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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Here's What to Remember When You're Stressing About Not Being "The Best"

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When I was a little girl, my pushy and overbearing mother forced me into dance lessons. Now, I’ll let you in on a little secret about me: I’ve always been the type of person who’s completely unwilling to do anything halfway. If I’m going to put the time in anyway, you can bet I’m going to give it my absolute all.

So, personal background aside, let’s get back to these dance lessons. My group of squirrely and uncoordinated dancers had rehearsals on Wednesday every week in order to attempt to pull together this mess of a tap dance routine—which basically consisted of all of us running back and forth across the stage stomping as loudly as we could.

But, in my mind, I was Ginger Rogers. I practiced every night, eagerly awaiting my chance to soak up the spotlight and show that crowd of beaming parents exactly what I was made of. I knew that I was so far above these other spastic so-called dancers, I would surely steal the show and politely curtsy to an unending standing ovation.

When the day of the big recital came, I was amped and ready. I had on my pink leotard with a sewn-on fuzzy tail, feeling perfectly polished for our “Pink Panther” tap routine. My sparkly pink ears were centered on my head, and I was ready to stand center stage.

The music started, I pasted on my adorable grin, and prepared to strut my stuff. The audience smiled, giggled, and let out adoring ooohs and ahhhhs. But, when I looked out into the crowd, I noticed that they weren’t looking at me. Well, of course my parents were, but that wasn’t necessarily the endless admiration I was aiming for.

Instead, everybody was totally captivated by a different little girl on the stage. We’ll call her Jennifer for the sake of her anonymity (though, you know who you are, Jennifer). I hate to even admit it, but she was charming and adorable. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who would run home to practice in front of dear old Mom and Dad. She completely stole my thunder.

Me? Well, I was so dumbstruck by the fact that this other little panther had swooped in out of nowhere and took all of my glory that I completely froze—causing the girl behind me to step on my fuzzy tail, trip and tumble to the floor, and rip a giant hole in the butt of my leotard. Definitely not one of my finer moments.

So, where am I going with this long, rambling story of childhood woe? Well, I’ve always lived my life with the idea that if I’m going to do something, I’m going to be the absolute best at it. But, as I’ve moved on from that tap dance trauma and grown into an adult, I’ve realized something: That’s an absolutely exhausting way to live.

It’s a harsh reality—you’re likely never going to be the best at what you do. And, the sooner you can swallow that pill, the better off (and saner!) you’ll be. Need some guidance? Here are four steps that will help you accept that brutal fact—before you get your tail stepped on by some clumsy-footed person behind you.

1. Recognize That Things Are Always Changing

The world—and even your career—are constantly evolving and changing. What does this mean for you? Well, even if you do manage to attain the title of reigning champ for a brief, shining moment, it probably won’t last for too long.

Just think: Tom Anderson from Myspace was the coolest thing in a white tee to ever hit the social networking scene—until some nerdy Harvard student by the name of Mark Zuckerberg came along and turned things around. George Washington was our first president—but 42 others have come after him. NFL teams are awarded the Vince Lombardi Trophy—but only until another team wins it next year.

So, here’s what you need to remember about truly being the best at something: Only one person can do it at a time. And, even once you pull that off, someone will be directly behind you poised and ready to rip that crown off your head. Trying to constantly fend off those competitors for the sole purpose of remaining on top? It’s plain old exhausting and—quite honestly—unproductive.

2. Identify Your Personal Best

Let’s think about marathon runners for a minute. Do these athletes all participate in these long races because they’re setting out to cross the finish line first? Absolutely not. In fact, most of them are just aiming to finish at all—even if they come in dead last.

Instead of trying to breeze past everyone around them, marathoners set goals of beating their personal best every time they run. They don’t really concern themselves with who’s ahead of them or behind them. They’re only competing against the clock and their own best time.

This is a mindset you can apply to your own career and life, whether you’re a runner or not. Simply stop obsessing over how successful or accomplished everyone around you is, and focus instead on being the best you can be. Let me tell you, once you’re competing with yourself—and not every single other person around you—life gets a whole lot easier.

3. Think About Outcomes

Many people want to be known as the best—but for really no good reason. So, before busting your hump to achieve that fleeting status, it’s important that you take some time to think about what that accomplishment actually gets you. If your only answer to that question is “bragging rights,” you’re probably not pursuing something in your own best interests.

“But, wait!” you’re likely retorting now, “Being the best means I’ll be successful and well-respected in my career field!” Sure, that’s true. But, think about it this way—do you absolutely have to be number one in order for that to happen? Wouldn’t you also be considered successful if you completed that challenging project ahead of the deadline or solved a complex problem in your office? Wouldn’t you also be well-respected if you were always kind and considerate of all of your colleagues?

There are plenty of people out there with amazing professional reputations and important legacies that were truly never the best at what they did. That number one spot really isn’t the be-all and end-all.

4. Accept “Good Enough”

I’ve already admitted to being an obsessive perfectionist. So, if you’re anything like me, the words “good enough” are like nails on a chalkboard or Styrofoam rubbing together. They make me grit my teeth and cringe. And, I think it’s important to mention that I’m not at all insinuating that you should half-ass all of your commitments in the interest of keeping your sanity.

Instead, my point is simply that you don’t need to be the best at something in order to still be great at it. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Don’t believe me? Ask a roomful of people who the greatest band of all time is, and I’m willing to bet you get tons of different answers. Because, in the end, the title of “best” is really quite subjective.

So, yes, you can still take immense pride in your skills and work, without having a shiny trophy or accolade to hold high above your head. In fact, I encourage you to do so.

It’s human nature to crave that top spot that earns you the title of most successful and most accomplished. But, setting “being the best” as your sole aim in your life and career is a surefire way to drive yourself straight into the ground.

So, use these four steps to help you stop obsessing over being the best of everybody, and instead focus on being the best version of yourself. Take it from me—being the second cutest tap dancer on the stage really doesn’t end that poorly.

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