On Being the Best, Or Not

The other day I was reading an io9.com piece by Esther Ingliss-Arkell about why everybody thinks they’re better than everyone else, even if, in point of fact, everyone can’t be better than everyone else. While reading it, I had two thoughts:

One, it was a nice day when I learned I didn’t have to be better than everyone else, just good enough;

Two, I can think of several things where I am totally worse than many other people.

The first of these I think is pretty self-explanatory. To begin, when it comes to creative fields in which “better” or “best” become highly subjective after a certain, hopefully high, level of competence. To follow, once you are at that certain, hopefully high, level of competence, whether you are better or best is usually kind of immaterial. For example, in my field of work, publishers can’t make a business in publishing only the “best,” whatever their (or your) definition of that is. There’s not enough of “best” to go around, and anyway, what’s “best” isn’t always the same as what sells. In addition to “best” they also buy “pretty darn good,” or (at the very least) “competent enough to sell.” I am happy to say I am at least Competent Enough To Sell, which for a writer gets you through the gate.

When I was younger, wanting to be the Best Writer In The World was a fine motivating goal, in terms of sticking with writing and learning the craft and the business of the field. As I got older I realized that wanting to be the Best Writer In The World would eventually give me heartburn and make me envious of and pissy toward the people in my field who might otherwise be my friends when it turned out their talents were as prodigious (or worse, even more so) than mine. So instead I mostly focused on being a better writer. As a result I did in fact get better as a writer, and I learned not to hate other people simply for being good in my field, or needing to feel that I had to always imagine myself the Best Writer in the Room.

So: I do not think I am a better writer than other folks in my field. I can think of several I consider better writers. I keep working on the writing so I can get onto that level. I do think I’m pretty good at the writing thing, and I think my track record as a professional writer lends some credence to that opinion. If other people think they’re better writers than I am, good for them. If other people think other writers are better than I am, that’s okay too. My ego is focused on being good and getting better.

As toward the second, a short list of things I know I totally suck at:

1. Drawing. Man, I’m just terrible at drawing. And I used to say to myself “well, at least I can draw stick figures just fine,” and then xkcd happened. So now I can’t even say I do a good job at stick figures. Stupid xkcd.

2. Cooking. I can cook three things well: Shadenfreude Pie, minestrone soup, and ramen. Everything else you do not want me in the kitchen for. Except for exploding your kitchen. Which I could do.

3. Knitting. Seriously, how the hell do people even do that shit. I tried it once and it just turned me into a ball of anger and insecurity. I see knitters clacking away and making cool things and think what sort of witchcraft is this? It literally astounds me.

4. Dressing myself. I think this might be a field I could become competent in, if I invested the time, but the amount of time that I would have to invest is so large that as a middle-aged man I might not live long enough. So when we go out in public, I let my wife dress me. Because she has to be seen with me, right? She will protect  me from myself.

5. Organization. Oh, Jesus. Just the thought of trying to be organized makes me tired and wanting to lay down. This is another place where my perfect wife comes to the rescue, enough so that I have told her that she is not allowed to die before I do, because if I had to manage the particulars of my life, I would end up buried in a pile of bills and starving to death.

To be fair, only some of these are relevant to my day to day life (cooking, dressing myself, organization). But the point is that anytime I start thinking I’m generally better than other people, I have a useful, practical list of things to remind me not to get too far ahead of myself.

Which is actually important because Ms. Ingliss-Arkell is correct — left to my own devices, I would happily think of myself as just plain being better at, oh, everything, because that’s how I’m wired, along with, apparently, a lot of other people. It’s not true, and, happily, it also doesn’t matter if I am. Good enough works just fine.

87 Comments on “On Being the Best, Or Not”

  1. OMG, I about died when I got to “knitting”, because I am a knitter. So here’s the “secret” – when I was nine, I approached knitting like you approached writing … by keeping at it until I no longer sucked at it, and THEN keeping at it until I was pretty damn good. It was something I really wanted to do, so I did. This year I sold enough not-Jayne hats on Etsy to buy my son a Wii U. Of course, I’m so busy filling orders that I don’t have time to wrap it, so I told him that whatever he got, he’ll probably be opening up an Amazon box under the tree. He has a fair clue on what it is, so he doesn’t care.

  2. This actually a very deep issue. We know something about the neuroscience of why most people feel that way. Overgeneralized to “American Exceptionalism” it leads to long, bloody, bankrupting Imperial Wars. In American Public School classrooms, it led to American kids having phony “self esteem” and thinking we are #1, when the world knows how VERY far behind our education is, compared to Finland, Singapore, South Korea…

  3. As a knitter, I’m giggling at the idea that what comes so easily to me looks like witchcraft to you. It’s just string and sticks! But then again, what YOU do seems like witchcraft to me. So I think the things we aren’t good at are just the ones we didn’t focus a significant portion of our time getting better at. If you spent as much time cooking as you do writing, well, you’d probably be a hell of a cook. But you don’t, because maybe it’s not as fun/interesting/rewarding as writing. I frequently need to remind myself that I don’t suck at this one thing, I just haven’t made it a priority to improve on. I COULD, I just choose not to.

  4. It’s been a long time since I even cared about being THE best at anything. Not caring started around the same time I had the realization that I was only one insignificant human on a teeming planet full of them … what were the odds that I was ever, truly, actually going to be THE BEST in any way? They sucked. Realizing that was a big Wow in terms of shaking off unreasonable expectations (my own and others’).

    I still, however, care about being MY best at various things. A much more achievable goal.

