When I was growing up, I consumed a steady diet of spaghetti westerns. My favourites were the ones starring Clint Eastwood. The protagonist of those movies was usually a veteran gun slinger who had seen better days and was weary of having to defend his reputation as the best in the west – #1. The storyline would usually involve an up-and-coming young gun slinger who was anxious to challenge for #1 at any cost. To take over as the best by outdrawing the reigning fastest draw in a gunfight. And then the cycle would begin again with the next set of younger upstarts vying for bragging rights as the best.
What I remembered most about those movies was not the euphoria of the person left standing but rather the serenity in the eyes and entire being of the fallen person. As if they were relieved to no longer be the best.
There’s a tendency for people in many cultures to aspire to be the best in something. To be #1. Top of the mountain. Stronger, faster and farther than everyone else. Society, starting with our parents has conditioned and rewards us to want to be the best.
- Best student in school
- Best runner in track
- Best house on the block
- Best workplace in the country
- Best picture at the Oscars
The list of “bests” goes on and on and on…
I don’t want to be the best at anything.
I don’t like the feelings of jealousy or envy that well up in me when I look over at what others have accomplished.
I want to be constantly striving for something. I don’t even want to be the best I can be, so that I can always be better.
So, why do I prefer better over best?
- Striving to be the best can breed vicious competition at its worst. Being the best pits you against everyone else. A ‘win at all costs’ mindset because it’s a zero-sum game – if you win, I lose. Remember the Tonya Harding knee-capping incident involving rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan? Striving to be better can nurture virtuous coopetition. Best conjures up scarcity. Better stokes abundance. Being better invites opportunity to grow with others who are on the same search for better. Everyone is searching “for the love of the game”.
- Once you’re the best, the pressure is off. You’ve proved yourself to everyone and can let your guard down. There’s no more need to improve. The search for better is constant and continuous. There will always be opportunities to improve and to learn. I may be good today but look forward to being better tomorrow.
- If I think about being the best, my focus is drawn externally. To prove myself against others. When I think about being better, my focus can be drawn internally. Looking inward for improvement versus over my shoulder at others.
- Finally, being the best at something starts and ends with me. Being better invites room for me to help others and for all of us to help each other. In 1950, Erik Erikson coined the term ‘generativity’ as a late stage in his Stages of Psychosocial Development. Generativity means “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation”. I’ve reached that point in my career where I’m more interested in bettering the lives of others than just being the best.
Best is for the moment. You’re #1… until you’re not. Better is forever.
In track and field, racers who are ahead will sometimes look over their shoulder to check out the competition. This tiny gesture breaks their focus. It invites doubt and negative thoughts. Being better is not about the competition.
I want to look straight ahead and run my race.