I’m never going to be the best and that’s OK

Red rollerskates on a roadThe attitude of millenials seems to be a hot topic of conversation these days. I hear my friends and colleagues complaining about Generation Y’s lack of drive, constant need for approval, and entitlement mentality. It has me pondering the era in which I was raised and how it has affected my view of the world. As a child spending my formative and teenage years in the 1980’s, what was I taught about work ethic, motivation, and success? It was definitely an outlook that has shaped my life in ways I’m only just coming to understand.

I love the 80’s

Those of us born in the 1970’s spent our high school years in the Decade of Decadence, where walls came down, hair went up (and up and up), rollerskating was the pastime of choice, fortunes were made on MTV, clothes were neon, and Boy George was just considered flamboyant. The myth of ultimate success was perpetuated in our pop culture and the movies we watched, stories where even the lowliest mail clerk or secretary could rise up the ranks with a lot of hard work, ingenuity (and big hair) and become CEO of a large company (ie. Michael J. Fox in The Secret of My Success and Melanie Griffith in Working Girl.) We didn’t expect success to be handed to us, but we were programmed to think that with hard work we could be the best at whatever we chose to pursue. We’d have the corner office with the big window overlooking the city and a chauffeured car waiting to take us home at the end of a long day.

Not to just be good, not to simply participate, but to be number one was what we all thought we had to achieve.

That’s where the tragedy of being Generation X takes its toll. The fear of not being the best has haunted us for years and crippled our ability to take a chance on simply being our best selves. John Hughes, who absolutely had his finger on the pulse of the 80’s generation, tapped into this cultural phenomenon in one of my all time favorite movies, The Breakfast Club, portraying the teenagers Andrew (Emilio Estevez) and Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) in Saturday detention for errors in judgment caused by parental pressure to be the best.

In the movie, Andrew tapes a classmate’s buns together in the locker room after breaking under the massive pressure put on him by his father to be the best wrestler. Andrew says his father yells, “Andrew, you’ve got to be number one. I won’t tolerate any losers in this family. Your intensity is for s*&^.” Brian gets detention when a flare gun goes off in his locker. He was planning to use it to kill himself after he fails to make a working lamp in shop class. He’s so distraught over his drop in grade point average that he feels it would be better to just not go on living with the shame.

Not fully living is what a lot of us are doing right now

How many times have you stopped yourself from trying something you really wanted to try because you were afraid you weren’t going to be the best? Here’s some truth I discovered on one of my walks with the dogs last week … whatever you pursue, it’s 99.9% likely you are not going to be the best at it. For example, there are more than 11 million tennis players in the United States, so the likelihood of being the best tennis player is pretty slim. Does that mean you shouldn’t play tennis? You’re probably not going to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Does that mean you shouldn’t volunteer at the soup kitchen next week? You might not paint the next Mona Lisa. Does that mean you shouldn’t bother picking up a brush and happily splattering some paint on a canvas? Definitely not!

I know some of these examples seem extreme, but when put in these terms it seems pretty silly when we let our fear of not being the best hold us back from writing that novel or taking up tennis, knitting, or woodworking. Every time you don’t try something you are depriving the world of your unique point of view, talents, knowledge, and ideas. It’s time we stopped comparing ourselves to an impossible standard and simply start trying to be the best we can be instead of the best of all time.

And, of course, there is always the chance you may just be the best at whatever you do and wouldn’t it have been a shame if you had not tried it at all?

Maybe the millenials don’t have it all wrong. I used to staunchly disagree with the idea of declaring everyone a winner on the baseball or football field because I felt kids needed to learn how to lose and to realize that in order to win they would have to try harder. But after some soul searching I think there is some merit to instilling an attitude of participation without judgment, freeing us to create or compete with less fear of failure.

So, I’m off to hit the tennis courts where I will continue to improve, win a few matches, enjoy the exercise, and know that I’m never going to be the next Serena Williams. And that’s just OK by me.

What would you try if you knew you could not fail and put aside fear of not being the best? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.




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