Tired of feeling 2nd best. What to do?
May 31, 2007 4:41 PM   Subscribe

Tired of feeling 2nd best in everything. What to do?

I make a living as a computer programmer, and consider myself to be a competent professional, though not the best one I know.

Being a generalist, at the broadest sense of the word, I also like playing a musical instrument, but I'm not the best player I know, though I do seem to be good in a band and even got complimented for my technique.

I like to blog, write short stories once in a while, but I have at least a thousand friends who can do that better than me, though people find my writings funny most of the time.

I'm not good looking so the case here is worse than 2nd best :D

I love movies and studying screenplay writing, but I never wrote a script one myself and I know whenever I do it, I will meet a shitload of people who can do it better than me.

I can pretty much talk about everything, from politics to music and cinema and poker. However, I'm starting to feel a little depressed because, though I know a good deal about many different things, I'm not THE BEST in any area, and I honestly don't like to think I'll be a mediocre person for the rest of my life.

I'm beginning to think that people refer to me (or think of me) as being a "gray" person, one that does not suck entirely but has nothing absolutely special to offer.

Should I focus more on the things I want to be the best at, and forget about everything else? Will this take away the feeling of being 2nd best or worse in every single area of my life? What's worrying me the most is that I'm becoming an increasingly more negative person (a friend of mine even said he'd write a sitcom about me whose catchphrase would be "dc, stop being a negative asshole") and I think this " 2nd best" kind of feeling is the main reason behind it.

Help me, O hivemind!
posted by dcrocha to Human Relations (28 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Nobody will ever be "first best" at anything, save for a few incredibly rare exceptions like maybe Michael Jordan.

You've got a couple of options here:

1) Look at your ability to do lots of things decently as your strength. It is one. You probably have a lot of knowledge in a lot of different areas, and therefore are ahead of your friends on a lot of things they don't know jack about - because you've got basic or intermediate knowledge there.

2) Don't look at life as such a competition anyway. You don't need to be the best at anything. Think about what you want that makes you happy, instead. If you need to be "a certain level of good" at something, then set goals. Say you want to be able to play a certain song on the guitar, or pass a certain certificaiton exam or whatever it is your goal is. In doing this, you can either chooes to focus on a thing or two you want to excel at if the goals are pretty lofty, or you can make realistic goals in a lot of different areas.

The key to #2 is setting reasonable goals. Don't say "I want to be able to play flight of the bumblebee in doubletime on a ukelele"... not reasonable.

Ben Folds put it quite well himself:

Like you've got nothing to prove
No matter what you might do
There's always someone out there cooler than you

I know that's hard to believe
But there are people you meet
They're into something that is too big to be

Through their clothes
And they'll put up with all the poses you'll throw
And you won't

Even know
that they're not sizing you up
They know your mom fucked you up
Or maybe let you watch too much TV

But they'll still look in your eyes
To find the human inside
You know there's always something in there to see

The veneer
Not everybody made the list this year
Have a beer

posted by twiggy at 4:54 PM on May 31, 2007

It's not always a bad thing - at least in some narrow circumstances. I love playing softball - but I'm not a great athlete by any means. But I can play any of the anchor positions competently (3b, ss, 1b, LF, CF), though I'll never displace a starter on a good team. The captains in the leagues I play in know this, and I'm constantly invited to fill in for them in games where they know they'll be missing a player - so I get to play lots of softball.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 5:13 PM on May 31, 2007

The problem isn't you, it's a symptom of our culture. Nowadays, "jack of all trades, master of none" is often said with some amount of derision. In the past, you would have been known as a "renaissance man", which is a good thing.

Some other thoughts:

- Recognize that being the best doesn't matter, as long as you're happy. Who cares if you can shred on the guitar? If you enjoy jamming out by yourself, then do it!

-Recognize that your standards may be too high. Who cares if you're the best programmer alive? By virtue of being able to program at all, you're a better programmer than 99% of people!

