Power of Intentionality

Intentionality is the practice of making deliberate choices and taking purposeful actions that align with our values, ambitions, and aspirations. It involves living with a clear sense of direction and purpose, rather than simply reacting to circumstances. Being intentional means actively shaping our lives by making conscious decisions that reflect what truly matters to us. This approach is crucial for personal and professional development as it allows us to focus our energy and resources on achieving our aspirations.

The significance of intentionality lies in its transformative potential. When we are intentional, we set clear goals and take consistent, purposeful steps toward achieving them. This proactive mindset fosters growth, resilience, and fulfillment. It empowers us to navigate challenges with a sense of purpose and maintain alignment with our core values, leading to a more meaningful and impactful life.

Carter’s Transformation:

Jimmy Carter’s interview with Admiral Rickover was a pivotal moment that sparked a profound transformation. The question, “Did you always do your best?” and Carter’s honest admission of falling short, prompted deep self-reflection. This moment underscored the importance of intentionality in pursuing personal excellence.

One of Carter’s significant achievements in the Navy exemplifies his commitment to intentionality and doing his best. Carter was part of a team of nuclear engineers tasked with saving Canada’s Chalk River nuclear reactor after a partial meltdown. Due to their work on the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, Rickover, and Carter had access to top-secret nuclear energy technology, making Carter one of the few capable of handling such a task.

The reactor’s fuel rods had melted partially, rupturing the reactor and flooding the facility’s basement with radioactive water. In his autobiography, “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety,” Carter described how they prepared for the repair by building an exact replica of the reactor on a nearby tennis court to practice and track their progress. Carter and his team members were lowered into the reactor in 90-second intervals to clean the site, the maximum time humans could safely be exposed to the radiation levels present. Due to his dedication to doing his best and demanding the same from his team, they successfully fixed the complex problem.

Admiral Rickover later praised Carter’s work, noting that it laid the groundwork for his broader understanding of atomic science. At the 1977 commissioning of a nuclear-powered cruiser, Rickover remarked, “He did an outstanding job. In the process, he learned much about the practical aspects of nuclear power.”

This experience, combined with the lesson from his interview with Rickover, propelled Carter to adopt a more intentional and disciplined approach to his endeavors. He understood that achieving his full potential required a steadfast commitment to excellence in every aspect of his life. This shift in mindset was evident in his subsequent achievements and leadership style.

A Life of Intentional Leadership and Lasting Impact

Following his service in the Navy, Carter returned to Plains, Georgia, where he took on the role of a peanut farmer. But his desire to make a larger impact led him into state politics. In 1962, he entered the political arena, and by 1970, he was elected Governor of Georgia. His tenure as governor was marked by progressive reforms and a commitment to civil rights, reflecting his intentional approach to leadership.

In 1977, Carter became the 39th President of the United States. During his presidency, he faced significant challenges, including economic difficulties and international crises. Yet, he approached these issues with the same intentionality he had embraced years earlier. He worked tirelessly to combat inflation and unemployment, oversee the creation of nearly eight million jobs, and reduce the budget deficit. His domestic achievements included establishing a national energy policy, deregulating industries, expanding the national park system, and creating the Department of Education. He also bolstered the Social Security system and appointed record numbers of women, Blacks, and Hispanics to government positions.

After his presidency, Carter continued to live a life of intentionality and service. He wrote numerous books, including “Why Not the Best?” and traveled extensively to conduct peace negotiations, monitor elections, and work on eradicating infectious diseases. His involvement with Habitat for Humanity further exemplified his commitment to making a positive impact on the world.

Why Not the Best book by Jimmy Carter

In 2002, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, advance democracy and human rights, and promote economic and social development. This honor was a testament to his lifelong dedication to living with purpose and intentionality.

Today, at 99 years old, President Jimmy Carter can confidently say that he has lived his best life, continuously striving to make a positive impact on the world. His story is a powerful example of how the principles of personal agency and intentionality can lead to a life of profound significance and lasting legacy.

The transformation sparked by his interview with Rickover and reinforced by his experiences underscores the power of intentionality. It demonstrates how a commitment to doing our best, informed by deliberate choices and purposeful actions, can lead to significant personal growth and lasting impact. Carter’s journey serves as an inspiring example of how embracing personal agency and intentionality can propel us toward becoming our ideal selves and making a meaningful difference in the world.

The Path to Living Your Most Intentional Life: 3 Lessons from Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter’s pivotal encounter with Admiral Rickover offers profound insights into living a life of purpose and intention. By drawing on the lessons from this story, we can learn to navigate our lives with greater clarity and dedication. Here are three key lessons for intentional living that we can glean from Carter’s experience.

Takeaway 1: Honest Self-Assessment

Just as Carter admitted to not always doing his best, we must cultivate the courage to evaluate our efforts honestly. This self-awareness is the foundation of intentional living and the first step toward improvement. By recognizing where we fall short, we can understand our limitations and identify areas for growth. Honest self-assessment is not about being overly critical but about embracing a clear and truthful perspective on our performance and behavior.

Self-awareness involves a deep understanding of our values, strengths, weaknesses, and motivations. This introspection allows us to make decisions that align with our authentic selves. By consistently engaging in self-reflection, we gain clarity about our true desires and aspirations.

Applying these lessons to your life: 

1. Regular Reflection:

  • Action: Set aside time each week to review your actions and decisions. Journaling can be a powerful tool for this purpose. Write about your experiences, thoughts, and feelings, and analyze how they align with your values and goals.
  • Example: Regularly ask yourself, “Am I doing my best?” and be honest in your assessment.

2. Seek Feedback:

  • Action: Seek feedback from trusted friends, family members, or mentors. They can provide valuable perspectives on your behavior and decisions, helping you see areas for improvement.
  • Example: Schedule regular feedback sessions with a mentor to discuss your progress and identify areas for growth.

