... wherein I bloviate discursively

Brian Clapper,

In General

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I’m not the best at anything, and I probably never will be. And that’s very freeing.

That sounds like heresy, coming from an American. Let me explain.

There are people who must, at all costs, be the best at whatever they do. If they’re not going to be the best, they don’t bother trying.

We all do that, to some degree. I was never especially good at sports. I tried various sports when I was a kid (Little League, soccer, track), but I was an average player, at best. By the time I reached high school, I was no longer participating in organized sports. I’d gravitated toward activities where I could excel–music and photography, for instance.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about extreme perfectionism, the notion that you have to be the absolute best at something, or it’s not worth it.

I’m not the best at anything I do. For instance, I enjoy photography, calligraphy, and cartooning. I’m better than a lot of people at all of those things–in some cases way better. But there are thousands of photographers, calligraphers and cartoonists, amateur and professional, who are better than I am.

The same holds true for my profession. I am a software developer by vocation (and avocation), and I think I’m quite good at it. (Over the years, my employers have tended to concur with that assessment.) But I’m not the best. No matter how good I think I am at writing software, I know that somewhere there is someone who is better than I am.

You see, I am a generalist. There are a lot of things that interest me. Even within the field of software, I’m not a specialist. I have never focused exclusively on one area of software development. My first job out of college (way back in 1983) was with the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. I worked with the group that developed and maintained their online trading system. But I didn’t specialize in financial software. Since then, I’ve worked on many different kinds of software (as evidenced by my resume). I worked on SNA emulators, software engineering environments, ecommerce applications. I built an Internet firewall back before commercial firewalls existed. I’m currently employed developing and maintaining a large product that helps businesses manage product data.

A successful generalist must come to terms with the fact that he will probably never be the expert in any of the areas that capture his interest. There will always be someone–often a specialist, though not always–who knows more.

This realization may seem very depressing at first. Yet, earlier in this essay, I wrote that it’s freeing. It is.

Requiring yourself to be the absolute best at something sets the bar very high. It also magnifies the consequences of failure. But, worse than that, it can prevent you from even attempting something new. I’ve seen this exact phenomenon in other people. Someone decides not to try something new, intriguing, and exciting, because he decides he cannot be the absolute best at it, thus denying himself the enjoyment of pursuing something that might be worthwhile anyway.

I may not be the absolute best at anything I do, but I try hard to be damned good at the things I choose to attempt. I dig deeply, I read (sometimes obsessively), I experiment, I try and fail and try again (and frequently fail again). And, most important, I enjoy myself. Since I don’t require that I be the best, I can settle for being very good, or just good, or even adequate, depending on the endeavor.

Of course, there’s a downside to this approach: The absolute best are the ones we tend to remember. A man who dedicates himself to being the absolute best surgeon, or scientist, or businessman may well accomplish the sort of amazing things we’ll remember for generations.

But a generalist has certain advantages, too. A good generalist often has a broader base of experience than a specialist. An excellent generalist has a broad and deep base of experience. Maybe his experience isn’t as deep in any given area as a specialist’s experience in that same area, but there are advantages to a broad base of experience. This idea was (and is) one of the basic tenets of a traditional liberal arts education.

Would I like to be the absolute best at something? Sure. Wouldn’t anyone? But I’m not willing to focus single-mindedly on that one thing. It’s the rare person who can be the absolute best at multiple things.

I’ve noticed, over the years, that a lot of people with the “I have to be the best” mentality end up circumscribing themselves. They don’t try new things unless they feel they can be the absolute best. Or they launch themselves into new activities, intending to “beat” everyone else, only to abandon those same activities when they find that they’re never going to be the best.

Sometimes, it’s better not to be the king. Sometimes, it’s better to be a duke–to be recognized, while still having the flexibility to engage in activities that the king cannot pursue, because he’s too busy trying to stay king.

I want to feel free to try many different things, to delve into new endeavors, to dig deeply into something just because it interests me.

I’m not celebrating mediocrity. I’m simply saying that sometimes, for some people, “very good” is better than “best.”