Good, Better, Best

by Mr. Cheap

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When I was working on my undergrad degree a friend told me that his parents had always said to him “You can be a butcher, baker or candlestick maker as long as you’re the BEST butcher baker or candlestick maker you can be”. At the time I thought it was heady, open-minded, inspirational stuff. In the years since then, I’ve come to view it as idealistic, vague nonsense.

With the Olympics occurring in Vancouver, Canada we’re being given the chance to see the best in the world of a variety of activities such as hockey, skiing, or skating. When the Canadian Women’s Hockey team’s 21 members hit the ice, are they REALLY the absolute best 21 women hockey players in the country?  Is there any chance that someone who would have made the team got injured or had a non-hockey commitment and couldn’t be a part of it?  Are all 21 members definitely and absolutely better than the first alternate player (do we have that much faith in the coach’s ability to appraise their ability?).  Might one of the 21 members be a worse player than the first alternative, but just fit better as a teammate for the other 20 women?

Similarly, when someone doesn’t get a job they applied for (and another candidate is hired), can it be absolutely said that the person who was hired was “better”?  Does ANYONE have that much faith in the hiring process?

I was at a bar with friends recently and one of the guys ordered a double shot of their most expensive scotch.  When I started talking scotch to him, it became quite apparent that he didn’t know a thing about single-malts (and probably would have been just as happy with a double shot of Johnnie Walker Red Label).  Heck, the guy chased it with a bottle of Corona!  With a slice of lime!!!  When I asked him why he’d bought the most expensive scotch, his only justifications was “it was the most expensive, so that makes it the best!”  For non-scotch drinkers, many of the more expensive scotches have extreme tastes (like smokey, peaty or iodinie).  It is certainly NOT the case that everyone will find these tastier than the cheaper options.

So, given that the meaning of “best” is nebulous, is the pursuit of some personal definition of it still worthwhile?  I’d still say no.

Do I want people to be proficient at their chosen occupation?  You bet your ass I do!  I don’t want to get sick from eating bad meat or rotten bread (or, I guess, buy defective candlesticks?).  Do I need the BEST meat, bread or candlesticks in the world?  Naw, not really.  In the book review of Better I did in October, I felt one of the weakness was that the author didn’t address the cost of the continual improvement he advocated.

Are there times, say with an Einstein or a Shakespeare, where the world benefits from a genius who focuses themselves on a tight domain of human activity and changes the course of history?  Of course!  Is it worthwhile for the person themselves?  That I’m not so sure about.  In an amazing  1986 talk by Richard Hamming he says that doing Nobel-Prize work is better than “wine, women and song” put together.  He also admits to neglecting his wife while in pursuit of this work.  Is the compromise worthwhile?  Are his accomplishments REALLY better than wine, women and song, or is that what he has to tell himself to justify what he’s sacrificed?

Jumping back to the butcher, say I’m setting out to be the best butcher I can be.  Obviously I’d learnt the practical skills of running a butcher shop (inspecting meat, cutting to specification, running a business, food safety, etc, etc, etc).  Once I’m a competent butcher, I need to develop an obsessive interest in butchering to continue getting “better” (in pursuit of the elusive “best that I can be”).  When my wife wants to do an eco-tour of Costa Rica for our holiday, I’ll have to over-rule her and instead take her to Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan to learn about Kobe Beef.  If my friends want to go out for beers (and to buy the most expensive scotches available), I’ll have to decline as I study up on identification of parasites in pork.  Rather than watch my daughter’s dance recital, I’ll be taking classes on exotic marinades for gamefowl.

Are these compromises really desirable in pursuit of becoming the best?  And can someone possibly be considered the best of something if they put family and friends (or other interest) ahead of the pursuit of their field of excellence?

As a computer scientist, I’m inherently a 2nd rate mathematician and scientist (we’re a lazy mixture of both).  I’m not a particularly good computer scientist, so it’s probably generous to consider me third rate at either.  I could, with a focus of attention, be a dramatically better writer, blogger, teacher, researcher, friend, son, brother, boyfriend, employee, entrepreneur, investor or programmer.  If I tried to be massively better in one of these areas, the others would all suffer.

