I am the Salieri of frogs and now they just ribbit "failure"
December 27, 2011 7:59 AM   Subscribe

I feel like my life has been a long succession of second bests. For the most part, I've been okay with this; after all, second best is really good, right?!? But recently, I feel like I may be becoming second best in my little hobby--my refuge--and I'm looking for new pick-me-ups, koans, and defensive strategies so I can concentrate on what I love and not get too frustrated all the time.

I am very good at a lot of things, and I've had some great successes and opportunities in my life. But I've never been the "best" at anything I can recall--I'm not talking world records here, just the catalogue of achievements you rack up in life. I went to a well-regarded university, though not the really prestigious school where my best friend went. I did very well and graduated with honors, but was not awarded a prize. I went to the second-best graduate program in my field, where I rose to the second-highest stratum of achievement. I got a job at the second-best employer in my field, and proceeded to do second-best kind of work.

I know--believe me, I know--I have it good. I also know that being #1 has its own drawbacks, etc. In 99% of my life, I am really okay with being #2, though sometimes it is nice to grab the brass ring.

There has been one thing I've been #1 in: my hobby. In my region, I've been the only, say, watercolor painter specializing in local frogs. I've put a lot of effort into it, and it's fun. After a little while, I discovered that there is a national association of frog watercolorists. I was pleased to find that my talents occasionally equaled the best in field, but were typically better than average (if I do say so myself). But they were elsewhere, and probably had more time to find frogs, so in my little world, I was still the best.

All of a sudden, I've noticed the work of another painter working on the same frogs. Their work, at first, was pretty poor, but recently I feel is at least equal to mine, and often exceeds what I do.

I really hate it. I don't mind being second best at work, school, in looks, BMI, baking, etc. But it really gets under my skin in this area, and it makes me want to give up.

I know I will never be the Audubon of frogs. I do this work for me alone, and don't want or need to make money off of it. I also know that when you turn things you love into a competition, you will always lose and there will always be someone better, faster, stronger than you. But it was so nice to best, albeit briefly.

Fellow also-rans, any words of wisdom to get the wind back in your sails? Tips for staying mindful that we're all just walking our own path and not everything needs to be a competition? Alternatively, can anyone point me to Scarabic's old comment about how to hide body? ;)
posted by myaskme to Human Relations (47 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
How old are you? At 28 this doesn't trouble me nearly as much as it did at say 24 or 25 when it was an imperative thought at almost all times.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:02 AM on December 27, 2011

There are several billion people in the world. Most people are not even second-best at something. Or even third-best or fourth-best. What's wrong with being among the masses? Why compare yourself to other people when other people aren't wasting their time judging you? Why not just enjoy what you do for the sake of it? Enjoy your hobby for the sake of your hobby, not for what the results are.

In other words, learn to enjoy the process of something, not just the results.
posted by Tin Man at 8:04 AM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was also coming in to ask how old you are, because this world view lacks seasoning. In adulthood, there are very few The Bests, and all of them are fleeting. Albeit briefly is all you ever get.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:07 AM on December 27, 2011 [11 favorites]

I do and I don't understand where you're coming from.

Where I do understand is: with me, I sometimes want to be the only one doing a hobby or thing. I sometimes want it to be my "thing" among my friends. Didn't matter if I sucked at it, it just had to be my thing -- "oh, yeah, Irish drum, that's what EC does." That actually was one thing I was thinking about; but wanting to "be distinct" with it presented a problem when I talked to a friend about wanting to start taking Irish drum classes and he said "hey, yeah, my girlfriend is doing that," because I suddenly didn't want to do it any more ("fuck that, she took my idea!")

What helped was -- shifting that competitive attitude towards my own self. I'm not competing with anyone else, I'm competing with myself from a year ago. Did the EC of 2011 know how to play Irish drum? No, but the EC of 2012 will. Did the EC of 2010 have monthly dinner parties? No, but the EC of 2011 did.

Try that -- rather than trying to be "better at painting than New Upstart Frog Painter", work towards being "better at painting than the 2011 version of Myaskme".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:07 AM on December 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

From Disiderata: "If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time."

