Within most if not all societies, across the globe young children are taught to always strive, “to be the best.” This is a vague statement and one that can be open to several interpretations. However, generally, it can be regarded as the conscious effort to be sufficiently better at something than anyone else. In this context success can be measured by one’s position in regards to other people performing similar tasks in a related field.
Throughout history this belief has been promoted in several ways. Sports, in particular events such as the Olympics, provides one of the most clear cut examples of this. Since the period of antiquity to the present (though interrupted by centuries of dormancy) the Olympics has celebrated the ideal of being the best. Winners are adorned with medals and the adoration of spectators .
This principle is not limited to the arena of sports. This phenomenon can be seen throughout classrooms, working places, public offices and almost any social institution imaginable.
The effects of this belief on the individual and society are interesting and sometimes profound. From a macro-sociological point of view, a belief and adherence to this principle is mostly positive. Marxists suggest that the workers and laborers must be provided with motivation to work harder and increase profits for the capitalists.
At the work place, incentives such as “employee of the month,” pay raises and promotions all reward those who are the best. This has the benefit of encouraging workers to put more energy and effort into their work, resulting in greater productivity. This extends to all sectors of society.
The effects on the individual tends to be more complex. The notion or idea of striving to be the best is one of the major physiological motivations in modern western capitalist societies. According to research by Cornell professor of Economics, Robert H Frank, we get a greater feeling of satisfaction from earning more than our contemporaries, than we do from simply earning a pay raise.
This yearning to be better than others, that has been embedded in our collective psyche, is one that reduces our happiness and perception of ourselves as something relative to the success or lack thereof, of our contemporaries. The danger in this is two-fold.
French enlightenment philosopher Voltaire once famously said that “Best is the enemy of good.” Many times as we strive for the abstract goal of being the best we lose sight of what it takes to be good and in the process prevent ourselves from becoming better. With a singular focus on being better than others, often we focus too much on the strengths and weakness of others and not on our own.
Furthermore, this can lead to an inversely distorted view of reality. For example, being the best in a weak group is hardly an achievement. Still, it could give someone the false impression that they are sufficiently good and prevent them from trying to improve. The ironic situation in which being the best may prevent you from being your best.
Additionally, there is a problem if one’s self-worth and esteem is derived from his position in relation to other persons. When one builds a self-image of himself based on being the best then he adopts a temporal view of self and runs the risk of losing his identity.
In all but a few rare exceptions, one cannot be the best forever or even for the duration of his lifetime. When one too intimately identifies themselves with being the best they may suffer with self-confidence issues when they are stripped of the title.
This can also potentially lead to an identity crisis, something that many retired athletes have revealed suffering from. To quote a line from Alfred Edward Housman’s poem “To an athlete dying young”:
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose
Being the greatest can increase confidence but for how long?
Being regarded, or regarding oneself, as the best may also discredit one’s achievements or abilities. Condensing a stock of memories and personal accomplishments as simply “the best” undermines the depth and qualities of a person and his work. There is far more to the technique and performance of an athlete than can be derived from such labeling.
Striving to be the best is not inherently a bad thing though. On the contrary, it can often be a source of inspiration. The danger lies in personalizing the goal and attainment of being the best. One can be defined as the best but the best can never define one.
The “best” and by extension being “better” are simply labels. As with most human constructed tags they are transient, superficial and often conditional. These are all qualities that should not be attributed to one’s self value and individuality. Focus should be placed on being good and such labels should only be used as markers for progress and growth but not as a standard for it.
This is what I believe is best.
Guest Author Bio
I’m an adventurous and free spirited person inspired by life and who enjoys to write about it.