  5. #5 made me crack up on the reference desk in a public library on a quiet Friday. Totally in recognition of the sentiment you describe, mind you.

  6. Jessica, I`m also a knitter and agree that one can become competent at many things by working at them. But some things, not so much – like singing. I do not sing well. I like to sing, I play several instruments with various degrees of competence, I have sung all my life, but I simply do not have a good voice. Which is fine. I can sing with a group without upsetting people too much. My dogs like me to sing. (My cat, not.) Even if I spent the rest of my life doing singing lessons, I would not be a good singer. Period. Last year I got stuck teaching a text where the author maintained that anyone could do anything another person could do with enough work. No natural talents needed. This was such nonsense that it was almost impossible to teach. And when my supervisor had to teach the book, it quickly fell off the list of books I had to teach.

    So I would say work at what you like to do and are interested in doing, but accept that there are some things you just won`t do as well as others, just as our gracious host advises.

  7. Perfection is a concept created by humans in an attempt to manipulate people and/or control chaos. It only works on people.
    That is the epiphany I had one day and it has served me very well. Good Enough to feel satisfied with my work is fine with me.

  8. I can read music and play a piano, but have relatives and friends who are far superior musicians. In games (MMORPG, paper and pencil), I am a very good support person to have on your team, but my forte is not most damage dealt or talking my way out of a potentially fatal encounter. I cook well, and mostly learned to do it in self defense, because I couldn’t handle nonstop cafeteria food while in college. I am no Julia Child, Picasso, Bob Vila, Robert Goddard, or John Scalzi, and you know what? I’m okay with that, as long as I am adequate to please myself and those who matter to me.

  9. I’m so with you on drawing – I’m so bad that when I worked in a preschool, 3 year olds would complain about my drawings!

    As to being the best, I’ve never had the drive to be the best at anything (except the best mother for my child). I get bored too easily. Instead, I like being a generalist in my field – the person who can pitch in on any project, even if I haven’t done that particular thing before. I liken myself to a utility infielder. Utility players don’t become stars and make big bucks, but teams need them as much as they need the specialists. So I guess I try to be the best utility player I can be, but I know that in any particular niche there are people who are better.

  10. Wow, this is ironic. This helps me reinforce my perspective on just wanting to improve in my field. It also makes me feel a lot better. Going back to the irony, I made a piece of art for you, and well I’m pretty nervous about my art because…I’m frankly just an amateur, so after finishing the piece about a week ago, I haven’t had the courage to show it to anyone other than a few close friends. And I knew I was going to have an anxiety attack before I showed it to you. But with you writing this, just makes me feel like…I can, maybe.

  11. I have too many interests to be The Best at any of them. Sometimes I think to myself, “I want to practice a lot and get really good at THIS.” Then I think, “but then I wouldn’t have time for THAT.”

  12. I have a bunch of little nieces, nephews and cousins who think I am the total shizznickle in drawing and painting. I’m not, but their opinion matters more to me than all of the outside world.

  13. Mark H-B, I had the exact same thought.

    It’s a big moment in a young man’s life when he learns that truly world-class bad M-F-dom is out of reach.

  14. I can’t think of one thing I would say I’m better than everyone else at. Except maybe sleeping. All you nap-hacks can kiss my sleeping ass.

  15. Seven years of piano lessons as a child and I’d currently be hard pressed to correctly identify middle C. I can draw to the extent that one could likely identify a person as a person and a chair as a chair. However, even in to my late 30’s, I can run a mile in the low 4’s and do things with a soccer ball that impress hard core soccer players. Needless to say, I stay away from pianos for the sake of my self-esteem.

  16. Damned sorcery to me—musical instruments and foreign languages.

    I own/owned and have tried to learn: guitar, uke, piano, drums, trumpet, harmonica, recorder, tin whistle, dulcimer, Bebot app, and a couple more I’ve forgotten. Yet I could not play two harmonious notes together if you put a pneumatic nail gun to my dog’s head. I can’t even get a clear tone out of a jaw harp. (I have a wish, still, for what I call my “midlife crisis accordion.” Fingers crossed.)

    Likewise, I have tried to learn to speak even one complete sentence in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Mandarin, Latin and Anglo-Saxon. Nada. Muy nada.

  17. In the immortal words of Inspector Henry “Dirty Harry” Callahan, “a man’s got to know his limitations.” (The man who didn’t know his limitations died rather badly.)

  18. If a person is not good at something, is it worth doing? Some things you have no choice – you mentioned organization and dressing, for example. Unless you are going to live as a naked slob you have to have marginal competence in those areas.

    What about art or cooking? You say you’re crap in those areas. Does that stop you from trying? Context suggests that you do not attempt to cook. How about drawing?

    I think this is almost as relevant as a corollary to the main thesis. While knowing one’s limits is important, quitting because you aren’t good enough seems to be a copout.

    As a personal example: I’m crap at music. Tin ear for listening. Horribly off pitch when I sing. Can’t play an instrument to save my life. (Think of Cacophonix the Bard). But I still dabble with a guitar and try new music (don’t sing because my wife threatens me with divorce). But frustration often sets in and I know that I will never be particularly good — and certainly not better — at this endeavor.

    So where is the right balance between humility and arrogance when it comes to achievement?

  19. Oh, man… many thoughts. Okay…

    1) When I realized that I was serious about writing, I became overwhelmed with the desire to write the Greatest Book Ever and spent my time figuring out how to become the ultimate amalgam of ee cummings and James Joyce, with a dash of Fitzgerald for Great American Novel cred. It was in many ways actually a fine creative motivator, but not much of a quality one. More of my time was spent figuring out how to be mystifying than how to be good. It also did not lead to me getting much done because, again, overwhelming.