I have observed over the years how hard it is for naturally competitive people to turn off the competition switch. Don't bother, but can you change your focus to being competitive with yourself and no other? That's where the joy is for me. The other day I went a whole day drinking nothing but water. A unique event for me, but a challenging one as well. I revealed in it, what is your frog painting equivalent of my water drinking experience? i'm sure you have had one.
posted by Xurando at 8:13 AM on December 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

Two options:

1) Find this rival frog painter, befriend him, and then destroy him, socially, financially and psychologically, break his spirit until he has no more will to live. Then, when he dies, you will once again be the best frog painter in town.

2) Invent a new genre. Paint newts. He paints frogs, well, that's so 2011. You've moved on and grown as an artist. Use your skill to break new ground, evolve into something new where none may rival you. Not as fun as option 1, but probably more rewarding in the end.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:13 AM on December 27, 2011 [14 favorites]

It's an oldie but a goodie, but it doesn't make it any less true: Focus on the journey, rather than the destination.

By saying you're "second best" at something indicates that you're done with that thing. You're working at the second-best employer in a field? You can always strive to become employed at the best employer, or to make your employer the best.

If your skills are already perfect in watercolor, how dull would it be to continue painting? There's always room for improvement.

Do things because you love them, not because you're trying to win a race.
posted by xingcat at 8:14 AM on December 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

When I'm feeling this way, I remember something I overheard a friend tell her 8 year old son - "there will always be someone who is better than you and always someone who is worse."
posted by valeries at 8:17 AM on December 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

It sounds cliche, but the only thing that really matters is being the best expression of your actual self.

If you finally wound up being "the best" at something, so what? Would that feeling actually sustain you in the long term, or would you end up chasing that feeling again and again forever? The people who achieve some great height (even in totally unimportant arenas) go through life feeling unbelievable pressure, determined to live up to the high standard they've set (which typically means practically nothing to anyone except themselves) and afraid that their greatest successes are behind them, etc. etc.

So your choices are either to keep unhappily chasing after this illusion, or to find a different standard by which to measure your worth. As someone who has grappled with this and chosen the latter, I'd like to welcome you. The water's fine, and you'll find fewer people looking for opportunities to drown you so that they can be the best.
posted by hermitosis at 8:19 AM on December 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

I live my life by this old Hindu proverb:

There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man, true nobility is being superior to your former self.

posted by any major dude at 8:19 AM on December 27, 2011 [45 favorites]

I often notice that even the people who reach the very pinnacle of achievement still have folks who are better than them in some way, or still have the possibility of being on the second-rate pinnacle. For instance, I sometimes muse about presidents--you can be the President of the United States, one of the most powerful and prestigious positions anyone can achieve. But you can be remembered for being a bad or a weak president. Your presidency can, itself, be a failure.

Think about that for a minute.

If being the president isn't automatically some kind of permanent stamp of awesomeness and success, what possibly could be?

If you get trapped in a comparison mindset, you can always find someone to compare yourself to who did just a little better--maybe you got into that most-prestigious school, but didn't get elected to the special honor society. Or maybe you did get elected to the honor society, but your best friend's cousin won the Honor Society Member of the Year award. Or sure you published a best-selling novel, but somebody else was ten years younger when they published theirs, or sold 100,000 more copies, or got optioned for a movie. If you are in the mood to feel second-best and undermine your own achievements, you can always find someone to compare yourself to who will do that for you.

I also find that if I am getting stuck in comparing myself to others, then I am often looking for flaws in the lives and work of people who are similar to me, in order to both establish my ranking and to puff myself up. The problem I find with this is that I then am not able to enjoy many things I might enjoy--I am interested in the writing of people who write the kinds of things I write, for instance, but it undermines my enjoyment if I am always thinking as I read, "I could have done better than this," or, "This is better than I could have done."

I'm 46 and this has gotten easier as I've gotten older.
posted by not that girl at 8:23 AM on December 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

I'm 40, give or take, so old enough to know better.

I gave up competing in most areas long ago. It's not worth the candle, and as I wrote above--though not so eloquently as Xurando's quote--as soon as you're in a competition, you lose (unless you're competing with yourself, as the Empress and the major dude note).

This is definitely helping me get my head back on straight. But lord help me, I do like being a big fish in a small pond. I know it's counterproductive, but can't get rid of this last little corner of wanting to be the best.
posted by myaskme at 8:27 AM on December 27, 2011

Before I continue I actually agree completely with what everyone else said and have no problem not being any good at anything and am a confirmed dabbler in a hundred hobbies and love all of them, suck at all of them, but I know a lot of people like you and if they weren't family here is what I would like to say to them.