I can pretty much talk about everything, from politics to music and cinema and poker

I would much rather hang out with someone who can cover a broad range of topics than someone super-specialized. The people at the top of their field tend to develop a severe case of myopia. It hinders their ability to contexualize and relate to others, and makes them pretty damn boring to hang around with.
posted by chrisamiller at 5:23 PM on May 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

You've got two options:

1) Drop the idea that you need to be the best at something. 99.99999% of the population is not the best at anything, and yet most people tend to be reasonably happy. Is being the best really necessary for your happiness?

2) Pick some ONE thing that you want to be the best at, and then relentlessly pursue it. When you're talking about being at the top of a field (whether it's football, or violin playing, or physics) you're competing with people who often devote 60+ hours a week to doing that thing. Many of these people don't do much of anything else. (There are exceptions, of course.) Even if you go this route, getting to the top of the heap is not a guaranteed thing. Much will depend on your natural abilities and on luck.
posted by epimorph at 5:48 PM on May 31, 2007

Keep in mind that there are people who consider Michael Jordan to have negatively affected the concept of teamwork in basketball.

You and I are in similar boats, though. It's a terribly ambiguous life to be pretty good in a bunch of things, but perhaps that's a hint of a way out of this: you are 1st best at being into a lot of things. You are the only one who is the best at the unique collection of things you're into. It sounds sappy and hippy, but what can I say.
posted by rhizome at 5:57 PM on May 31, 2007

I think this type of self-putdown, which I see in friends and family quite frequently, is really a form of feeling special and entitled. I imagine the thought process is:

"Being a fine musician or a good artist or a competent computer programmer is fine for other people, but I'm special and different. The world needs to see (and I need to reaffirm) that I am a uniquely talented person, far above the grey masses!"

Anyway, who is the best musician of all time? If there isn't 100% consensus, then there really isn't one, is there? So it's not possible to take that #1 spot. Besides, you can take comfort in the fact that millions love mediocrity more than genius; look at sales charts for books, records, concert tickets, etc, if you want confirmation.

As for advice: You are fundamentally ordinary, like all people who have ever lived. You are good at some things, bad at others. That's how human beings are. Do what feels wonderful to you, and others will respond very positively -- if not to your brilliance, then at least to your sheer joy in doing what you love.

I also believe that everything you learn in one discipline percolates in your mind and informs work you do in other disciplines, sometimes in fascinating ways. So being a generalist can only help you broaden your pallette.
posted by ROTFL at 5:58 PM on May 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You're well-rounded, which is much more appealing to others than being a know-it-all. You'll make--and keep--more friends because you can talk about anything in an informed way. Accept that you're most likely never going to be the best at something and remind yourself that it's OK. Some people aren't good at anything.
posted by HotPatatta at 6:00 PM on May 31, 2007

Best answer: Being a jack of all trades is rapidly becoming a good thing, as we're leaving an era where specialists deserve extra attention. Having a wide range of skills is important for a fast-changing world (as much true in technology as medicine, engineering, auto mechanics, etc..).

One useful way to feel good about yourself in this situation is to cultivate overlapping skills that allow you to produce AMAZING results. For example.. let's say you're "better than average, but not #1" at all of these things: programming, negotiation, project management, and marketing.. then you could probably build a kickass Web-related business.

If you're better than average but not #1 at.. playing an instrument, video editing, using MySpace, etc.. then you could probably kick off a great career as an online musician (and believe me, people are making serious coin doing this with mediocre talents - the Code Monkey guy is a case in point).

So.. overlap your "2nd best" skills and produce #1 results with them. Judge yourself by those results rather than "skills". Skills on their own are useless.. you're judged by what you actually do.
posted by wackybrit at 6:01 PM on May 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

Go do something fun that you've never done before. River rafting, something, anything. At the end of the day, you will have had a lot of fun and now you will have an interesting story to tell.

Shazam, you are no longer a "grey person."

In other words, break out of your rut.

