Since I can remember, I’ve been made fun of and criticized for trying to be the best at whatever thing it was I was interested in at the time. My AP History teacher in high school was amazing and I would sit in the front of the class engrossed by all the stories he told about the Civil War and how he got to be an extra in Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington’s 1989 movie, Glory.
At the end of the year, Mr. Stanton was kind enough to give me the AP History Award for most outstanding student. I was honored, but surprised because I wasn’t a great student and this was my only academic award I ever received. I think he just appreciated someone always attentively listening instead of dozing off like some of my other classmates.
But I disappointed Mr. Stanton in the end because I didn’t try harder. When I got the award, a couple classmates made me feel like a loser. They said I was a dork for liking history so much. As a result of such feedback, I decided not to study a lot for the AP History placement test, which could have given me college credit if I scored a 3 or better out of 5.
When Mr. Stanton enthusiastically asked how I did once he knew the scores were out, I didn’t want to tell him because I only scored a 2. I was not the most outstanding student he had envisioned and I felt horrible for letting him down.
“Sam, don’t worry about the exam,” replied Mr. Stanton. “It’s hard to remember everything in history anyway. But if you remember one thing, remember to never let anybody keep you from going for what you want. Thanks for always attending my classes and playing a good game of Risk!”
After Mr. Stanton’s talk, I began feeling angry that I let people negatively affect something I cared about. The battle was on between trying to be the best, not wanting to be a disappointment to others, and never letting anybody keep me from doing what I enjoyed again. Perhaps you’ve experienced a similar battle growing up and as an adult today.
IS THE PAIN OF DISAPPOINTMENT REALLY WORTH IT?
The problem with trying so hard is that failure feels that much more painful. Disappointing someone who believes in you is worse than disappointing yourself. Perhaps this is the reason why some folks never really give it everything they’ve got?
Since college I consistently tried to massacre my mind and body by studying and working as hard as anyone. In college, it was imperative to graduate at least magna cum laude to give myself the best chance at getting a good job because I knew I wasn’t very smart. When I landed my first job, there was no question of getting in by 5:30am and leave after 7:30pm every day for the first two years because I knew nothing – and people who know nothing are easily disposable.
But after 13 short years, I was done. I no longer wanted to kill myself at the age of 34 so I left to make no money as a writer. I thought I could make it until age 40 in finance, but I was burned out. If I managed to continue working my finance job for six more years, I’d surely be richer as a result. But like anybody who has ever run a 400 meter or longer race, starting out too strongly can pose big problems towards the end.
Now I spend a couple hours a day writing and another hour or so connecting with folks online. On Mondays and Wednesdays I go into work for a financial tech company as a consultant. And on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays I spend my time playing tennis, running errands, or traveling. Such a far cry from the 12-14 hour days working in Corporate America.
In the long run everything is rational, which is why I do believe America will slowly turn into Europe in the next 50 years with higher taxes, a slower pace of life, less innovation, cheaper education, universal healthcare, and a much happier population. The happiest countries in the world all hail from Europe (see chart) because they know all about work-life balance.
So perhaps trying hard, and obsessing over being the best is not a healthy endeavor. Here are some examples that illustrate why being average might be better.
WHY BEING AVERAGE MIGHT BE BETTER
Education: Imagine going to Harvard for $180,000 in tuition over four years and landing a regular $40,000 a year job that anybody from any college could have gotten. What a disappointment when it comes to money, especially if your parents are not rich and you didn’t get very many grants. If more people thought about the financial implications of college, there would be less of a student loan crisis. I feared high expectations so I decided to attend The College of William & Mary for $2,800 a year vs. $25,000 a year for a comparable private school back in the 90s. If I ended up back at my old job at McDonald’s, I would be disappointed, but at least I could cover all four years of tuition earning minimum wage. Unless you are rich or supremely gifted, it’s an inevitability you will be starting your career in a financial hole.
Physical Attributes: Imagine growing up as a beautiful and fit kid. All your life people treat you special because people are shallow that way. Then one day you discover the joys of eating. You put on the freshman 15 in college and never lose it. After you get a job, you realize working out is a luxury you don’t have. You’re now 32 years old and 30 pounds heavier than you once were. The 15 year high school reunion is coming up next year and you are stressed out of your mind! You’re worried about your ex-classmates snickering behind your back for letting yourself go. If you were average looking with an average body in school, people wouldn’t care that you gained 30 pounds as a male or a female. Weight gain is an inevitable part of life in America.
Wealth. If you are wealthy in America, you are either idolized (e.g. Kardashians for some reason) or assailed (e.g. the top 1%). Politicians will arbitrarily determine an individual making over a certain amount is wealthy regardless of their educational background, occupation, or geographic location in order to enact class warfare for votes. Even though you do make more than average, you feel excluded, which is an uncomfortable feeling anybody who has ever been discriminated against can understand. Unless you are an inventor, people will tend to look at you suspiciously regarding how you accumulated your wealth. If you are of average wealth, there is no need to hide. You don’t have to send your kids to private school, obscure your home address, worry about kidnappers, or fear persecution by the government. The idea of Stealth Wealth makes no sense as you walk freely among the crowd.
Sports. In 2012 my 4.5 level league tennis team won the San Francisco City Championship. Glory! We were the favorites to win again in 2013 but we didn’t. We lost 2-3 in the finals after our #1 singles player blew a 4-1 lead in the third set. Although it was quite an accomplishment for any team to repeat back-to-back finals, we all felt extremely disappointed. If we were in the middle 4-6 teams out of 10, we’d be ecstatic to have just made the playoffs. After the loss, many of us decided to give up tennis for months because we were so depressed. The 2014 regular season is almost over and we are expectated to win the city championships again.