If you want to be the best at something be it. You will have to put in the effort and give up things, bitching and moaning and giving up and changing hobbies when it gets hard will not make you the best. You want to be the best frog painter there is then be it, but you will have to practice and practice and practice. You won't get good at frog painting thinking about it, wishing you were good or whining because someone else is better. If you want to be the best you will do the work, otherwise you don't want to be the best enough.

Read Outliers It isn't "mad skillz" that will push you over the line into being the best it is simply consistent and steady practice.

Having said that, personally I see nothing wrong at being OK at stuff, I figure if someone is better than me they wanted it more and good luck to them.
posted by wwax at 8:28 AM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

First, how can you know that the other frog painter is objectively better than you? Art is necessarily subjective. I know you're not literally a frog painter, but presumably you're referring to some creative hobby rather than running marathons, where "better" can be firmly established.

Some people will think your frogs are better than the other frogs. If the other frogs have won awards, well, lots of people win awards who aren't the best in their field - just look at the Grammys.

In any case, you can see this as an opportunity for learning. There's nowhere left to go when you're on top, and it's lonely. This way, you have a challenge that will continue to pique your interest in frog painting. Befriend Frog Painter and ask him or her how they accomplished their technique.
posted by desjardins at 8:32 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Where are you getting your numbers?

There are some things I can believe you actually have numbers for: ranking of your grad school, for instance. But, even those are pretty dang subjective. There may be a difference between going to the #1 grad program and the #50 program... But 1 and 2? Psh. That's not a difference that matters.

And how, exactly, do you know you achieved second-level achievement? Or that you do second-best work? What's your rubric, here? Are you surrounded by people who are constantly judging you with clear standards and then telling you exactly where you fall, among all your peers? (If so, dump them! Bad friends! Bad colleagues!) Or, is this just you, determining on your own, that you're second-best in all these ways?

And then we get to this: All of a sudden, I've noticed the work of another painter working on the same frogs. Their work, at first, was pretty poor, but recently I feel is at least equal to mine, and often exceeds what I do.

Again, what's the standard? Where's the rubric? Where's the outside confirmation that you are judging things correctly?

This isn't about frogs, and I think you know that. This is about you. What I see, in your question, is someone who is very insecure. You say you don't mind being second-best at your job, but I think that's a lie. I think it's hurting you day in and day out that you think you're second best. And now that you've found someone to compare yourself to when it comes to your hobby, you again think you're second-best.

This isn't about frogs. This isn't about coming to terms with being second-best -- because, again, such fine-tuned rankings for every aspect of your life don't exist. Instead, I think this is about you needing to learn how to like yourself. I think this is about you learning that you're awesome, not just some constant has-run. I think this is about you needing to learn that you have worth, that you're a valuable human being, and that no one is ranking you the way you are.
posted by meese at 8:35 AM on December 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

No no no, don't give up!

Because you're an individual, nobody else can do what you do in exactly the same way. You're unique, and your art or your product, whatever it is, will have your distinctive mark and vision.

Over time you'll begin to realize that competing with others for elusive and illusory prizes is wasted effort. Continue to do your thing because you love it.

About winning stuff - human judgment is fallible. I have a friend who won a prize in a respected piano competition. He got the bronze that day. But was he really only the third best pianist in the competition? I don't think so. On another day, or with a different panel of judges, he might have won the gold. It's all subjective.

I suffer from your malaise occasionally. I'm a visual artist - JAFA, as they say (just another fucking artist, LOL). I publish my work on a web site with ten thousand other artists. Every time I'm on there I'm like, damn, there are so many good artists out there. Comparisons are inevitable, and I get crazy jealous. But I can also see that my own work has something different about it that sets it apart. And I learn from the other artists - they inspire me. Occasionally when an artist I admire stops by to tell me he likes something I've just put up, it's just wonderful! So things like that can be enriching. When the competition is framed as a challenge to stretch your vision and try something new, it can be fun.

You'll never be the only one doing what you do. But look inside and keep focused on your inner vision. Be true to yourself, and your work will become stronger. And other people will find it meaningful too.
posted by cartoonella at 8:39 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

We're wired for striving, it is one of the cornerstones of being a sentient being, and the dark side of that is what you're feeling. Incompleteness and jealousy.

