Being the Best is Overrated
From childhood, we’re conditioned to want to be the best at everything we do. While this worldview promotes discipline, it steers us away from finding our unique callings. With this societal standard, a life revolving around esteem does not lead gracefully to the next rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-actualization, as it promises to.
For many, receiving the esteem we’re taught to crave proves heartbreakingly empty, sending us into an existential crisis. We’re on our own in discovering that happiness starts with abandoning meaningless competition for more meaningful goals, and the brave few who promote such ideas are often ridiculed and shunned by the in crowd. Making the switch can mean leaving family, lifelong friends, companies etc. that don’t understand.
The rungs don’t have to set us up for failure. Since the sources of belonging and esteem are dictated by communities, we can change them to guide us toward fulfillment. Whatever our passions, we all crave to leave behind a legacy. Being the best at a predefined activity is the most straightforward path to get there but gives us the lowest chance of success due to the amount of competition. The playing field of innovation, however, has room for everyone.
While striving to be the best leads us to devote our lives to duplicate effort, taking a more flexible approach to adding value in the world opens the door to creativity and collaboration, maximizing the impact of our work. Companies that promote teamwork usually outdo those that set up employees to compete with each other in the long run. Since we all think differently, our minds are most valuable when put together.
The pursuit of being the best also often isolates us from those who could help us be better. Human connection feeds our minds with perspectives and our hearts with community. The current formula for esteem hinders us not only from self actualization but our needs lower on the pyramid as well. Practicing narrow skills endlessly and obsessively, we deprive ourselves of sleep, health, and community.
Many of us spend our lives cycling through the pyramid: sacrificing all else to ascend the leaderboard of our game of choice, losing hope or desire and shifting our focus to getting healthy and connected, then returning to the never ending climb, etc. My friend wrote a thought-provoking blog post about the conflict between belonging and individuality in modern culture that really resonated with me. For years, I’ve teetered between craving a place to belong and a place of my own in this world. While I never explicitly thought those goals were mutually exclusive, Sara’s blog made sense of why I always felt pressured to choose.
Self-actualization requires both. Purposes not grounded in our internal and external worlds are merely distractions from the needs of ourselves and others. While serving ourselves gets a bad rep, acting on the yearnings in our hearts awakens us to their power to inspire, empower, and heal the world.
Societal expectations are not grounding but outdated maps to places that have lost their appeal. Being the best might’ve been a promising endeavor back when competition was restricted to the local level but loses its value in the global space. Innovation, on the other hand, only grows in value as it reaches more people.
Call to action: If you didn’t care about being the best, who would you want to be?