    Part of the problem was that I was entirely focused on other people’s voices. How could I not be? I wanted to be better than them, so I had to be entirely submerged in their voices. That made it rather difficult to find my own. The realization that quality existed independent of comparison was great. It also made me unable to actually appreciate good writing. Because being The Best is a deficit-based system. In order to be better than another, I have to be focused not on how they are good, but rather on how they are deficient. Think of how conversations go when sports fans try to figure out whether Tom Brady or Peyton Manning is better. The conversation always hinges on who chokes more or who has the weaker arm. It’s a completely negative thing. Eventually, it bothered me that I wasn’t enjoying good writing because I was spending so much time trying to figure out how it was bad, so I could avoid being bad. It’s an exhausting and depressing way to think. It was actually affecting my happiness.

    Then, of course, trained to figure out how things were bad, I stopped being able to evaluate how my own writing was good. “Find bad things” was my operating mode. It made it hard to enjoy anything. I had to actively change that approach. After watching movies, for instance, I made an effort to only talk about what I enjoyed, until I got to the point where negative criticism was not my first instinct. And then I loosened up.

    2) There’s another problem with being The Best. Being The Best means being representative of whatever The Best is. And that’s not only an unfair amount of pressure to put on myself, it’s ethically bad. I’m a straight white male. I don’t want to be representative of The Best. I don’t want THAT to be representative of the best. A lot of terrible things have been done historically in the pursuit of making that represent the best. In fact, though, I don’t want any one person to be representative of that, regardless of any set of identifications. Bisexual black woman is, idealistically, as poor a representation of The Best as I am. There are power dynamics questions I’m simplifying and skirting a bit there in the name of idealism (practically speaking, in the current context, it does more damage for Straight White Male to try to say I Am The Best than for Bisexual Black Woman to do the same, but idealistically neither SHOULD either want to or feel the need to). The real point here is really that homogeneity of quality is bad. A diversity of quality is good.

    3) Knitting is stressful, damn it. It requires intense focus, and the slightest changes in tension make things look bad. Just think of that word: Tension. Knitting is all about tension. Tense. Tense is what I become when I knit. Still, I’ve resolved to knit a blanket in 2014. Oh, god. What have I done…?

    And actually, I’ve probably written quite enough for now. Other thoughts may follow if they seem relevant enough.

  20. I’m great at bagging. I always send the grocery store baggers away because they are so slow compared to me. I think the ability to play musical instruments is witchcraft.

  21. I’m not sure I’ve ever aimed at being the best at anything. Really good at whatever I’m currently doing yes but comparing people is like comparing apples to oranges even in many of the same jobs. I finally gave in and accepted I was a really good technical writer of training manuals when I tried to prove I wasn’t and implemented a real tracking system for our department. I accepted I was a good admin assistant when it took 3 people replace me at several jobs after I left each. But I certainly was not the best technical writer or admin assistant – just good at some things that were valued in companies that I worked at.

    I have a list of things I’m really bad at. Item 1 drawing – yeah my stick figures aren’t so great. While my cooking taste good it never comes out looking like it does in the cookbook or magazine. My nephews have always made fun of my cookie decorating – by age 3 I think – I claim the cookies have character… Math & balancing a checkbook causes mental breakdowns. The list goes on but it’s bad for my depression to think about all the things I’m bad at…

    I think we’d all be happier if we focused more on bettering ourselves & less on comparisons/being the best. Get good at some stuff & accept you are going to stink at others. What does being the best even mean? How does it get defined? Who determines “best”?

  22. This is where John gets to find out just how many knitting fans he has ;) Clue: lots and lots

    I’m the same with drawing. I can draw a nice eye or some flowing hair but otherwise every other person in my family, including the 4 year old is better at it than me. My 19 year old daughter is actually studying art and design, she has much talent and the course is good because it’s making her create art that isn’t women in long flowing dresses, she is also very talented musically.

    I love music. I love to listen, to play and to sing but I am infamous for always singing out of tune. I played the violin to UK Grade 5 level by applying rules as an intelligent person but never learnt to tune my own instrument (I cheated and borrowed my Mum’s guitar tuner!). I liked to play a little classical guitar and found it relaxing but again, no real ability.

    I’m pretty good at puzzle solving though, in the past through writing code or translating languages, these days it’s mostly Sudoku.

    I knit pretty well, especially socks, but crochet still eludes me to some degree and I think I’m an intermediate handspinner.

    John, if you ever want to try knitting again, not only are there hordes of knitters who I believe will help you, including Amy Singer co-founder of knitty.com who also plays the uke, it may be worth trying a different style of knitting i.e. English instead of Continental or vice versa. I also think you and the Yarn Harlot should get together sometime, I think you’d get on really well.

  23. Unfortunately, not everyone thinks they’re better than everyone else. Dunning-Kruger tells us that it’s the least competent people who are most likely to overestimate their own competence.

    DK explains huge amounts about our society, especially about conservatives, who love to judge everyone else and prescribe for everyone else despite their own screwups (both personal and political/policy). They’re so bad they can’t see how bad they are.

  24. I would hate being the best at anything. Then I’d have nothing left to aspire to. Good enough has always been good enough for me, though getting better is always a goal. I don’t have the time for anything more in life.

  25. To elaborate briefly on one of my earlier points, and to bring in the thoughts of an actual great thinker: Ursula Le Guin recently blogged about a similar idea (can’t find the direct link… it’s blog #79 at her website), and she suggested that words like “great” and “best” are what she calls crypto-gendered words.