There is no best in the way you're perceiving it. My best friend from high school has an amazing job, a great wife, wonderful pets and family. I was having some drinks with him a month ago after not seeing him for a long time. He's deeply unhappy with his prestigious job due to the stress and grind of it. He fires people and it kills him. He worries about the future. This is a guy I perceive as having 'beaten' me in every measurable aspect of life.

But he isn't more content than I am. That made me both sad and more at peace with myself.

The problem you're having is thinking that you can suddenly say "I'm the best. It's over." That never happens. If you were the best, you'd be aware of the stress and practice needed to maintain against a thousand challengers.

Let this frog painter inspire you if you want. Or enjoy the painting for what it is. Both at the same time if possible!
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:45 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I can understand this. I'm 46, now, and I still randomly find myself bothered by the fact that for pretty much any given thing I do, I know someone who is better at it than I am.

Usually, when that particular dog starts nibbling at my heels, it's a symptom of something else being wrong - it's one of the things I use as a measure of my level of depression. So you might want to look and see if you've got other depressive behaviors or indicators of depression - the problem isn't that you're only more awesome than most people, it's that something else in your head is letting it bother you.

One of the things I find helps me keep things in check is thinking about a story I read a while ago about Buzz Aldrin, and how apparently his dad was disappointed that he was only the *second* guy to set foot on the moon. (yeah, I can see that driving you to alcoholism...)
posted by rmd1023 at 8:46 AM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Why don't you try to get better at painting frogs?

It sounds like you want to be the best frog painter, but you also want to stay at the level you're at right now. I'm sure it takes work, but it's familiar work - it's not as much work as it would take for you to try to get better. So you just want this other frog painter to go away - you don't want to be better than him, you want him to be worse than you. I think a much more useful way to look at this situation is to recast it as an impetus to improve at something that's clearly important to you.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:46 AM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

There are billions in the world. We're all at least second best.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:51 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know your title is just a joke, but at the same time, remember that it was vanity, not humility, that made Salieri appoint himself the Patron Saint of Mediocrities. You'll be happier if you let some of that vanity go. It'll never keep you warm at night.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:55 AM on December 27, 2011

I've felt like this in the past and found the way out to be to live for something other than my own vanity for a while. I started doing a lot more charity work, donating what I have to people who need it more and overall just stopped obsessing about my own place in life and instead focus on how to fix small problems that surround me.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 8:58 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Are you sure you want to be Number One? Or would it be enough for you to do something unequivocal?

For example, what if you went back to school at a top-tier university and got a first-class degree, would that be enough for you? You wouldn't have to be the top of your class, would you (if they even published that kind of data)?
posted by tel3path at 9:02 AM on December 27, 2011

Lake Wobegon Days, by Garrison Keillor, has a part called Theseses Against My Parents, a satire of Luther. One of the passages is about being so psychology wracked by a lack of praise that he's unable to accept any praise short of outright worship.

Show your frog paintings to others. I bet they like them. There. You've won.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:06 AM on December 27, 2011

Maybe your true talent isn't in being the best frog painter, but in being the best frog art critic/curator. This could be the start of your empire! :)
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:12 AM on December 27, 2011

When you're not the best at a big mainstream thing, it's tempting to find a small specialized obscure thing to be the best at, like painting frogs. It can get doubly maddening to discover other people doing well in the same area, because now you're not only no longer the best, you're also no longer unique. Your self-perceived specialness has decreased in two different categories.

It sounds like that might be part of your thing. You're okay with not being the most popular or most likely to succeed, but you want that niche talent to set you apart and give you an identity, like you're Frog Painter Smurf instead of one of the hundred generic background Smurfs. And you've seen another Frog Painter Smurf, and everyone knows there can't be two Smurfs with the same schtick.

Finding that one unique specialized skill is just as maddening as trying to be the very best at anything. Chances are, there is absolutely nothing in the world you can think of that hasn't already been thought of by someone else. I've struggled with the realization that I might not be brilliantly unique, and it kind of leaves you wondering what you have to offer, if you don't have anything particularly exceptional or unusual.

