This is the Year to Finally Stop Trying to Be Better
By the time I was in the second grade I had already made an arch-rival: Paul Kruchoski. Now, I don’t know if he knew he was the tie-dye wearing motivation behind my fierce drive to be the best, but I do know that every day that year I would wake up, put on my Peace, Love, Soccer t-shirt, and march up to Mark Twain Elementary School armed to take him down. It didn’t matter what the subject was, I needed to be the best - better than Paul.
Why was Paul the focus of my attention?
The teachers loved him. He was smart, kind and just the right amount of dorky. He followed the rules and excelled in every way possible. If there was a kid who always got acknowledged for doing a great job, it was Paul. He would get taken out of class a few times a week to go to his gifted class. (And, actually, I would too. But somehow he always managed to beat me to the door - or his name would get called first.)
It didn’t matter how well I did on any project or test - if Paul did better, then I hadn’t done good enough.
I ended up going through all of middle school and high school with Paul. And, although the competition lessened as our focuses changed (mine was on boys and his was - not on boys), he always remained my yardstick for success.
Last year, my mom ran into Paul’s mom. They caught up, exchanging photographs of grandchildren and sharing the who's and what’s of their children’s lives. Paul, it turns out, went on to be as successful as I knew he would be way back in second grade. He was not only a Fulbright Scholar, but he went on to attend some of the top universities in the world, graduating the top of his class. He now is happily married with kids and works for the U.S. Department of State.
I’m happy for Paul.
But I was also a little pissed at Paul for showing me up - again.
Just like he always came in first in the school geography bees, on paper, it now looked like he was coming in first in life.
Why didn’t I go to those universities? Why don’t I have one of those titles that instantly lets people know you’re pretty damn smart? Why don't I live in D.C.? Why don't I write sophisticated stuff on Facebook that lets everyone know just how philosophical and wise I am?
And, there I was, caught yet again in the bottomless pit of comparison.
And, I’ll go ahead and make the wild assumption that you’ve been there, too. (Haven’t all of us?)
In our effort to always be better, we end up comparing everything we do - from business decisions to personal judgment calls. Instead of celebrating who we are and what we’re doing (and how fucking happy we are), we mope around wishing we had whatever Paul (or whoever your yardstick is right now) had.
But, here’s a secret I’m just starting to learn: Being better means shit.
If you’re always trying to be better, then you are letting someone or something else determine the rules you are playing by.
If you’re always trying to be better, then you are setting yourself up for constant disappointment and failure.
Think of it like this: Paul invites you to play chess. You know he’s a bad-ass mother fucker when it comes to chess. (The type Will Ferrell would go cheer for.) You know you’re okay at chess. You can move pieces around without looking like an idiot, but you haven’t spent a lot of your free time memorizing plays from “101 Ways to Say Check Mate to Inferior People” handbook. Paul is standing there, chessboard in hand, egging you on to come and play.
“Sit down, relax, and let me make you feel like an idiot. It’s what all the successful people are doing!”
So, you have two choices. One, give in to Paul and play by his rules, doing your best to fake your interest in the game so that you earn some sort of approval. And, after a lot of time playing, he’ll win, leaving you feeling like you’re a failure. Or, two, tell Paul to go fuck himself. (Not really, I love Paul. He really is the nicest guy.)
What happens when you choose the second option?
You’re no longer in a battle of comparison. Paul can’t say he won because you’re refusing to play, which means you can’t mope around feeling like you lost.
The yardstick of who’s better has officially been snapped in half.
Sally Hogshead, the brilliant mind behind How to Fascinate and the book, Fascinate, puts it like this:
“While competition can push people to be their best, it can also force them to run on a hamster wheel, going faster in the same direction as everyone else, instead of going in a different direction entirely.
When you successfully differentiate yourself, however, you become the go-to person in your category for one particular reason… You not only establish the playing field...now you control it.”
Let Paul be the king of chess. What is it that YOU want to do?
Let go of the idea that being better is the fastest way to being the best. There’s actually a much safer, much more effective shortcut:
In life and in business, choose to DO YOU. Stay in your lane even when cars look like they’re getting ahead. Because, remember, you’re not in a race. You don’t know where those cars are going and there’s a good chance you don’t actually want to end up where they are.
After all, would the Department of State let me roll up at 11:00am on a Thursday morning with my overalled one-year-old in tow and a purse filled with Goldfish crackers?
My life might look a whole lot different than Paul’s looks right now, but that’s how I know I’m on the right path - MY path.