To be the best or the very best?

The wording I’d wish to deserve on my gravestone would be: ‘He fulfilled his potential’.

That’s because I’ve always wanted to be the best I can be: as a husband, father, grandfather; as a leader, a preacher, a writer, a student, a golfer. I’ll never be the best in the world, but I want to be the best I can be.

But is that all? Am I being honest? Or is there an unpleasant addition to my ‘be the best I can be’ philosophy? Perhaps the real version is: ‘I want to be the best I can be, and I’d like that to be better than others’. To be better than most fathers, most preachers, most golfers, most writers, and so on. Maybe I’m more competitive than I admit even to myself. Maybe I want to be the best.

If that is what I think – and I’m not sure – it would be naïve. Only in my dreams am I likely to be world leader in anything.

But, not just in dreams, don’t we all compete? Perhaps not to be the best of anyone anywhere, but better than others we know?

  • Haven’t there been times when households competed to be first in the street to own a TV, first with colour TV, first with a video recorder, first with satellite or cable TV?
  • Don’t parents talking at the school gate boast how early their youngster took her first steps, spoke her first words, or how far on she is now with reading?
  • Why are there queues at car dealerships to collect the latest model or show off the newest registration plate? And much longer queues at Apple stores when a new iPhone is launched?
  • Why do people want to wear the latest fashion, or feel embarrassed to appear in out-of-date clothes?

Do any of these things actually matter? For many, they do. People compete for prestige or prominence. And for some the competition to be better than anyone else crosses the line into cheating.

I saw cheating recently on the golf course, when a fellow player nudged his ball forward as he used a coin to mark its place on the green. When he replaced his ball it was closer to the hole. Other golfers have reputations of taking shoe leather shots (secretly kicking their ball out of the rough). Some blatantly miscount the shots they’ve taken, claiming to have hit six when they actually took eight.

That’s amateur stuff. Professionals take their cheating much more seriously.

It happens in sport. Every week a football player will pretend to have been tripped but slow motion replays show no-one touched them. Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his world record and gold medal at the 1988 Olympics after he tested positive for anabolic steroids. He was sent home in disgrace. Lance Armstrong won seven consecutive Tour de France bike racing titles between 1998 and 2005. During those years he furiously denied accusations of doping. But in 2012 the US Anti-Doping Agency concluded he’d used illegal drugs throughout his cycling career. At first Armstrong still denied the charges, but the following year publicly admitted the doping.

Plagiarism is such an issue for universities that almost all of them now use software that compares a student’s essay with millions of academic books and journals, and billions of web pages. One student I dealt with had inserted paragraphs of a prominent scholar’s work into his own essay, then claimed he had done so as a tribute to the noted scholar. Not much of a tribute when you make it seem like it’s your own work. There have been cases when politicians and even preachers have been discovered ‘lifting’ material from other authors and including them in their own book.

Some executives have falsified their qualifications to get a job. During the time I lived in Aberdeen the city’s Chief Executive was forced to resign. He had been using professional qualifications after his name, which implied membership of prominent engineering institutions, but was never entitled to do so. I know other cases where a résumé or CV has claimed qualifications which were never attained.

There are countless examples like these. Why do people do it?

The obvious answer in the professional world is because pushing yourself to the top makes you money. Considerable wealth or power can be at stake. Greed makes ethics inconvenient.

But the high levels of sport, politics or academia aren’t the worlds of the vast majority. So, why do ordinary people do almost anything to get ahead of others? What does it matter to have the latest iPhone? Or the best looking garden? Or the tallest child in the class? Or a better university degree than your colleague? And so on.

I see at least three possible reasons why being first matters so much.

Some have an excess sense of self-importance    The world must notice how great they are. I was invited to a gathering at a wealthy businessman’s home. This wasn’t any ordinary home. It was a mansion, a very large mansion. The over-sized double doors led into a tall, elegant entrance hall, beyond which was a wide central area. An open-plan kitchen, oozing granite work tops and high-end appliances was off to one side. The dining room was vast enough to hold the ornate 20-seater table with its Queen Anne legs and matching chairs. But that room’s elegance was outdone by the music room, again open-plan so everyone could see, with gold-coloured harp and Steinway grand piano prominently displayed. There was nothing homely about that house. You wouldn’t kick off your shoes and lounge around, because both your shoes and you would clutter this perfect place. But that home wasn’t designed to be comfortable; it was designed to impress. No-one that evening was to be in any doubt that someone very important lived there.

Most of us can’t match the wealth (or debt) of that house. But maybe we can rise to a super high-res TV, or a cruise to somewhere exotic, or buy a new and lovely car every three years. We’ll find our own way of making a statement: we’re doing well, we’re important, we’re people you should admire.

Of course, none of these trappings prove that. One of Alison’s relatives lived in south of England farming country, and, when Alison was visiting, she’d meet some of the wealthiest landowners in the country. They felt no need to impress. They drove beat-up old Land Rovers, wore unfashionable but practical boots and clothes, and bought their groceries from the local supermarket like everyone else. They were rich enough, important enough and confident enough not to need to flaunt anything.