The way I've found around that is to find and focus on the advantages of being a small but decent fish in a huge ocean. There are quite a few, it turns out. You have people who will understand and appreciate your work, in the ways a non-enthusiast might not. You have people to learn from. You have the benefit of a large community of slightly different voices and perspectives, so there's not just one monolithic frog-painting style, and not just one exclusive Frog Salon that will accept or shun you. You're a little freer, not under as much pressure to perform one way.

And the truth is, most people aren't looking for anyone to reinvent the wheel. Nor are they only looking at the one best artist in each genre. No one reads just one author or eats at just one restaurant. BO-RING. We love variety, even if it's just the difference between steak fries and shoestring fries. You can be interesting and talented and appreciated without being the universally-ranked best or the most unusual. If you ask frog enthusiasts to name frog painters they love, they won't all say simply "oh, Joe Number One is the best." They'll give you a list. Joe Number One won't be at the top of all of them, and he'll likely be absent from several. It's likely that, if you keep putting yourself out there, you will be on some of those lists.

And even if you're not on those lists, you have the skill and power to paint frogs that you love and that represent your vision. That's huge in itself! Being able to make a thing that you love is no small feat.

tl;dr: there's a lot to love about whatever you do besides being the best or most unique. Find those things and cherish them.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:23 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Focusing on the fact that you are not the best is a way to prevent you from doing the work. It is a distraction, and a way to soothe yourself and protect yourself from the work. If you're thinking about why the other guy is better, you're not in the work. If you're looking over your shoulder to see if you're better than some other guy, you're not in the work.

Best or second-best is arbitrary. It's just a way to take yourself out of the work you need to do, which handily not only prevents yourself from doing it, but also shields you from the possibility of doing your best and still experiencing the pain of coming up short. (And, as someone pointed out upthread, even being "the best" has its levels of "second-best-ness," like the president who's not "the best" president.)

It is very difficult, especially in a creative field where your work ultimately becomes judged by other people, with numbers and ranking attached to it, and success or failure determined by people other than yourself, to stop thinking about this kind of stuff (best/not best, first/second/last). But I find, when I go to those kind of places where I torture myself with various not-best scenarios or ask myself ridiculous things, that the better question to be asking is: what am I afraid of right now in the work? And then the only thing to do is to tackle it. Which lets you plunge yourself back into the world of doing something you love, and something that challenges you, and something that changes you, and something that deepens you, and something that has nothing whatsoever to do with being the best or second-best or anything at all other than the act of doing the work.
posted by mothershock at 9:29 AM on December 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

Firstly, I admire your sheer honesty in admitting (to yourself more than to us random internet strangers) how you're feeling.

I don't think you're in any way wrong to enjoy / value the recognition that comes with being "Myaskme, Region X's amphibian renderer in watercolours par excellence" - you're human and that's what we do, we measure ourselves against others and in many cases strive to outdo them. That's how we as a species have developed and evolved - we recognise and imitate success (as we perceive it) in the hopes of gaining advantage. And if we're pleased with ourselves and feel some pride in what we've achieved, then again, that's very human.

Now someone is recognising and imitating your success (even if they're not - but you see the pattern I referred to) and is gaining advantage in your broad area of interest as a result, and that is galling to you. I don't know how many people enjoy frog painting in your area, but I'm sure there's got to be room for more than one of you at the top. What about getting to know them, as others have suggested, and engaging in some friendly rivalry with the aim of pushing yourself further - not to compare yourself to Other Frog Painter but to have someone you can discuss moving into oils as a medium with, or how to incorporate digital timelapse photography into your Frogspawn to Frog's Legs mural or whatever. You could effectively help make Region X THE go-to place for frog paintings, enhancing its reputation nationally and by doing so effectively increasing the room at the top for yourself and OFP.

Above all, you still have, and will always have, the ability to translate your thoughts and feelings into something tangible that the rest of us would love to be able to do. I wouldn't necessarily know that you felt yourself to be number two in a field of many - I would be absolutely blown away by the beauty and power of your frog paintings and would be jealous of your undoubted ability.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 9:32 AM on December 27, 2011

I go through this quite a lot, and I use the karmic approach.

"Yeah, so-and-so does [xyz] better than I, but his/her life sucks in a place where mine is pretty awesome."