    A relevant quote: “Greatness, in the sense of outstanding or unique accomplishment, is a cryptogendered word. In ordinary usage and common understanding, “a great American” means a great American man, “a great writer” means a great male writer. To re-gender the word, it must modify a feminine noun (“a great American woman,” “a great woman writer”). To de-gender it, it must be used in a locution such as “great Americans/writers, both men and women…” Greatness in the abstract, in general, is still thought of as the province of men.”

    I recommend the rest of the blog post for those willing to find it. It has some additional nuance that’s hard to read from only the above.

    And I don’t want this to seem like a Great American Novel off-topic thing. Greatness and Bestness in anything is in no small way a question of representation, as many members of marginalized groups, like Le Guin, understand more keenly than the rest. Wanting to be the best isn’t only about wanting to individually be better than other individuals, though it may feel that way. Not wanting to be The Best really means that you don’t want whatever you are to be dominant over whatever others are. That’s a good thing.

    I like what another here said: Wanting to be your own best in something is wonderful. But wanting to be The Best is problematic.

  26. God I love the Dunning-Kruger study. It explains so much in my life and interactions with others.

    As for re-defining “best”: I am the best crappy singer in our household (my wife has years of music training and even the cats howl better than I do). For that matter, I’m the best boxer, programmer, golfer, mathematician, bottle opener, physicist and electrician in our household. Give me time and I’ll find several thousand other things I am the best at if my limited circle is the sole comparison group.

  27. I don’t think I’m the best at what I do, because if I did I’d probably lose my drive to improve. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t want to be the ‘best’. Where’s the fun in that? You’ve reached the peak, and we all know what happens next. You either fall off, or get really lonely.

    There are plenty of examples of those that were told they were the best in their field and then came to believe it. They then became ‘Too Big To Edit’ and the quality of their work promptly tripped off a sheer cliff.

    I’ll take being ‘pretty good’ over being ‘best’ any day.

  28. I remember reading a story one time where different versions of the protagonist existed in different dimensions. But one version was the “best of all possible” (that person). Years later that conceit bothered me. To be the best at anything we need to give up doing the work in most other things to be the best. But we tend to believe that when someone is competent at something – that person is competent. We elect people at that basis, or promote them.

    We don’t expect Tiger Woods to beat Lebron James at basketball. Your Hugo didn’t beat any Oscar or Tony winners.

  29. Oh, boy. (BTW, I tell myself to quit making comments after 2 or 3 on any blog, because then addictions take over; this MUST be my last entry for awhile.) I must say something, because of my cousins and family.

    Of almost every single cousin I know — all near their 60s now — only possibly one might be able to survive off Social Security because of life-long laziness about keeping jobs. Here’s how they were reared. School-wise and at home, they were encouraged to think they would, each and every one, become the next Mozart (I suspect every single student in their school systems were reared this way). Most of my relatives are still waiting for ‘genius’ to kick in, and one is in prison.

    My nuclear family story: I was a 3.0 average student in High School, working hard as I could even. I had a very low self-image. Out of pure fear I studied my hiney off in college (I’ve always thought 5 times what teachers suggest for study would be my only hope) and ended up with a Phi Beta Kappa among other things. Funny thing here is that no one during college ever thought I was a standout — and many around me had already been proven to be geniuses (at least by current tests then). No, I’m not saying elbow grease was my answer, but I do wonder about that fear factor. Anyway, my younger brother managed a 4.0+ average in high school but flunked out his first semseter in college; next, he threw a hand gernade in the army (erm, he’d quit college obviously, now thinking himself the world’s best loser; but by throwing that grenade he was forced to see he could yet accomplish things), and then my little brother then became an actual genius in an absolutely strange field.

    Geezlouise, it seems the worse your self image one is, the better you might laterl apply yourself?

    I’m not making a philosophical comment. I’m asking a question non-rhetorically. It just doesn’t seem to make sense.

  30. You know that episode of Next Gen where Picard’s heart stops? And Q shows him what his life would have been like if he hadn’t been stabbed in the heart by the Nausicaan? And he turned out to be average? I realized that’s me. I’m not Captain Picard. I’m just one of the people who helps the Enterprise run. (Luckily I don’t wear a red shirt.) I’m happy to be the bass player in the band (rock and pit band for musicals and soon big band). I never play a solo but I’m part of what makes it go. I’m completely cool with that.

  31. In American Public School classrooms, it led to American kids having phony “self esteem” and thinking we are #1, when the world knows how VERY far behind our education is, compared to Finland, Singapore, South Korea…

    Actually, that analysis ignores divisions in American education that are crucial to understanding the problem. The kids who get the most self-esteem boosterism are privileged white kids, and they’re not, in the aggregate, academic Dunning-Kruger cases: they’re actually doing just fine in comparison to students anywhere. Of course, they’re playing the game of life at a low difficulty setting, to use John’s terminology, and they may not recognize that.

    The tragic overall numbers mostly have to do with the inclusion of students from poor families in poor districts. Our public schools are being asked to compensate for the social effects of mass poverty, with inadequate funds, and are then accused of failure when they can’t manage it.

  32. I think that now that John has finished his book, he has been kicking back and watching TV.
    This (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0734540/) was on the Sci-Fi channel yesterday morning. It was probably on in the background while he read the IO9 piece. Don’t let him fool you. I bet he could be one of the better couch potatos around if he thought he could get away with it.

  33. @GarrettC 2:20 p.m….One person’s stress-maker is another person’s relaxation and sanity-saver. One of the things that got me through the last few months of my mother’s life was knitting. Which is really funny, since I finally broke down and took a knitting class primarily to prove to my best friend that I couldn’t do it.