3. Utilize Assessment Tools:

4. Practice Mindfulness:

  • Action: Incorporate mindfulness practices into your routine to enhance self-awareness. Meditation, deep breathing exercises, and mindful journaling can help you stay present and attuned to your thoughts and feelings.
  • Example: Spend 10 minutes each morning meditating to start your day with clarity and focus.

By regularly engaging in these practices, you create a habit of continual improvement. Use this reflection to identify areas for growth and set higher standards for yourself, ultimately guiding you towards a more intentional and fulfilling life.

Takeaway 2: Embrace Intentionality

Carter’s encounter with Rickover highlighted the need for a deliberate approach to his duties and ambitions. Intentional living requires setting clear, well-defined goals. Without specific goals, it’s challenging to measure whether you are truly doing your best. By living intentionally, you ensure that your actions are purpose-driven and aligned with your long-term vision.

Applying these lessons to your life: 

1. Set SMART Goals:

  • Action: Use the SMART criteria to set your goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. This enhances clarity and feasibility.
  • Example: Instead of setting a vague goal like “improve my career,” aim for something more specific, such as “earn a promotion to senior manager within two years by developing my leadership skills and exceeding performance targets.”

2. Break Down Goals:

  • Action: Once you have your goals, break them down into smaller, manageable steps. This approach makes large goals less overwhelming and allows you to track your progress more effectively.
  • Example: If your goal is to write a book, break it down into steps such as creating an outline, writing daily, and setting deadlines for each chapter.

3. Create a Vision Board:

  • Action: A vision board is a visual representation of your goals and aspirations, including images, quotes, and words that inspire you. Display your vision board where you see it daily to keep your goals top of mind.
  • Example: Include pictures of career achievements, healthy habits, or personal milestones to stay motivated and focused.

4. Regularly Review and Adjust Goals:

  • Action: Review and adjust your goals regularly to ensure they remain aligned with your values and circumstances. Life is dynamic, and your goals may need to evolve over time.
  • Example: Conduct quarterly or bi-annual reviews to assess progress and make necessary adjustments.

5. Find Accountability Partners:

  • Action: Find accountability partners who can help you stay on track. These could be friends, family members, or colleagues who share similar goals or values. Regular check-ins with your accountability partners can provide motivation and support.
  • Example: Schedule weekly or monthly check-ins to discuss progress, challenges, and next steps.

By developing a habit of setting clear, purposeful goals and breaking them down into actionable steps, you can pursue them with determination and focus. These practices will help you live more intentionally, ensuring your actions are aligned with your long-term vision and values, ultimately enhancing productivity and bringing a deeper sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Takeaway 3: Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement is essential for achieving your ideal self. Carter’s story teaches us that recognizing past shortcomings is crucial, but more importantly, we must strive for ongoing growth. In the words of Bruce Lee, “If you always put a limit on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.” To live intentionally, you must push beyond perceived limitations, continuously learning and stepping out of your comfort zone.

Applying these lessons to your life: 

1. Prioritize Continuous Learning:

  • Action: Commit to lifelong learning by seeking knowledge and experiences that challenge and broaden your understanding. Engage in both formal and informal learning through courses, certifications, books, workshops, podcasts, and educational videos.
  • Example: Invest in professional development opportunities like conferences, seminars, and online courses to stay sharp and adaptable.

2. Take Personal Responsibility:

  • Action: Hold yourself accountable for your actions and choices. Embrace mistakes as learning opportunities and reflect on what you can do differently next time.
  • Example: If a project fails, analyze what went wrong and develop a plan to improve in the future, rather than blaming external factors.

3. Consciously Push for More:

  • Action: Push beyond your perceived limitations by committing to continuous improvement and stepping out of your comfort zone. Prioritize learning and adaptability to expand your knowledge and capabilities.
  • Example: Take on new challenges at work that require you to develop new skills, even if they seem daunting initially.

4. Practice Resilience:

  • Action: Build mental strength to navigate setbacks and obstacles without losing sight of your commitment to excellence. Learn from failures and use them as stepping stones to greater achievements.
  • Example: When faced with a setback, adapt and find alternative solutions instead of being discouraged.

By adopting a mindset of continuous improvement, you commit to a lifelong journey of learning and personal growth. As Les Brown said, “The only limits to the possibilities in your life tomorrow are the buts you use today.” Decide today to end all the excuses you’re giving yourself for not doing your best, and consciously put these actions into practice to live the wholesome life you desire.


Let’s reiterate the profound importance of intentionality in personal development. Jimmy Carter’s transformative encounter with Admiral Rickover serves as a powerful reminder that while we may not always do our best, recognizing this fact and striving for improvement is what propels us toward becoming our ideal selves.

Carter’s journey underscores the necessity of honest self-assessment, the value of setting purposeful goals, and the power of continuous improvement. His story teaches us that intentional living requires a commitment to evaluating our efforts truthfully, aligning our actions with our values, and consistently pushing beyond our perceived limitations.

Call to action:

I encourage you to reflect on your own journey. Embrace your personal agency, understanding that you have the power to shape your life through deliberate choices and purposeful actions. Commit to living intentionally in pursuit of your goals, and don’t shy away from the hard questions or the challenging paths.

Remember, the journey to becoming Passion Struck is ongoing and requires intentional effort. Let Carter’s story inspire you to live with purpose and dedication. By doing so, you will not only achieve personal excellence but also make a meaningful impact on the world around you.

Thank you for joining me on this journey of becoming Passion Struck. Stay intentional, stay committed, and keep striving for your best. Until next time, keep pursuing the life you truly desire.



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