Or, I do the "yes, so-and-so can [xyz] better than I. BUT CAN HE/SHE ALSO [ABC]? I CAN, I WIN, HAHAHAHAHAHA."
posted by Lucinda at 10:01 AM on December 27, 2011

Usually, when that particular dog starts nibbling at my heels, it's a symptom of something else being wrong - it's one of the things I use as a measure of my level of depression. So you might want to look and see if you've got other depressive behaviors or indicators of depression - the problem isn't that you're only more awesome than most people, it's that something else in your head is letting it bother you. rmd1023


It's only a practical problem, as opposed to an emotional one, if your town isn't big enough for more than one "frog painter."

I could have almost written this question. I play clarinet, and I live in a medium sized town at best. <5>
And it can be really demotivating. To the extent I've solved this conundrum, it's been by:

- trying a few things that are a little different. For me, it's saxophone, flute, and guitar. I'll never be as good on those instruments, but they just diffuse the impulses a bit, make it less about being competitive.
- making some work for myself. Finding venues to do some performances, even with absolutely no payment, to get a chance to play some stuff.
- relatively late in the game (I'm 45, and starting to realize that this, whatever it is, is it, as far as playing is concerned), I'm trying to just make it about practicing to be good. Not practicing to win something or earn something or even to do things I currently can't. Just practicing for its own sake, and to keep the chops up so that I can do well when I get the opportunity. Eventually you've got to decide whether you just like doing it or not, as basic as that sounds.

I also think it's about the framing of it. You've framed it as a race where you always come in second. That makes you a loser. If you look at other people's accomplishments, they frame things to make themselves look like winners. If you were second in your class but the other guy went into painting lizards, you're the highest academically ranked frog painter. You're probably the highest ranked X from [name of your state]. Trust me, this is what other people do.

You might also look at who you're competing with and socializing with. One unfortunate thing about smart, competitive people is that most of them are as insecure as you seem to be, and they can sometimes be total douchecanoes. THEY will frame your accomplishments with a sniff and a shrug, because they're trying to frame themselves as winners. When I get into that head game (and many in the orchestra I play in do), I try to back out of it and go find some people who want to be supportive and just get some work done.
posted by randomkeystrike at 10:03 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

that's 500,000, not 5.
posted by randomkeystrike at 10:03 AM on December 27, 2011

I really think there is no such thing as being "Number one", in the way that you seem to be hoping for it. It all depends on how you frame things. (As "Not That Girl" points out: If you were elected goddamn president of the US, you could choose to criticize yourself for only being the second-best president. If you made the top-selling movie of all time, eventually some other movie would outsell it.)

Can I look at your own examples?

I went to a well-regarded university, though not the really prestigious school where my best friend went.

Best friend who went to very prestigious school could think "I am 2nd best, because I did not go to the even more prestigious school".

I did very well and graduated with honors, but was not awarded a prize.

Person who got the prize could think "Someone else got a more prestigious prize, or more prizes".

I went to the second-best graduate program in my field,

Person who went to the best program could think "Others in my program did better than me"

I got a job at the second-best employer in my field

Person at the best employer could think "Others have advanced more rapidly than me".

etc... etc...

I also know that being #1 has its own drawbacks, etc.

Being number-one-without-quailfier isn't something that has drawbacks. It's something that does not exist.
posted by ManInSuit at 10:16 AM on December 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Choose a more worthy goal. You're really good at a lot of things, all of them personal accomplishments. What about being a really good mentor at work, a good coach of aspiring frog-painters, a generous sibling, a loyal child, a favorite uncle of the not-so-popular niece or nephew. Honestly, when you stick with this personal competition, you'll never be satisfied. If you were the best frog-painter in the state, you'd be unhappy with not being the best in the region. If you make yourself the best myaskme you can be, the only way to measure is against your own progress, and all the progress you make is personal growth that you keep forever.
posted by theora55 at 11:55 AM on December 27, 2011

What helped the most was frequent, repetitive self-talks. The first stage was convincing myself that what the competition was doing didn't matter:
- there is always someone better in the world - why should it make a difference that now I know who one of those people is? (this is my favorite)

The second, trickier part, was to realize that "best" or even "personal best" were irrelevant to a hobby. I paid frogs because i get pleasure from it. I grow as a painter from practice but sometime it is more important to explore an idea or a new technique than it is to the "best" painting. I paint for many reasons: the challenge of making the painting I envision, the pleasure in the process. The more I can focus on intent and experience, the more I move away from competition and judgment and that has freed me up to be more creative.
posted by metahawk at 12:06 PM on December 27, 2011

I started on my personal hobby way, way too late to ever be the best. Just yesterday, I got a book that was breathtaking to me in its level of advanced instruction, and although I'll admit there was a moment of "oh, crap, I'll NEVER be that good," it was mostly "holy crap look how much more there is to know about this, this is AWESOME."

