Less than a stone’s throw from my favorite coffeehouse is a small driving school that caters to teenagers approaching the magic age of 16. The company’s roadster is tricked out like a racing car, featuring the tagline “if you’re not the first, you’re the last.”
Setting aside the hazardous implications of this motto (do you really want your teenager driving like that?), this fixation with being the lead dog implies a mindset that is particularly dangerous, not only for new young drivers, but for solo creative professionals.
For one thing, setting a goal of being the best at all costs can make you overlook other stuff that matters just as much, if not more so. The recent meltdown at Uber is a classic example of a company that went off the rails by sacrificing good business practices on the altar of “high performance.”
Obsessing over being the best might provide useful motivation for professional athletes, competitive salespeople, and politicians. But it can also be seriously depressing. You’ll always be able to find examples of people who outshine you in some way.
One of the most rewarding epiphanies in my life hit me a few years ago. I realized Napoleon Bonaparte, Albert Einstein, Jesus Christ, William Wordsworth, Jack London, and many others had all completed the works and achievements for which they are best known by time they had reached the age I was then. (In fact, most of them had done it all — because by that point most of them were dead.)
Yet despite my “failure” to change the world in any obvious, earth-shaking way by then, I was keeping the lights on by working for myself, loving my job, and enjoying a happy personal life.
Not a bad accomplishment, that.
So instead of stressing about being the best, simply strive to be your best. It’s a lot less frustrating and you can still push yourself to succeed. Here are a few tips to keep your achievement level high and your anxiety low:
- Choose your own yardstick. You’re far more likely to achieve in your niche if you select it for yourself. Make it as specific and personal as possible.
- Be your own competition. It’s far more motivating to measure yourself against your past performance then to compare yourself to others. If you outdo yourself, you have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve improved. If not, you can still take pride in past achievements while striving to meet or exceed them in the future.
- Remember: there’s only so much of you to go around. Do your job well, and your business will reach a point where you have more work than you can handle. When that happens — and it will — you’ll want other colleagues around who can take up the slack for you.
Ultimately, the notion that being the best is the only way to win is, in fact, complete nonsense. If you’re a solo creative professional but not “number one,” big deal. You still have a better chance than most to have a great life. You’re more likely to be working when you like and not working when you don’t like. Your work is more likely to satisfy and matter to you. And you’re probably living a far richer, happier, and more productive life than most people who’ve ever lived on this planet.
For me at least, that’s enough.