Damn ... I mean, I just met a guy that took a vacation to Tibet. He's not the best at anything, but he's been to Tibet and I haven't. Tibet! How cool is that?
posted by frogan at 6:06 PM on May 31, 2007

Best answer: Maybe you could focus intently on one thing, for just the next month. I suggest it because of my experience doing a 30-day yoga challenge. (Don't mock me!) You had to go to yoga class every single day for a month. By the end, I felt like the most devoted yoga student ever. Going every day was surprisingly much more effective than going three times / week, which I'd been doing for the prior six months.

Since then, I've been meaning to try this "do it every day for 30 days" method for other skills. And it was only 30 days -- you could become much better at twelve different things every year!
posted by salvia at 6:22 PM on May 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

Do what you enjoy, and never allow yourself to stop improving.
posted by benign at 6:26 PM on May 31, 2007

The key isn't to be the very very best. There will always be someone better than you. (Unless you're Lance Armstrong.)

The key is to be better than you were the day before. You are competing against yourself, not other people. It doesn't matter if New Guy came in and now it's only been three months and now he kicks your ass! It matters that remember last year how you were at this, and now you're way better.
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:35 PM on May 31, 2007

You know ... I'd love to be second best. Because right now I'm just another brilliant young up-and-coming computer professional, and there's hundreds of those in my country alone; I've met most of them, at one time or another. There isn't a lot that makes me special.

The problem and the magnificence of today's small world is that no matter how good you are, you have people who aren't as good as you, people who are peers and people who are better than you, in every and any field of human endevour.

At the end of the day, all you can really do is try and improve yourself, and compete against yourself. There is no other meaningful competition, in my opinion. One day, you may look around, and realise you're playing in a world-class orchestra, or you're recieving a Nobel Prize ... but frankly, that's something very, very few people get to experience. You may only ever be 'the best' at something in your family, in your social circle, in your city, in your state, in your country. When are you sufficiently 'the best'?

I choose to simply be the best me I can be. If that leads me to fame, well and good. But so long as it's the best I can do - it's good enough.
posted by ysabet at 6:39 PM on May 31, 2007

I think you need to get a girlfriend.
posted by vacapinta at 6:39 PM on May 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

I have the same problem. Youtube just makes it worse.
posted by mrunderhill at 6:43 PM on May 31, 2007

I'm like activity X and am really into it. In fact I'm probably more serious about it than 99.9% of the population.

However, I like meeting, and tend to get along with people who have interests similar to mine, and my peers are other people who are roughly as into X as I am; some of them are more serious about it, and others are less so. But, for some of my friends I know more about X than anyone else they have met.

For me there's a number of X's this holds true for. Even if I focused on one X it would still be true for that, though it would just shift which people fell into which category.

There's six and a half billion people. Being better than ALL of them at anything pretty much means devoting your entire life to that pursuit AND getting very lucky.

Be happy you have people around you who you can learn from. It's absolutely possible to excel without competing, and that should be your goal.
posted by aubilenon at 6:45 PM on May 31, 2007

By the way, I should've also said I agree with all the people saying that you're probably not some mediocre dullsmith, that taking a harsh view of yourself is probably worse on your relationships than whatever percentile your blogging skills are in, and that most people probably appreciate you just doing something well and don't care that you don't do it "best." But hey, if you feel driven to take on a new challenge, stop resting on your laurels, and get seriously good at something, then go for it! There are definitely worse motivating forces.

The one thing to think about, though, is that if you focus intently on one thing, you'll end up spending a little less time on some of the other things you do. I've heard people lament "all I do is play tennis. That's it. Sure, I'm awesome now, but who cares about tennis?" Ph.D. students often complain of feeling "a mile deep but an inch wide." Would that really be better than the way you are now?
posted by salvia at 6:46 PM on May 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For me, I get the same nagging feeling all the time. For me, it's a mix of being depressed that I don't have that "one" topic that I enjoy so much that I can focus my energies on that. And the second part is the feeling that I'm not the best at anything because of it.

