In tv shows and movies whenever there is a problem, rich people can summon “the best” experts in the field. They know the “best people”, “best doctors”, their kids go to the “best schools”.
United States in general has a fascination with the best people. College rankings are a very widely used system to see which ones are the best. We routinely see lists of best professionals and lists like 30 under 30.
This fascination is now more dangerous than ever because of the ease with which we can connect with each other and read all about the “best” people. The feats of these people get shared again and again until you become really familiar with all the habits of the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, from the 5 books they read to their morning rituals. These articles give the sense that if we the rest of the mortal souls could only do what the best people do in the mornings maybe we can reach great heights. Alas we are too lazy, or not dedicated enough to be the best.
There are issues with the concept of “best”. The major one is that it requires a kind of measurement scale to rank things. This is not an easy task, especially for things like “success” which can have so many variables. US News ranking of colleges has been under fire for a very long time because of their methodology yet their rankings are very influential. There is nothing inherently wrong with trying to build ranking algorithms, but the quality of data collected and the rigorousness of the methods matter. Yet we don’t quite question whether a ranking is rigorous, because we have been used to it and come to expect it since our early education lives.
The best people are by definition outliers. They have some attribute in their lives that gives them an edge. Bill Gates for instance was born to wealthy parents and was lucky to be able to use a computer during high school when computers were very hard to find everywhere else in the world. But the best people dominate guidance on how the rest of us should be while they are not necessarily indicative of success. For instance entrepreneurs are known to be young people but the average age of entrepreneurs is 40 (inc.com) . Mark Zuckerberg has made the idea that college drop outs will be the most successful founders but only 10% of Forbes billionaires did not graduate from college. In fact if you look closely you will see that what separates millionaires and billionaires more is how many more have been to elite schools (entrepreneur.com)
The idea of the best may in fact be toxic to our well being as humans. In practice it’s not useful. By definition only very few people can be the “best”. The best get a lot of attention while the large masses of people who are doing a great job otherwise do not. And it inflicts in us a sense of competition; that skills are a ranking and we have a place in that ranking, so we can always work to move up and if we don’t do enough we will be slipping down to the lower levels. We end up yearning to a level of achievement and success so that we can climb the ranked ladder and get closer to more money or acceptance by our cohort. After all nobody wants to be “average”, a term which is almost derogatory. By definition most people are average and we will be even if as a group we are all doing better over time. Yet all of us are trying to escape this wretched label at all costs.
Don’t get me wrong, expertise matters. Being good at what you do matters. But it doesn’t matter to be the best. A better working concept should be the idea of a method of license or certification. We have for a long time relied on college degrees to indicate this level of entry knowledge for professions and there are now respectable alternatives to prove that you are good above a certain point. This is what we rather need to know about people.
LinkedIn is filled with posts of cult-like admiration of successful people and a willingness to interpret their success as formulaic and intentional. And to bolster this effect many successful people will come on stage and list for you gladly the things that they did to be successful. This is akin to asking very old people how they managed to live long. In one such documentary a very pleasant and old gentleman told eager listeners that the secret was in chewing your food for a long time. When it comes to living longer we still prefer to work with data and science (ted.com), yet we are much more drawn to anecdotes when it comes to success.
So here’s a radical idea: don’t strive to be the best. Strive to be good and build a balanced life for things that matter to you. Don’t read about icons and what they did to achieve greatness, read deeply in your area of interest instead. And while doing that remember that success in work life is only one part of success we need to achieve. Reach for success in maintaining relationships, spending time with your kids, giving a helping hand to the less fortunate, and simply taking care of your own needs. Try to be good, resist the urge to be the best.