  34. It’s worth noting that the article in questions (and the research it’s based on) isn’t actually talking about believing you’re “the best” at anything or everything. It’s talking about believing you’re better than most people at the things that are important to you.

    Hence, I believe that I am kinder than most people, that I am more intelligent than most people, that I am better at my job than most people. The article isn’t saying these things aren’t true, since obviously for each statement a little under half the population is justified in thinking that. But they aren’t true for as many people as think them.

  35. Richard Norton – Carol Dweck has actually done a lot of research on how giving kids the wrong kind of praise (telling them they’re budding geniuses and praising results instead of effort) can be counterproductive in exactly the way you say.

  36. @Elaine: In fact, I fully expect that if/when I become a competent knitter I will find it to be entirely relaxing. It provides a lot of opportunity for repetitive motion, which is a good relaxer, and variety in patterns, which can be good for the brain. I’m just not there yet, and it’s hard to feel excited about getting there when my experiences to date have required tooth-grinding focus. With luck, the 2014 blanket will solve everything.

  37. I hear some people have a visual map in their heads. Me, I’ve been known to drive in a square four or five times before I realize (read: am told by my husband) that I’m doing the same thing over and over again.

    I also don’t do parties. Or mingling. And especially not mingling at parties.

    On the other hand, I’m told that I’m awesome at sounding like I know what I’m talking about, and also at ACTUALLY knowing what I’m talking about, which are valuable skills when they work in conjunction. My sons are impressed with my storytelling and bad joke abilities. And I can crochet cool stuff. I agree about knitters, though. They are wizards of an unfathomable art.

  38. This reminds me of movies where someone says “You need Smtih. He’s the best”. In reality, Smith and his colleagues probably all work on things that are all slightly different from what you want done and any one of them might be the best for your particular task.

  39. A few years ago I read an interview with Bruce Springsteen in which he said he’d recently realized he didn’t have to make The Greatest Album Ever every time he made an album, and it took a lot of the pressure off.

    And you know what? He’s still made some damn good albums since then. (And probably had a lot more fun doing it than previously)

  40. I long ago gave up the silly notion of being the best. My ambition now is to do something worthwhile, and be able to look back on it and say “I did that the best I possibly I could.” Haven’t managed it yet.

  41. Drawing seems to be something that quite a few people regard as witchcraft.

    My college roommate was an artist and I am fairly certain that I could never draw as well as he did. He could draw things that existed only in his minds eye as if he was really able to see them. He had talent that I do not possess.

    After college, I thought his own brand of witchcraft was so cool that I bought Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards and did the exercises. At least for me, taking drawing well past the stick figure stage is absolutely a learnable skill. I suspect it is for most people who try. It was an very satisfying experience as well. I think this is because we perceive so much magic in drawing. I’ll never draw like my roommate, but I can at least see past the magic well enough to cast a cantrip.

    Now I wonder if I should try to learn to knit.

    John, I’m pretty sure there are a number of other things you can make in a kitchen if you can make a Shadenfreude Pie.

  42. I’m not sure I want to know what Shadenfreude Pie is. In fact, I’m fairly sure I don’t want to know. I’m also fairly sure that sometime in the next couple of hours curiosity will overcome dread and I’ll google it. If it scars my psyche, I’ll know whom to blame. If it opens my soul to new delights, I’ll give you proper credit. You have been warned.

  43. Knitters use magic wands. I can’t figure it out either. Now, crochet I can do… kind of. Ad-lib crochet. I try to read patterns and this mind that has absorbed any number of arcane terms like IQ, DX, HT, and ST… terms like MMORPG, WoW, WSG, DM… EQ, PoK, PoI, Tranq…

    Well, I get lost on crochet pattern abbreviations. I collect the things with the intent of someday writing them out in Real Words so I can try to make the Cool Stuff. But. *sigh*

  44. Hm. To somebody with a heavy-duty case of Impostor Syndrome, like me, this just sounds…strange. I can’t imagine actually believing I was better than my peers at what I do. People seem to think I’m good at it, but I’m so aware of every mistake I make and every hole in my knowledge.

    Impostor Syndrome is extremely common among high-achieving people — and more common among people who are underrepresented in their field (e.g. women in tech). So I have to wonder what populations these “everyone thinks they’re the best” studies were done on, and in what contexts.

    Like the example of driving given in the linked article. I mean, I do think I’m probably a better-than-average driver. But my job and self-image don’t rest on my driving abilities, so it’s not something I have impostor syndrome feelings about. But college professors? Software developers? I’m genuinely surprised they all thought they were better at their jobs than everyone else.

    Actually, I looked up the college professor number. It’s from a 1977 study where the researchers asked professors to rate their teaching. That changes things somewhat. In most of academia, teaching skills are considered a nice bonus, but they’re not what your job performance, or tenure, or ability to get grants (i.e. get paid) is ultimately judged on. Your research, especially your publication record, is much more important. Furthermore, you have a lot more opportunity to directly compare your research to other people’s research than your teaching to other people’s teaching — and the peer-review process means you hear a lot more direct criticism of your research than of your teaching from people whose opinions you respect. This means it’s much easier to have (over-)confidence in your teaching, comparing yourself to the worst teachers you’ve ever seen and thinking “Hey, I’m pretty darn good at this.”

    I bet if they’d been asked about their research and publications, results would have been different.

  45. GarrettC — knit in squares, then stitch (or crochet!) your squares together. Then you can make a “patchwork” blanket! (I did one with a lot of different crochet stitches. And yarns. Then I crocheted a border around it. It looks pretty cool!)