One thing that has helped me was Robert Heinlein's specialization is for insects quote. The second thing that helped recently was an article on Failure in volume 10 of Make magazine. I'd link to it, but last I checked it wasn't available to non-subscribers online.
posted by drezdn at 6:50 PM on May 31, 2007

The other thing that makes me feel better about my jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none is that I look at the combination of things that I can uniquely do among my peer group. Sure, it's a way of "keeping up with the joneses," but hey, I'm only human.
posted by drezdn at 6:53 PM on May 31, 2007

Best answer: As long as you're always getting better at something, as long as you're always improving, you're doing well.

Think of the past. A gentleman's education is supposed to be as broad as possible.

Think of James Burke's "Connections" - those who are at the top of their field typically achieve that position by being ultra-specialized in that field. Whereas the degree that progress is pushed by people who transcend specialties is immense. Problem X needs solution Y. Solution Y has already been developed for a completely unrelated problem in a different field, but no-one dealing with Problem X is aware of this, because they're too specialized to have expertise in other fields. Progress requires the guy who is the jack of all trades, and thus is able to realise that unrelated solution Y has applications to problem X.

That said, you might find some traction in pursuing a single passion at obsession levels for a few months/years then moving on to the next. Pursuing all passions at the same time developes them all slowly, but focusing hard on one can elevate your expertise dramatically, and once you are a master of one, you can move on and become a master of the next thing. You won't be the best in only a few months, but you'll easily top out 99.9% of people.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:52 PM on May 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Diesel Sweeties had something to say about this.

I say relax, have fun, embrace ordinariness and be comfortable with who you are. At some point you'll get really fired up about something and end up surprising yourself.

Needing to be better than other people is very psychologically stressful, and is not a very attractive quality either. You'll feel better without it.
posted by teleskiving at 1:50 AM on June 1, 2007

I've recommended this book - an anti-specialist's approach to thinking about your career - before, and heartily do so again.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 3:16 AM on June 1, 2007

Are you me? I was thinking this very thing myself recently.

Your comment

I can pretty much talk about everything, from politics to music and cinema and poker

is the complete opposite of

I'm beginning to think that people refer to me (or think of me) as being a "gray" person, one that does not suck entirely but has nothing absolutely special to offer.

You sounds like a person I would much rather know than several of the highly specialised people who, by living, breathing and eating their area of expertise have become quite socially boring individuals. Imagine the sacrifice of becoming #1 at one of the things you mention. Would you be happy sacrificing music to be the best programmer in your company? Would you stop watching films so you could concentrate on your blogging? It's the tradeoff that I can't imagine myself doing.

I don't know. Maybe it's a personal thing for me, but I realised that I would rather be happy than the best. All of my friends are better at something than I am. I can't think of anything I am objectively the best at. But I am more willing to try new things, I can hold my own in a conversation on many subjects and I am constantly learning. And though I am not an exceptional worker I get the job done well and I get paid for doing something I enjoy.

This is all terrible anecdotal and I sound like I'm convincing myself more than you, but this is the thought-process I went through when dealing with this question.
posted by slimepuppy at 4:59 AM on June 1, 2007

I highly agree with the Heinlein quote. Also, look at heroes like Odysseus, or John Carter of Mars. Their very appeal is adaptability. Stuck on an island with a giant cyclops? I know what to do! Have to pilot an alien craft? No problem! There's nothing wrong with knowing a little of everything.

The travel thing is a good idea, too.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:34 AM on June 1, 2007

Best answer: I also like playing a musical instrument, but I'm not the best player I know, though I do seem to be good in a band and even got complimented for my technique.

I like to blog, write short stories once in a while, but I have at least a thousand friends who can do that better than me, though people find my writings funny most of the time.

So, if you don't believe what others say about you, how would you even know if you were the best? What would it take? Let's say you won an award for best short story of the century. Would you be satisfied with that, or would you wonder what's next? If nothing will ever prove to you that you're good enough, then you might as well stop looking for that which doesn't exist. It's a fruitless search, full of suffering.