Some have an underlying low self-esteem    Joe struggles to believe in himself, so tries to prove his worth by being better than others. If Joe can come first in the exam. If Joe can win the half marathon. If Joe can be on TV. If Joe can host important people for dinner. If Joe can get promotion. If Joe can date the girl all his mates wish they were dating. Then – with any of these ‘accomplishments’ – Joe will feel good about himself. Admiration, recognition, achievement above others; these things will elevate him from basement level self-esteem.

Successful people seem full of self-confidence. They’re the go-getters, people with a sure vision for their lives and the drive to take them to the top. But that’s far from universally true. Search the internet and you’ll find countless articles about successful people riddled with self-doubt. Here are just two examples:

  • The American author, John Steinbeck, wrote in his journal: ‘I’ve been fooling myself and other people.’ While writing his novel The Grapes of Wrath he said: ‘Sometimes, I seem to do a little good piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity.’ The Grapes of Wrath helped him win the Pulitzer Prize in 1962.
  • Vincent Van Gogh was a brilliant post-impressionist painter but constantly filled with self-doubt. But that doubt spurred him on to more painting. He said, ‘If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.’*

Self-doubt can kill creativity or performance, but it can also be fuel for achievement because being better than others is the ultimate proof you’re not the low-achiever you feel you are.

Some have few opportunities in one area of life, so strive to be best of all in other areas    My grandfather, John Taylor, was a significant person in east central Scotland. With a friend alongside, he was the first to swim the two mile wide estuary of a deep river with treacherous currents. He was a lay preacher and held senior office in his church, and worked with others to found a nation-wide Christian fellowship for men. He was made a Bailie in his town, meaning he was a civic officer (like a magistrate) in local government. He didn’t have vast authority, but only someone with integrity and held in high regard could be appointed. So, John Taylor was a noted figure in his community. But what work did he do day to day? He oversaw coal deliveries to local homes – totally honourable work, but far from spectacular.

Not everyone can have glamorous or high earning jobs. Life in offices, factories or fields tends to be much the same on Tuesday as it was on Monday, and will be again on Wednesday, and so on. But it motivates some to higher achievements in the rest of their lives. It makes them want to be the best of the best.

So, there are several reasons why people push themselves to be better than others. I have two responses to them.

One, striving to be the best you can be is entirely legitimate. I became an Advanced Driver and later an Advanced Motorcyclist, in each case passing a police-observed test of driving skills well beyond those needed for the government-run test. What motivated me to train and do those tests? It began with a stupid accident. My car was behind another car waiting to turn right. As traffic cleared the one in front moved off. I followed, accelerating through the junction. But the car just ahead of me braked sharply when a pedestrian stepped into the road. I was accelerating from behind, and I crashed into the rear of the car. My speed was still low – no-one was hurt – and the damage was only what my American friends would call a ‘fender bender’. But the accident was clearly my fault. I should have been paying more attention to what was ahead, and keeping further back from the vehicle in front. I was so annoyed with myself I signed up for training as an advanced driver, passed the test, and I’ve never had an accident since. I really wanted to become the best driver I could be.

Being the best you can be in (almost) anything is a good and legitimate ambition. It’s a positive goal that benefits the individual and those around.

But when that healthy ambition turns into an unhealthy competitive desire to be better than anyone else, the problems range from pride through cheating to illegality. The fault is not the desire to be the best you can be, but the desire to be better than everyone else no matter the price. Others get hurt as you push past them. And, since it’s likely you won’t become a world-beater, you’ll feel a failure.

Two, the better goal in life is contentment with who you are, what you have, and what you can do. That’s neither laziness nor complacency. It is about being okay with the person you’ve become and what’s around you, not resenting that you don’t have more or that others do have more.

The Apostle Paul wrote this:

‘I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.’ (Philippians 4:11-13 – NIV)

Paul wasn’t exaggerating about life being hard as well as good. He was opposed in his missionary work, on one occasion beaten and left for dead. He made hazardous journeys around the Mediterranean not knowing where his next meal would come from or where he could spend the night. Companions were not always loyal. There was nothing easy about his life. But he found contentment. He wasn’t driven by greed, or a desire to look important, or a need to be better than others. He was at peace, grateful for what he had. Is that easy? No, certainly not. But Paul found it was possible in God’s strength.

That’s possible for us too. I feel sorry for those who try to make themselves look important. I’m angry with those who cheat in order to come first.

Why do people strive to impress? I’ve listed reasons, but, whatever their motivation, I don’t think those people are happy. Why do people cheat in order to win? They also have reasons, but I can’t understand how they can take pride in achievements they know they didn’t deserve. They can’t be content.

Be the best you can be. That’s a great goal. And then be content. If you can do that, you’ll be happier than all those who used up their years desperately trying to be better than everyone else.


*These examples from

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