What Does It Mean To Be The Best?

I’ll let you in on a little secret, I’m a little odd. Ok, I know many people who might think I’m very odd. One of my idiosyncracies is that I have a different belief system than most. I don’t believe in absolutes. No one can be the best or the worst. These are arbitrary labels that mean nothing to anyone but the person who thinks they are the best. Now, I’m not trying to convince anyone that I am right. I’m only right in my own mind and only need to be right in my mind. This is appropriate for me because I don’t believe in the concepts of absolute rights or wrongs. Life is all about the middle and shades of gray. Even stranger to many, I don’t like to win. In order to win, everyone else has to lose. I know that most people will not agree, but seriously (unless we are talking about cards) I don’t feel the need to win.

Now, I’m serious that I don’t care to change people’s minds. Your belief system is your own. But I do find it offensive that people feel the need to judge those of us who may not be driven to be the best at something as inferior. In this vein, I found this post by Emily Clasper at Library Revolution to be a bit condescending. Emily writes:

The world (and that includes LibraryWorld!) needs people who don’t necessarily want to be the best. In fact, that’s very beneficial to those of us who do. But I feel like we can motivate them, maybe not to want to stick their necks out to be THE BEST, but to be a little bit better than good enough.

A couple of things bother me here. The first is that there is an underlying assumption that someone either wants to be THE BEST or to just be good enough to get by. I don’t want to be THE BEST nor am I content to be good enough. I want to be the best I can be – regardless of anyone else. The second is that people who settle for just good enough should be motivated by super-overachievers who want to be THE BEST. In my experience, overachievers can end up stealing the thunder of quieter, less aggressive people – and can actually end up being the cause of people settling for less. From my own perspective, if I’m in the presence of an aggressive overachiever, I will become quiet and withdrawn. I will not compete with you for attention or resources. Hence, my earlier mention of not wanting to win. This is a bit of a generalization because not all super overachievers dominate everything and everyone. However, it happens often. People who need to be THE BEST are sometimes willing to overachieve at the expense of others. They don’t intend to do this, but they may not be the best team players.

One other thing that struck me while reading Emily Clasper’s post was that there is an assumption that those who don’t want to be THE BEST settle for just being good enough. This is too much of a generalization, and it reduces human beings to simple creatures. In this vein, Emily quotes Seth Godin from The Dip (which I guess I might have to read):

People settle. They settle for less than they are capable of. Organizations settle, too. For good enough instead of best in the world.

I don’t actually doubt this is true. I’ve settled – I bet everyone has. Everyone will settle again. But how do you know that someone is settling? How do you know what someone is capable of – especially in the workplace? Beyond that, striving to be the best in the world is an UNACHIEVABLE goal. Motivating people is tricky, but it isn’t always about making them want to be THE BEST. I can be motivated by all sorts of things, but NEVER by someone who believes they can help to fix me – never by someone who condescends – and never by someone who believes they are better than me.

So, what does it mean to be the best? What it means to you is not what it means to me. To me, THE BEST does not even really exist. It is artificial. It is a social construct that people use to make themselves feel better. Just because one believes they are THE BEST doesn’t mean that everyone else in the world agrees. And wouldn’t it follow that if everyone else in the world didn’t agree, the person in question would not be THE BEST? Again, this is what I believe. I know it isn’t what you believe. I’m not even trying to convince you to think like me. The bottom line here? Those who strive to be the best shouldn’t try to “fix” those of use who don’t strive to be the best. I’m ok with you being you – and you need to be ok with me being me.

13 Responses to What Does It Mean To Be The Best?

  1. Meredith says:

    I couldn’t agree more with what you’re saying here. I read that post yesterday and I thought the same thing. For me, it was really the example of the student who got the B not trying to get his grade changed that really made me go “huh?” I have gotten lots of A’s in my life and I have also gotten B’s. Regardless of the grade I got, I always tried my hardest, and if I got a B, I assumed that’s what I deserved. I never thought of the people who went to the professor to get their grades upped as people who wanted to be the best; I saw them as grade grubbers. I never once questioned a grade I got in school, and maybe that makes me a non-overachiever, but I think it’s someone content to be the best THEY can be and keep their dignity in the process. I just remember when a friend of mine and I both got B’s in our Russian Lit class. He went and complained to the professor and got his grade changed to an A-. Mine stayed a B, but I’d rather have my dignity than go to a professor and plead for a better grade. It’s not always about being an over- or under-achiever; it’s sometimes that other things may be more important to a person than grades. For me, I’d rather get an F than compromise my sense of dignity, which would be far worse to me than getting an F.