Once you stop looking for validation, you find complete freedom. (Said from longterm experience with the same sort of malaise.)
posted by desjardins at 6:52 AM on June 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Here's a goal: Become the best version of yourself. Nobody else can do that.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:01 AM on June 1, 2007

What are you looking for from being the best? For a lot of people, it's probably:

(1) a personal sense of satisfaction
(2) a sense of respect and esteem from others

Consistently excelling over most everybody in some particular area can confer these things. But it doesn't always, and it's not the only thing that can, and like others have mentioned, it's usually both hard work and a lucky break to be that person.

The good news is that you don't have to be in the top 1% of the world's population at any particular thing to make contributions to it that give a personal sense of satisfaction and earn you respect and esteem.

Right now I'm thinking of a couple of songwriters who've been part of some of the same Utah arts organizations I have. The guys I'm thinking of aren't famous, they're not the players or singers I know, they don't write hits. But they've each created art that was a powerful experience for me. They did a thing, something good and notable, whether or not it finds wide acclaim, and that's earned them some lasting esteem from me (and some other people). And I know they carry a sense of satisfaction from creating something they feel like captured an experience and delivered it to listeners. Interestingly enough, none of this is about their songs being "the best." Lots of people can write a good song. Others will write good songs, some significant portion of which will be better. But they're the ones who wrote those songs, songs they're happy with and that provided something worthwhile to others.

Does what you do have to be music or art? No. It could be. It could be an idea or piece of code you develop that makes life easier for others or does something else cool. But as vacapinta points out, maybe it's also finding someone you love and being the person who does loving things for them. Lots of people can love people you love. Some other people probably will. But when you're one of those who steps up and does it, that immediately makes you notable to them. Maybe even the best.

Pick something you get satisfaction out of doing as well as you can. Pick some things to do within that arena. Be the person who does them.
posted by weston at 9:22 AM on June 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I wonder if you've ever actually been "the best" for something within a group of people? (Given the huge population on the planet, nobody can know they're THE best at anything.)

It's not really that fun. Nobody loves you for it. Seriously. Some people will admire you for it, but others will be jealous, and you'll have to deal with that. And once you're at the top, the only way is down. You'll have to be constantly looking over your shoulder if you want to stay at the top, because the people wanting to be the best below you? They will be dedicating themselves to seeing you fall. And by this point, many of the people who were admiring or praising you will have started to take your achievements for granted, and would only praise you if you achieve even more. No fun.

I'm beginning to think that people refer to me (or think of me) as being a "gray" person, one that does not suck entirely but has nothing absolutely special to offer.

So, your friends, loved ones, the people you care about and like - do they all have something absolutely special to offer? Are they all best at something? Those of them that aren't - do you dismiss them as "grey" people?

though I know a good deal about many different things, I'm not THE BEST in any area, and I honestly don't like to think I'll be a mediocre person for the rest of my life

What happened to "good"? Are you familiar with the cognitive distortion of all-or-nothing thinking? (Actually, you're making about five of those errors on the list - mental filter, disqualifying the positive, mind reading, minimization, maybe labeling as well. This list is very, very useful.)

Should I focus more on the things I want to be the best at, and forget about everything else? Will this take away the feeling of being 2nd best or worse in every single area of my life?

You could dedicate yourself to one thing and forget about everything else, but like some others have mentioned, that probably wouldn't make you great company.

What do you enjoy doing? If you enjoy specialising, by all means do so. Personally I get bored doing any one thing for a long time, so really appreciate having many interests that I can dip in and out of and feel like the world is a giant room full of toys I can play with whenever I want. That's fun. I probably won't be brilliant at playing those toys for a long time, if ever, but you know, whatever. Beats getting to the top and having a nervous breakdown.
posted by Ira.metafilter at 9:45 AM on June 1, 2007

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