Instead,  I settle on doing an ok job in each.

Is there something you try to be the best (or your best) at?  What are some of the costs of that pursuit and do you ever question the value?

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 luca

I think you are unfair to hamming… 1) he was quoting other people 2) he said “as good as” not “better than”…

Well I now come down to the topic, “Is the effort to be a great scientist worth it?” To answer this, you must ask people. When you get beyond their modesty, most people will say, “Yes, doing really first-class work, and knowing it, is as good as wine, women and song put together,” or if it’s a woman she says, “It is as good as wine, men and song put together.”

2 Mr. Cheap

Luca: Well, as I said, I think it’s an amazing talk. I have great respect for Hamming (and I think he raises a number of interesting, worthwhile points in this talk). If you thought I was dismissing the whole of what he said, I am not.

In terms of quoting other people, obviously he’s putting word’s in their mouth (how many woman would express this sentiment in the way he claims?). Further on (in that paragraph) he says: “It’s a biased sample, but I still think it is worth the struggle. I think it is very definitely worth the struggle to try and do first-class work because the truth is, the value is in the struggle more than it is in the result. The struggle to make something of yourself seems to be worthwhile in itself.” Clearly he isn’t just reporting what other people have said to him. He believes this. And why shouldn’t he? It’s a bold, noble thing to believe. I’m just offering another perspective.

In terms of “as good as” or “better than” I think (with respect) you’re being a little pedantic.

3 2 Cents @ Balance Junkie

It’s all about balance eh Mr. Cheap? ;) I think you’re right. I watched the Olympics this weekend, and I couldn’t help noticing that, while the medals went to the people that performed the best for their 30 seconds or 20 minutes or whatever, the difference between gold, silver and even 5th or 6th place was not all that great. It struck me that the gold medalists were great in that moment, but not necessarily “the best” in their field. I’m not willing to give up time with friends and family to compete at that level only to fall short for the sake of 2 tenths of a second.

On the topic of Scotch, my husband loves it. He’s still nursing a bottle of Lagavulin that I bought him for Christmas a couple of years ago. As for me, I think the stuff tastes (and smells) like yucky medicine. But I love to watch my husband thoroughly enjoy it.

4 Mr. Cheap

$0.02: Yes, my feelings are similar, but I didn’t want to beat up on the Olympians TOO much :-). That’s impressive that he’s been able to nurse a bottle for 2 years! (no scotch has ever survived that long in my place)

5 Jess V

I rather be better with everything than being the best on one thing.

Starting a business from a scratch requires you to learn Accounting, Marketing, Sales, Law, IT, and etc… I don’t have to be best in Accounting to operate and maintain my business. I just need to understand the process and able to talk to an Accountant of what I wanted to achive.

Same with other Businesses and Investment. I don’t need to be best at being a property manager to run a Rental properties.

6 WealthWebGurus.com

When I look at these Olympians, my jaw drops in awe at the commitment and work ethic it takes to get there. I think we should celebrate their accomplishments and encourage people to follow their passions in life. If you love what you do, it is easy to spend time working hard at it. In fact, it may not feel like work when it is their passion.

Seeking balance also has it’s own set of sacrifices. That’s not a bad thing but we need to encourage hard work, especially when our society has developed a sense of entitlement.

I, too, am a balanced “jack of all trades, master of none”. and quite frankly, I love my life. I sold a very successful business before 40 to spend more time with my family, especially to be a dad to my kids. That being said, if my kids have the drive, passion, talent or ability to become great at anything, I will encourage them and be supportive in their endeavors. How proud would I be if my son’s competed in a future Olympics even if they came in fourth? That journey and experience is invaluable and is a life lesson that can be applied to all facets of life and I believe the experience will make him a better person.

