An interesting paradox came back to mind earlier today in a discussion of ‘success’ with a friend. We’ve all heard various quotes that all communicate a similar message: those who think they’re done improving will no longer improve. Put another way, once you think you’re the best, you stagnate.
Take this one step further, and you realize that it truly is impossible to be the best, at least in your own eyes. It’s an elegant but brilliant paradox.
Let’s you’ve worked really hard at X for a long period of time. Your motivation stems from the fact that there is always room to improve, the feeling that there’s always someone better. But by chance and skill, let’s also say some arbitrary subjective opinion (a judge, a committee, a grade, etc) deems you the best, the top of your group. Congrats! But at this point, you have two options. To actually believe you’re the best (or even that you’re ‘good enough’) means that you no longer see challenge in that arena and you lose your motivation. Shortly, someone else will overtake you. In this case, you’re not the best (or at least you weren’t it for long). In the second case, you perhaps actually are the best by others standards, but you yourself don’t believe it to be true, so you continue to push harder in your field of study, constantly pushing harder towards some imaginary, but ever-farther line that marks where you’ve learned enough, where you’re finally the true master of the field. It’s this latter group that will see the most success, though they may not ever believe it to be true.
In short, it’s not terrible not to be the best; in fact, it’s advantageous. The only caveat is that if your happiness and/or definition of success is intricately tied to being the best, you’re in for a sad existence. You’re reaching for an impossibility.