  46. GarrettC, you’ve totally got this blanket thing. You can do it! Two pieces of advice: use lifelines and remember that you can rip back to them if things aren’t working out. It’s yarn, and no one will get hurt if you have to re-work things. Most of us who knit beautiful finished objects spend a lot of time fixing mistakes.

    John, as mentioned, if you want to try knitting again, you have a lot of fans who would probably love to stick it out with you through the bad, frustrating times.

  47. I got myself into trouble with some ‘experts’ a few years ago by posting something similar and mentioning I’m lousy at welding.

    One of the usual suspects made a big issue of how useless a male I had to be not to be able to do something as welding. I had to ask him, which welding was he an expert in? Gas, Arc, MIG. TIG, mild steel? Stainless? Aluminum?

    I might be a lousy welder but at least I know I am.

    But referring to your list I’m informed I’m an amazing cook.

  48. @Richard Norton — Bill Gates used fear to motivate himself even when he was a billionaire many times over. @uldihaa — I agree, those labelled the “best” often crash & burn as evidence by numerous actors, sports stars and politicians.

  49. The year I learned to stop desperately trying to win costume contests (masquerades at conventions) and just have fun making cool costumes to show off to the audience was a good year.
    It also, ironically enough, was the year I started winning contests again. When I let go of that compulsion to chase Best in Show my costuming art could shine clearly again. Funny how that works.

  50. mgwa, I think “utility player” is a very useful concept.

    I regard myself as a competent cook, singer (I sightread quite well, but don’t have a particularly good voice), writer, parent and wife. I’m horrible at cleaning, home maintenance/repair, anything mechanical, sports, and games. Luckily none of those are what I do for a living.

  51. For several years I was the best left-handed shortstop in the local co-ed Friday night church softball league. That’s about the only thing I can come up with where I can even make a claim for “best” anything. I think I’m proficient at lots of things, good at a decent number of things, and pretty damned good at a few–but “best” at anything? Nah.

  52. Hi John, if you would like to learn to draw, get thee to the 2ndhand bookstore and buy an OLD copy of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards(the revised edition isn’t nearly as good). Do all the exercises, in order, and at the end of the book, hey presto, you’re an artist! And the exercises are fun in themselves.

  53. “(or worse, even more so) then mine. So instead I mostly focused on being a better writer. As a result I did in fact get better as a writer….”

    I simply could not proceed past this point. You lost complete credibility at whatever level of writer you *think* you are, when you used thEn for thAn. Methinks perhaps cracking a dictionary with a little more study might make you a better writer, but right now, you’re making rookie mistakes that completely shoot your credibility to hell. I couldn’t even finish the article.

  54. Opus:

    You’ve confused “writer” for “copy editor.” And if you’re stupid enough to do that, well, that’s fine. (This is also why I am grateful to copy editors.)

    That said, thanks for the note. Corrected.

  55. [Deleted because apparently not only does Opus confuse writing with copy editing, Opus also confuses occasional typos for generally poor grammar, and rather than simply pointing out the error helpfully as most do, feels the need to add in a lecture. When I need a lecture on what I’ve been doing professionally for two decades from some random person on the Internet, Opus, I’ll be sure to let you know. In the meantime, you run along, now. You’re clearly too good to be spending any time here, and I really can’t roll my eyes any harder at you than I am already doing – JS]

  56. Heh. Another bass player here. I play meat-and-potatoes bass lines…root-fifth, root-third, basics. But there are quite a number of folks locally, to say nothing of 13 and 14 year olds in YouTube videos, who can play rings around me with out much effort. But I can read music, I make up my own chord charts, I show up on time, I don’t create a lot of drama in the bands I am in. So I get asked to play in bands, get called on as fill in when bass players get sick. And I am still taking lessons, still reading through music theory books, etc. Always something new to learn! (And I have had allergies all my life which have messed up my sinuses…so I sound like Mickie or Minnie Mouse when I try to sing. Don’t ask this bass player to sing, unless it’s the last tune and the venue wants to make sure the place gets cleared out…) And I’ve learned that even though most folks in the audience don’t even really hear the bass lines in a tune, if the bass player drops out, THEN they notice, when the bottom falls out and those felt-more-than-heard deep notes disappear; it’s the bass that pushes folks out onto the dance floor.

    I am a decent artist, but not in the league of those who paint covers for books (well, at least not those who paint for publishing houses, anyway) and I do a lot of cross stitch, crewel, etc needlecrafts, including making up my own patterns. I also do a lot of beading…both stringing, on wire, and bead weaving. Good enough to sell some of my arts and crafts stuff. One of my side businesses is making rosaries and other types of prayer bead strings on commission. But I look at the stuff in some of the arts and crafts magazines and… wow.

    I write competently. Like a lot of folks, I have a novel I have been working on; now if I can just finish that chapter I need to rework… It may only be available via Amazon, but one of these days I’m gonna finish it! If it ever is even nominated for an award, I’ll be surprised, but I’ve already had a few people telling me they’d be willing to buy it, so I know it is coming out readable, just not bestseller list quality.

    I’m a serious amature genealogist. I’ve been conducting family history research for more than 40 years now. I’m definitely not at a fully professional level – but there are lots of people who have recommended to other folks that they come to me for assistance with those areas of their research that I am knowledgeable of.