Maybe it's time to focus on learning from the national frog-painters rather than competing (for what? why?) with the local ones.
posted by mishaps at 2:13 PM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

One thought that helps me deal with the fact that I'm very good at quite a few things, but never actually the best at any of them: life is an enormous trade off. Apart from a few rare freakishly gifted people, to be unambiguously "the best" at anything means (a) defining down the "thing" that you want to be best at to something very narrow and then (b) devoting a very large proportion of your life to it. As a consequence this means that (c) everything else in life, those things that you kind of like being second best at, all that starts to suffer due to neglect. All your time, effort, thought and passion is spent learning more about less and less. Wanting to be "the best" rather than simply "very, very awesome" is often dangerous, because it starts forcing you into trade offs that aren't sensible or practical. This doesn't always make me *feel* better, but it does make me believe my choices are the right ones.

The other thing that I find helps, especially in situations where there's an identifiable "rival" who seems to be doing better than me, is to try to view it less as a "Mozart & Salieri" thing, because all that will do is make me bitter, poison the work, and well... pretty much ensure that I become the Salieri. Instead, it's better to think in terms of "Picasso & Matisse". I find this works best if you actually know the person and are friends as well as rivals. Almost certainly, you and the other frog painter will have somewhat different styles, different perspectives on the work; and because of this you can learn from each others work. Embraced properly, the existence of the other person can make you a better artist (or whatever). If so, well, it's very hard to say whether Picasso or Matisse was the best; but very easy to see that both were made better by the other. Personally, I think I could be content with being Matisse.
posted by mixing at 2:27 PM on December 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Does it help to know that I love "frog painting"? I struggle with this issue deeply and every day in regards to my writing, and I'm probably going to think of it in terms of frog painting from now on.

As I say, I am still struggling, so I cannot pretend to offer pat answers. These things help me:

- Stepping back to get perspective on what it is that I am, rather than what it is that I am not. For example, I am never going to be the only historical horror author out there, and certainly never the best, but I am probably going to be the best historical horror author who was a debutante at a Mississippi country club. It ain't much, but it's something.

- Awaiting the Judgment of the Ages. Your frog paintings may one day be as avidly sought as Henry Darger's collages. How do you know? You can't! So it is a harmless fantasy that you may indulge in now and unto death.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:31 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

You could stop compartmentalizing each thing you're good at and consider how combining the things you're good at makes you unique. With each thing you add, you get a little more unique as the pool of possible people who can do this shrinks.

For example: there are tens of thousands of people who graduated from your 2nd best school. And a smaller number who did so with great grades. And a still smaller number who got into the 2nd best grad school, worked for the 2nd best employer, and so on.

I can guarantee you that you're probably the ONLY person out there who not only has done this stuff, but is among the best at frog painting, too.

So when you measure yourself not just by one metric, but across several, you actually can be the best.
posted by MoonOrb at 3:15 PM on December 27, 2011

That little competitive twitch can be a good thing. Sometimes it can give you a push to look at your subject in a fresh light. Maybe you've been painting frogs the same way too long, got stagnant, and now it's time to do some hard creative work to revive your approach. There are many ways to excel at something. One person could be technically excellent, and another could be wildly imaginative, and a third could be humorous, etc. All three will gather their admirers. All three might look at their fellows' work and feel they have come in second or third place in comparison.

All a person can really do is keep on struggling to express themselves authentically. It's harder to listen to your inner voice than it is to chase whatever angle seems to be getting attention. Painting frogs by itself is not unique. How you choose to paint your frogs is, if you're willing to risk it. Don't be painting someone else's frogs. Paint your frogs.
posted by griselda at 6:07 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Meet the other best frog painter and get to be friends. Drink to one another's successes, share advice, practice together. Soon enough you'll either learn enough about the history of frog painting, or learn of some dazzling new young frog painter, and you will have a third party to direct your shared admiration toward.
posted by ead at 6:09 PM on December 27, 2011

Sorry this is such tough love, but it's true, and I mean it from the bottom of my heart: It's not the other frog painter's fault, it's yours. You've been slacking off. You need to work harder.