Work. Only the bottom 10% workers really are at risk of getting let go in any given year if there is no major structural change e.g. closing down of a department or a merger. So long as you are in the middle you can happily go about doing your job and practicing the coveted work-life balance where you punch out by 5pm, never work weekends, and schedule doctors appointments in the middle of the day. You’ll get your raises and promotions no faster or slower than otherwise expected. If you are in the top 10% there is expectation from your managers to always keep producing outstanding work. You can’t be outstanding forever, and eventually you will revert back to average work. But your average work is still better than the good work of your average peers. Unfortunately, in your manager’s eyes you are failing and you will likely get punished for being average. I remember being admonished for dropping from being #2 ranked to #3 ranked with a client, when just a year ago I was being praised for moving up from #5 to #3. Manage expectations and just be careful not to commit any of these career limiting moves.
Writing. Imagine having a day job and concurrently working 30 hours a week on your blog for years to be able to publish three, 1,000+ word articles a week en gratis. Your articles get featured in major media publications and your readership grows into the hundreds of thousands a month. Because of your track record, readers now expect you to continue writing thoughtful posts three times a week full of insights. But unless you are a creative genius or a machine, there’s no way you can consistently publish great content. Think about how many great bands flame out after producing a hit album. They’d either take a year or two off, or produce something so disappointing they’d quit for good. Writing is maddeningly difficult sometimes. You can’t just try harder to write better. Different parts of the brain are at work. To then get criticized for your writing abilities is so defeating (please continue to comment or e-mail me regarding punctuation and grammar mistakes). It’s probably better to just hire a ghost writer or spend 30 minutes writing a post than 5 hours in order to manage expectations and hedge against disappointment (lack of readership, social sharing, comments). You don’t want to feel like a loser in this perfect world.
SO WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES?
1) Balance Your Education: Don’t worry about doing well in high school in order to overpay for the privilege of going to a private school. Unless you get a full ride or scholarship equal to what you would pay at a public school, forget about it. And if you were smart enough to get a scholarship at a private school equal to what you’d pay for public school tuition, then you are probably smart enough to get a full ride to the public school of your choice.
Student loan debt has now surpassed credit card debt. That is scary considering how out of control our consumer culture is. The return on a college education has declined tremendously thanks to skyrocketing tuition and a commoditization of education. You can take plenty of top notch courses for free online now or learn about anything on Kahn Academy. Making education accessible and free to all is the great equalizer to narrow the wealth gap. Being the one to pay up for an education today is backwards, unless your family is so rich you guys don’t care.
2) Moderate Your Exercise: Forget about working out two hours a day and buying supremely healthy and organic produce for your body. All you need is 15 minutes a day for a longer, healthier life according to the 90+ study highlighted on 60 Minutes. Your lifespan and health is largely determined by genetics. You can help yourself by getting into the lower end of your weight band and the higher end of your life expectancy. But if you are going to die from pancreatic cancer like Steve Jobs did at age 56, no amount of vegan eating will save you. Instead, practice moderation instead and use your money and time saved investing in your future.
3) Realize You’re Already Wealthy: Stop striving to be wealthier than you can be and recognize the wealth you already have. It’s important to accept our wealth potential. Some are just born rich. Others are born smart, lucky, and good looking. We must recognize our attributes and be realistic with our upper wealth limits. As soon as you think you deserve an “A Lifestyle” as a “C Student” it’s game over. Life isn’t too difficult once you’ve reached a median income level.
4) Enjoy The Sport: 99.9% of us will never become professional athletes. As a result, quit with being overly competitive and the poor sportsmanship. The ability to play sports is a blessing. There are many people out there who don’t know how to throw a ball, can’t swing a golf club, can’t hit a 3-pointer, and don’t know how to curve a soccer ball into the net. We should enjoy the time we have with our teammates and all that comes with winning and losing.
5) Stay Right In The Mddle: Always remember the long game. Your ability to make an income is your most powerful asset. If you work too hard, too quickly, you run the risk of burning out too soon like I did. The Baby Boomers generation could easily stick with one firm for 20 years at a time. They were rewarded with steady raises, stock grants, and pensions. Gen X sticks around at one firm more like 6-7 years. Meanwhile, Gen Y has an even shorter timespan of 2-3 years at one firm. The key to building wealth is to let your money compound in a stable environment. Circumstances have changed over the years that force employees to be less loyal and move around a little more. That’s fine. Just make sure you don’t eject from the work force completely. Instead, take it down a notch if you are an overachiever. Join the 80% of people who never get fired, and also never ascend very quickly.
ARE YOU OBSESSED WITH BEING THE BEST?
Americans work too hard at everything to try and obtain something that only a minority of people can achieve. Maybe we should all stop obsessing and all start relaxing a little more? I’ve always encouraged people to never fail due to a lack of effort, since effort requires no skill. But what if you are absolutely burned out? What if you no longer want to feel the consistent pain of disappointing others and yourself? Being average may just be the way to go.
For all you commenters who found my post “Are There Really People Who Work 40 Hours A Week And Complain Why They Can’t Get Ahead” absurd, THANK YOU! You’ve helped me change my viewpoint that it’s better to relax and enjoy the good life than try to be the best at everything. As a show of good faith, I’ve set my Out Of Office on for three months this summer. Now let’s see if I can avoid the temptation of responding.
Readers, are you obsessed with being the best? Do you work or try too hard to succeed? If the end game is happiness, and Europe has consistently the happiest people on Earth with high taxes, not a lot of innovation, cold winters, and big government, why are we so obsessed with being the best if it’ll only make us miserable?