    Nope, not the best at anything — but competence, and competence in several fields, is a goal worth working towards, and frankly, I probably enjoy it more. For the folks I work with, for the folks who recommend my talents to others, I am a colleague who is willing to help out, rather than the competition. Life is a lot less stressful when your goal is to be good, rather than struggling to be the very best…

  57. I worked in professional sports for years. I’ve known people who were the best. For a while. Then someone else got to be best. And then someone else….
    We live, we die. Along the way we try to find something we are good at. Some of us succeed at being OK, very few get to be best and that doesn’t last long. Some of us make a mark that will last but most are only remembered by a very few and then they are gone as well. Dust to Dust and all that. I think I knew this when I was 12 but didn’t really understand it. Decades later I understand we are but placemarks in time, temporary thoughts in a journey.

  58. Of course, some of us who knit are witches. Okay, I’m a Druidic Pagan, but you get the idea. Not sure if any of my Heathen friends knit, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

  59. Things I’m good at that I value: crocheting blankets, improvising around the edges of recipes, baking, chocolate truffle making.

    Things I’m good at that I don’t particularly value: general cooking, recalling weird facts (family Trivial Pursuit sub-champion for many years running, good at quiz nights), singing, playing music,

    Things I’m okay at that I value: writing fiction, explaining things to other people.

    Things I’m okay at that I don’t particularly value: household maintenance chores, non-representational art, writing computer code, writing non-fiction, knitting, cross-stitch embroidery.

    Things I’m bad at that I value: sporting activity (team sports), dancing, representational art, finishing things (particularly computer games).

    Things I’m bad at that I don’t particularly value: sporting activity (athletics, sprinting of all kinds), selling things to other people.

    I think there’s a bit of a theme running through here – a lot of the stuff I don’t particularly value, I don’t care one way or t’other whether I’m good at it or not. It’s the things where I value it, and I’m not that good at it, where I get a bit hung up on stuff.

  60. No matter what activity/skill/job/hobby I do, there are men and women out there who can do it better. A lot better. That’s just how it is when you live on a planet with billions of other people. My illusions about being brilliant got removed in three different ways:

    1. In graduate school, when I realized that I was pretty smart, but there were people out there who were truly brilliant.

    2. I also was lucky enough to have a father who was a better man than I am or ever will be, and who was better at our shared career than I ever will be. That last statement isn’t self-deprecating; my father was simply an extraordinary man.

    3. I’ve also come to realize that my sister is capable of understanding anything I can, plus math that I simply can’t do. That makes her smarter. She’s also better with money, much more organized, and much better with people. She’s a simply wonderful person, and I can’t help but marvel at her sometimes. Definitely my better. But I love her, so I can’t begrudge her superiority!

    So, oh well, there are people out there who are my superiors. That’s OK. There are a good number of things that I do pretty well. I’m fairly smart. I do my job pretty well. I am a decent musician. I can usually accomplish any cognitive task I’m set (or seek out). I’m not the best. But who cares? The only person I really compete with is the me of the past, and I’ve done a lot of winning in middle age that I didn’t expect. Can’t help but be happy with that.

  61. The deal with cooking is very smple – it’s the cook’s business to cook the food, and it’s everyone else’s business to eat the food. If they don’t like the business of eating the food, they can go into the business of cooking the food.

    Actually, if you don’t have to feed a family three times a day and every day of the year cooking’s fun. You just follow a recipe, and after three or four shots it comes out pretty edible.


  62. It fascinates me that the thing that I find relaxing (and that allows me to focus on my book/tv show/movie/etc) is considered magical by others. Although, I do find its ability to help me in that area to be, in a way, magical. And I get nifty finished objects out of the deal too. Bonus!

  63. “Schadenfreude Pie” has a ‘c’ in it, for those searching for the recipe.

    It’s also delicious.

    My personal mods are to use an Oreo crust (for extra dark-and-sinisterness), cut the sugar slightly, and add a tiny, tiny amount of cayenne pepper.

  64. (duh, omitted phrase: cut the sugar slightly by using unsweetened baking chocolate instead of semi-sweet chips)

  65. There are a few areas where I’d say I can do a satisfactory job. I can untangle a complex accounting reconciliation problem. I can make a mean chicken-fried steak. I make pies that are both beautiful and delicious. And there are many, many people out there who do a better job at all of those things than I do.

    There are a lot more areas where I’d say I’m at a semi-competent journeyman’s level. Interpersonal skills definitely falls under this heading. Wheel-throwing (pottery) does, too. So does planning, organizing and executing a major and complex event. Basic plain cooking, other than my couple of star-turn dishes, is more at an apprentice level. There are even more people who do better at those things than I do, for which we should all be grateful.

    Then there is the looooooong list of things I truly stink at. Housekeeping. Singing. Internet and computer stuff. Dancing. Sports of any kind. Needlework. Creating recipes. Creating anything, for that matter. Dealing with big crowds. Dealing with stress. Looking attractive. Shopping. And the list goes on and on. Probably 90% of the human race does all of those things far, far better than I do.

    And you know, I’m completely ok with that. I don’t need to be *THE BEST* at any one particular thing in order to feel good about myself. And I also don’t need to make myself ill trying to compete with the entire world just to salve my own ego.

  66. The quote I’m trying to remember from a movie or book goes something like this.
    Do what you’re good at.
    The question then asked was, what if you aren’t good at something or don’t know what it is?
    The answer to that was, find something to do and get good at doing it.
    I’ve gotten good at doing a few things in my life that I thought I never thought I would even try, but there it is. I’m a decent carpenter and can spot weld if you don’t want it looking too pretty. I cook well, I can sew canvas and work a sewing machine. I’ve gotten really good at purchasing because that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 19 years for a living, I get paid to shop! Find something to do and get good doing it.