    Everyone has a different “personal best.” Everyone has different priorities and puts emphasis on different aspects of their life. Some people base their sense of self-worth on grades, accolades and other external measures. Others feel good when they help others or they have successful relationships. Whatever. Honestly, I don’t go into most things thinking they are going to be wildly successful (quite the opposite usually), but I don’t think that makes me an underachiever. It doesn’t mean I don’t work hard to make them a success, but, more often than not, I’m surprised when things go well.

    I think your post is terrific, Jennifer. I couldn’t agree more with everything you wrote and if you’re odd, then I’m glad to be odd too. 🙂

  2. Emily says:

    Maybe I should have clarified a little better what Godin defines as “the best in the world.” This is a term he leaves very general, to be defined on your own terms. He’s really getting at the idea of living to your full potential rather than stopping when the job has been done well enough to get by. And you can define “the world” quite narrowly, which makes this definitely an achievable goal.

    His premise is that if you are not actively striving to be “the best in the world,” you are by definition settling. Which is OK for some people, but not for those of us who want to succeed in an exceptional way. There is a big difference between those attitudes, and if that comes off as condescending, I apologize, but I still have to agree.

    In my particular job, I do have a responsibility to motivate folks who are less motivated than I am. I don’t think that most people I work with resent that… or at least I hope not! You’re right that it may not be the case that every single super motivated person in LibraryWorld has to try and motivate others. It may not be appropriate at all, depending on the situation. But in mine, it’s part of the job. A big part.

    As much as I agree that not everyone needs to be supermotivated – and that’s the real lesson I’m taking away from this for myself – I still think that for those of us in such a position can encourage people towards striving for more. Sure, they may still be “settling” according to Godin, but if I can encourage them to settle for 90% instead of 85%, I think that’s a victory.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Hi Emily, thanks for the followup. I tried to make it clear that I hadn’t read Seth Godin’s book – knowing full well that there would be much more to his argument. Also, there was more to this post, but it was late when I wrote it and WordPress garbled a couple of paragraphs. I was going to try and do another post, but will just add it here.

    One of the the things I really liked about your post is the fact that you are trying to find ways to motivate people – and to understand how people who are not as driven as you are can be motivated to try harder. I struggle with this myself in my job. I need to be a leader when it comes to technology – and it is hard to do (this may be harder for those of us who are quieter and don’t like to push people too much??? I don’t know). Your post made me think – it is still making me think. It may have made me a bit angry, but it motivated me. And, I think that is a good thing.

    I did not think that you were purposely trying to be condescending. However, I will admit, that your post touched a nerve – a huge nerve – which comes from a lifetime of having trouble dealing with overachievers. I admittedly don’t always care to deal with overachievers – and understand that is a problem that I have and that I need to be aware of and to overcome in many situations.

    Much like you agree with Godin’s premise that either one is trying to be the best in in the world or is settling, I do not agree. I do not care to be judged that way. This is why it seems to be a condescending belief to me. I am not striving to be the best in the world according to this premise (however one defines the world), but I am not settling. To me, it is more about understanding that not everyone will think of the world in these terms.

    I seriously appreciate the discussion.

  4. Emily says:

    The thing I really wanted to get across, and maybe I didn’t do the best job of it, was that I really need to do a better job sometimes of getting into people’s heads – especially when they are coming from a fundamentally different place than I am. So that when I work with library staff who have no desire to learn what I am showing them (usually because they think it has no bearing on what they do on a day-to-day basis) I don’t get totally frustrated and come down on them. I think that if I remember that not everyone is built like that, I’ll have a chance at understanding them better and maybe getting through to them more effectively.

    I think it’s a good discussion, especially given the undercurrents I always sense in the online Library scene about tensions between those who are seen as “getting it” (I really don’t like that phrase) or “don’t get it.” Really, it comes down to understanding that people have different motivations and goals, and we’d do well to remember that more often.

    Plus, I have a real weakness for trying to push people’s buttons sometimes. 🙂

  5. Jennifer says:

    I did actually get that part of your post – about needing to do a better job of getting into people’s heads. Trying to gain insight into people is tough. So many people aren’t interested in learning new things – and this is a serious problem.