When you reach the top of your game, it's only natural to coast. That is after all the origin of the phrase, "rest on your laurels." You may have been coasting for so long that you don't even realize you're coasting.

Remember how hard you worked, struggled, learned, studied, when you were in the earliest stages of clawing to the top? That's where you need to be, if you want to keep your role in the spotlight.

If you want to gracefully cede the spotlight to some up-and-coming young whippersnapper, then so be it. But do not ever take the middle road, of muddling along and being bitter and gradually sliding into mediocrity.

There is always more to learn. There are always new challenges.
posted by ErikaB at 6:37 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Interesting question. I am not the best at anything, though I am very good. Yes, sometimes not being the best really irks me. I have a great deal of ambition, though fading somewhat with age, and it has made me more successful, but not more happy and usually I hope that my children do not get it.

I guess the advice so far has been to choose to 1) accept it or 2) change it. In re-reading the question I think you are asking more about accepting. One counter-intutiive thing which might help is actually spending time with more people who are as good or better than you. I always want to be the smartest person in the room. I recently went back to graduate school and I am not the smartest person in the room and being surrounded by lots of people like that is really great - its like trying to be the richest guy in Manhattan. Not. Gonna. Happen. If you meet more talented frog painters, perhaps go to the statewide frog-painters convention, maybe that will help you accept that you paint frogs at a really high level - "Man, no one does frog eyes like myaskme! its like they follow you around the room" - and that's it.
posted by shothotbot at 8:06 PM on December 27, 2011

Dunno if it's applicable, but when I go to my Frog-Painting conventions and meet with people who share my love for frog painting, I come away feeling great about frog painting and my own ambitions in regards to frog painting, regardless of my spot in the heierarchy.

It's when I see Internet buzz, excitement, and unbridled adulation for other frog painters that makes me feel like I'm stumbling along in a field where I'd love to be at the head of the pack. When that jealousy sets in, I usually think "how can I replicate their success?" This is usually depressing.

The kicker is that in my frog-painting field, it seems like the people making the best paintings are just enjoying themselves and doing what makes them happy. Reminding myself of that helps as much as anything. There's a sort of feeling of confidence I can work to generate. It's hard now, but I'm hoping I can improve with practise. The "good work"/"confidence" thing is a bit of a chicken/egg thing, maybe, but it's the best I've got.

Also: the time you spend comparing yourself to others is time you could be spending focusing on your work. I fall into the trap of looking at other peoples frog paintings and telling myself I'm doing research or whatever. And there is a place for critical comparison, but doing your own work is the best use of your time.
posted by TangoCharlie at 8:45 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

One more: is there one particular frog-painter that you think is your nemesis? Have you met them? Can you? What if they're awesome? What if you enjoy hanging out with them? Would you still feel badly about being "second best"?
Alternately, what if they were horrible, cruel, and their life was falling apart? How would that affect your view of their work?
posted by TangoCharlie at 8:53 PM on December 27, 2011

"Second best" seems to have become an incredibly negative way for you to characterize where you fall in all these various rankings.

Try changing the words you use to describe these things to yourself and others. It seems you went to a top-tier university, continued on to one of the top programs for grad school, and now work for one of the top competitors in your field. You are an expert in your chosen hobby, part of an elite group.
posted by yohko at 9:44 PM on December 27, 2011

Is it so bad to be second (in most things)? Consider Eratosthenes, called "Beta" by his contemporaries, because he was second best in everything. Thing is, nobody remembers his contemporaries, but he is still remembered for his contributions to mathematics.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 10:09 PM on December 27, 2011

Maybe use him as inspiration? Push yourself to get better. Not to beat him, but because it's an opportunity to get better. See what makes his frogs better than yours; maybe you can come up with something different from what you're doing now. Maybe that different thing won't end up being better than what you're doing already, but it'll teach you something.

In things where I'm feeling competitive and annoyed about other people being better than me, I try to frame it that way. I've been in environments where people think I'm just the bee's knees at something, when I know for a fact there are lots of people who are better at it than me, even though in my immediate environment I might be one of the best. This is no fun (or at least, only to a limited extent) because it's hard to get better without being around at least some people who are better than me.
posted by BungaDunga at 1:31 AM on December 28, 2011

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