  67. I’m right there with you on cooking, Scalzi. I have a short list of things I can make well, purely by dint of rote memorization.

    Anything off the list is a big fat No. I burn salad. I once managed to burn a pot full of water (and not by leaving it too long, either. There was still water in the pot. And fire).

    Were I single, I’d probably have scurvy from trying to subsist on ramen. Fortunately, Spouse has some kind of weird magic powers that turn groceries into cooked food, so all I have to do is ensure that the kitchen and its many implements are clean enough for said magic to work, and I don’t starve.

    I would offer to teach you how to knit, but I’m left-handed, so when it comes to teaching righties, I am a walking yarnball of anger and insecurity.

  68. You’ve confused “writer” for “copy editor.”

    Ahem. “With,” not “for.” One mistakes things FOR other things (cf. “What do you take me for?”); one confuses things WITH other things (remember “con-” means “with”).

  69. Though you are certainly knitworthy, you’ve never really struck me as a knitter. Your lovely wife, on the other hand, could probably kick ass.

  70. As a request John, to people such as Opus, could you pleeeease go back to also inserting the random soft and fluffy phrases you had a few months ago? It was awesome, and made me think the Mallet was made of pink clouds and unicorn farts.

    More on topic, I teach math to high school students, and I have to say, I think @Shirley is very much on point here, in that all the magical things are made non-magical by deciding to stick with them long enough to make them not suck as much, and then stick with them longer until you become really good at them…

    OTOH, knitting is still pretty much magic from my viewpoint too :-)

  71. What’s interesting to me about this is that almost all the things you list are learned, still fairly gendered behaviors. Cooking, dressing, organizing, and knitting in one’s personal life are things that women are socialized and particularly trained to do well, and men are generally not. (My boyfriend has about the same list as you do, but he is a great cook, because his last girlfriend taught him how.)

    The good news is that you could, if you wanted, learn to do all these things! It takes time and practice. The bad news is that you now have an itemized list of how the patriarchy hurt you. Bummer.

    And the knitting? Totally doable. You just need the right teacher. If you’re ever in LA, look me up. I’m currently at a 100% success rate over eight years.

  72. Knitting *is* magic. It takes string and turns it into clothing! But it’s magic that (just about?) anyone can learn. I like it because it’s tactile and creative and mathimatical and since I can do it while watching TV it gives me an excuse to watch all sorts of stuff I would admit committing actual leisure time to – but since I’m just watching while I knit it’s OK. (Right?) Plus the result is something tangible, a pleasant contrast to how I earn my daily bread.

    There are a number of things I do better than many. Flip that coin over: even the things I do well, Ihere are others who are far better at it. But one of the most salutory lessons I ever learned was in 7th grade when I learned there were far more brilliant people around (I had a healthy regard for my intellectual capabilities back then) so I’d better no stake my self-identity on that. So it makes me happy that some of the things I like doing, I do well.

    Sidenote: but so far there’s nothing I care enough about to stick with to superbly expert. Generally I’d rather learn a new skill than perfect an existing one.

    PS: Second what Sarah said about gendered behaviors, athough I hadn’t noticed explicitly till she said so.

  73. I’m not sure I have ever had that better/best attitude problem. I grew up Catholic in the Midwest, which is a sure way to enforce humility on your kids. Also I just don’t care, as long as I’m good enough and can still reach for the next level. I don’t consider myself a particularly talented writer, designer or technician, but I’m getting published so I must be Good Enough. I suck the most as a writer, though. You might as well bulk-strikeout my submissions and then un-strike the usable parts. I owe a lot of editors a lot of beers.

  74. ::looks around::

    Shh, don’t tell anyone that knitting is a Furrinati-approved activity. All that yarn to mess up! All those threads to pull punching up on the finished product! All those circular needles’ cords to sever! All the humans to drive into a panic by making them think you’ve swallowed yarn! (This bit is a PSA: cats should never be allowed to swallow yarn or threads or whatever, it’s very dangerous.)

    I’ve been knitting about eighteen months and come to love it, but I used to suck at it too, and thought it was far too slow.

    But things I really suck at: any maths, including basic arithmetic. Hand-eye coordination, if we’re talking catching/throwing rather than drawing. Singing. Holding any sort of tune in any way (to quote Stephen Fry, I am not tone-deaf; I can hear the notes perfectly in my mind. I am tone dumb; I cannot reproduce them.)

  75. Forgot to add – the “best” thing only means you’re better than anyone else doing X; it doesn’t mean your skills can’t get any better, does it?

    But it’s competitive, and I loathe competition. The whole judgement, you’re-not-good-enough schtick, ugh, ugh, yech, it’s like being back at school. If I’m doing a thing it’s because I like it, not for someone else’s approval or to be “better” than someone else doing it. With knittiing – the only one of my hobbies lots of other people do – I will admire and sometimes be amazed by other people’s work, and sometimes be inspired to try something similar. But competing with them? Nope, it’s not a thing, thank goodness.

  76. I heard a quote a while back, that I can’t reference; but it went; ‘You don’t have to be the best to succeed, just work hard and avoid the stupid mistakes.’ A lot of the successes that I’ve seen even by people I consider brilliant have been
    by people that worked that way.

  77. I wonder if some of the violence that we see in society today is caused by finding out you are not “better” after being spoonfed a lie about how much more special, wonderful, talented, good looking ect. you are than the next person. We should focus on cooperation and inclusion rather than competition.

  78. Well, you may not have a lot of experience knitting, but my wife assures me that you hold a half-finished sock like a champ, at least when fans baffle you by asking you to hold it for a picture.

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