    I usually succeed at remembering that we all have different motivations. Sometimes, I get too bogged down in it, though. There does come a time when people just need to accept responsibility for their own professional development – and we just need to realize that they have done all they plan to do.

    I have the same dislike of categorizing people as those who get it and those who don’t. However, the tensions can be very real – and counterproductive to moving forward.

    My weakness is for being passive aggressive. I often have to stop myself from giving people enough room to walk the plank 🙂

  6. diane says:


    I also dislike the word “best” but for a different reason. Best is a comparative word; if everyone is at the top (grades, test scores, etc.) there is no best – there is just normal.

    I feel that NCLB, for example, is way off track expecting (at least claiming to expect) all students to eventually excel in every category. Some people will always score higher than others. Those who are not “the best” or at the highest level in one particular area certainly have other strengths. It just might not be measurable in a particular test.

    I think that the politicians who set these goals are the ones who “don’t get it”.

  7. Mary Carmen says:

    I really enjoyed your post and I share many of your sentiments. The one thing I will add is that sometimes doing the best can be confused with being your best. The distinction is slight but there is still one. I don’t necessarily believe that I have to be better than my colleagues, but I definitely strive to be the best person professionally and personally that I can be, and I will challenge when I feel like I am being undervalued or appreciated. Lately I have been thinking a lot about the concept of what I am worth and the value of the job and service I do and learning how to ask for what I want or need. The concepts are sort of related. Anyway, no more tangents, I really liked your post!

  8. […] made me very uncomfortable. I wasn’t quite sure how to articulate my feelings until I read Jennifer Macaulay’s rebuttal. Jennifer thinks she’s “odd” for not believing in absolutes and thinking that […]

  9. Alisia says:

    Found you via Meredith, and this post has me hooked and subscribing (and commenting).

    Sometimes I appreciate the reminder that nobody else “learned [insert random library function here] in library school”, either!

  10. smithkel says:

    I agree with Meredith’s comment: “For me, it was really the example of the student who got the B not trying to get his grade changed that really made me go “huh?” I have gotten lots of A’s in my life and I have also gotten B’s. Regardless of the grade I got, I always tried my hardest, and if I got a B, I assumed that’s what I deserved. ”

    It’s possible that the student who got the B in the course actually *learned* more than the students who got A’s – perhaps he didn’t write as well or test as well as the “A” students. That’s the problem with labeling someone as the THE BEST – objective performance measurements are somewhat arbitrary.

    There’s a large continuum between “settling” and being THE BEST. Our culture seems obsessed with these extremes right now – from being the best dressed, to getting the best plastic surgery, to reality TV competion shows, to having the most high tech gadgets, to the excessive standardized testing of children, to being THE BEST and most powerful country. With all this frenetic and competitive energy there is no time to stop and think critically about what we’re actually trying to achieve.

  11. Jennifer says:

    Diane, grading is such an odd thing. If everyone is expected to excel (meaning get an A?), then grades really don’t mean anything at all. Getting an A is the norm. I wholeheartedly agree with your comment about politicians. Our bar for measuring success in this society is quite skewed.

    Mary Carmen, I definitely see the relationship to learning to value oneself. One of the difficult things for me is that if I am asked to value my work, my efforts, etc., I almost always grade myself more harshly than others. This is one of the reason that I wouldn’t ever think to ask someone to change a grade or an evaluation. I need to understand my own value better, so that I can ask for more when it is appropriate. This is such a tough area!!!

    Hi Alisia, glad you enjoyed the post. It was a bit of a rant, I’m afraid. But, I guess in some ways that is what blogs are for 🙂

    smithkel, I love the phrase that “Our culture seems obsessed with extremes right now . . .” I couldn’t agree more. People are so often concerned with being the best, that they loose sight of any worthwhile goal.

  12. […] passion to be the best. I really appreciated her enthusiasm and her positvie approach. But, like some others that read her post, I found the tone of some of her comments to be condescending, “The world (and that includes […]

  13. Kristen N says:

    I wandered in through Meredith’s blog too.

    Nothing really new to say, but still wanted to agree with your points and thank you for articulating them better than I could.

    Also really liked Mary’s insight about how personal best is completely different from universal best. We all have our own priorities and our own abilities.

    One thing that makes me particularly uncomfortable about the ‘superstar’ goal is that it’s so competitive. Which then interferes with collaboration, which I greatly value. I’d rather my peers be comfortable with me than look up to me. But again, different strokes.

    Oh and good luck with your studies!

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