If we relate this back to money . . . In my own life, I made big time sacrifices early and worked really hard to create the business. I saved money and made some fantastic financial choices (thanks to my profession). It is those sacrifices that give me choices and my current ability to work part time as a parent of four boys and afford a good lifestyle. I think encouraging people to work harder and become better is a good thing. I think we need to encourage people to find their passions in life. As a parent, these are things I want to encourage my four boys strive for. I want my boys to always try their best as opposed to have to be the best.

7 Doctor Stock

I train others at my place of work (many of these individuals are new in their careers and young)… and I usually tell them, “Be the kind of person you want to be.” It’s one of the things I love about Balance Junkie/2 Cents… put everything you’ve got into one aspect of life and you’ll likely hurt another aspect. So, determine to do the best you can under the circumstances you are faced with every day. Then you can be balanced and satisfied in what you do!

8 Chris

Fun topic, and one that forces all of us to consider our own choices & balance. Whether you’re talking about being an athlete, a butcher, or a research scientist – I may not be personally willing to make the sacrifices required to be the “best”, but I AM really grateful that there are people out there that are!

9 pessimist

Am I the only one here who doesn’t know exactly what it takes to be the ‘best’? Is everyone else in on a clear algorithm to excellence? I’m saying that the ‘balance’ I have, sort of happened to me. No one ever gave me a menu saying – here, if you do all this, you will be the ‘best’ and ‘world class’ etc. Until, there is a clear algorithm to get to some arbitrary ‘top’, how much of this is really an individual’s choice?

10 Mr. Cheap

Pessimist: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the research it was based on provide just such an algorithm.

I provide another in one of my previous posts, How to Become an Expert in Anything.

11 pessimist

Mr. Cheap, In your post, you seem to be discussing very specific, well-known pursuits of fairly narrow scope which will make you more knowledgeable than a lay person. You are not discussing world class research and this method will not get you to the top of anything. If there is an algorithm to becoming the best, you need to get some IP on that immediately :).

Am wading through the other article.

12 Mr. Cheap

Pessimist: Well, I think the extension from becoming an expert to becoming world-class / the best is pretty straightforward: Keep doing it and work harder. Becoming an expert is a pre-requisite for becoming world class, as you’ll probably understand how to continue getting better once you’re an expert. You’re certainly not going to do world class research without first getting up-to-speed on what others in the field are working on.

As I believe I’ve demonstrated to you, their are *multiple* algorithms to becoming the best (the training program of any professional coach would also qualify). If you’re looking for one simple algorithm that is guaranteed to work for every domain for every person and will make you world class without any effort or inherent ability, then you’re right, I suspect such a thing doesn’t exist. Fairies and dragons don’t either.

Enjoy the paper and Gladwell’s book (they’ll provide far more details than my modest little posts).

13 Kathryn

I’m a firm believer that we’re all fan-freaking-tastic at at least one thing and it’s our pursuit in life to find that thing and do it to the best of our ability. Yes, I strive for excellence and perfection and miss it almost every time. Yet every time I get better than the last time. I’m not looking to be ‘the best’ or compete against others. I’m looking to compete against myself and do better every time. I simply can’t settle for just ok in any area of my life.

14 Matt

For the past three years, I’ve tried to excel as a singer. I’ve spent over 2000 hours in lessons, practice and various rehearsals. Although this time might have been spent in less solitary pursuits, I don’t regret the investment because not only am I passionate about singing, but it gives me an incredible sense of accomplishment, purpose and direction that had previously been missing in my life.

In the last year, however, my life has gotten busier and more hectic (got a busier job, bought an investment property and landed a lead role in an opera) and have consequently had to make more sacrifices to keep singing.

Through trial and error, mostly, I’ve learned what sacrifices to make and when. Some things, like my health, my girlfriend, (some) friends and family, are important and necessary aspects of my life while others (weekly yoga classes, regularly going to the gym, reading, playing video games) are less important. I do find balance hard to maintain, however, especially when confronted with so many demands on my time and energy.

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