You Are Not Special

A lot of people want to be number one, or think they are number one. This probably isn't true outside of America, but where I live, most people wish they were the best at what they do. Early on in our lives we're told we're pretty good at something. Maybe we take a standardized test in fourth grade that tells us we have superior intelligence. Maybe we become valedictorian in eighth grade. Maybe we win the county high school tennis championship our freshman year. Maybe we get into the top art school. Whatever it is, it feels good, real good.

But then life moves on. Our teachers stop complimenting us on our quick thinking, not because we've become dumber, but because everyone knows we're smart and nobody really cares. Although the praise goes away, our desire for that praise sticks around. We want people to tell us we're smart, because our sense of self-worth has become predicated on being able to convince ourselves we're the smartest kid around. We never forget that in fourth grade we scored off the charts on some standardized test even when nobody cares. We still think of ourselves as smarter than anyone else. We think, because of our intelligence, work ethic, athleticism, or creativity, we deserve to be rich, famous, powerful, or popular.

Then the rest of our lives becomes a race to keep up with that ideal. We ask ourselves, constantly, am I number one? Who is number one? What do I have to do to become number one? Do I need a bigger house,  a bigger car, a bigger body? Am I on track to become number one?

Well, it's impossible to become number one because quality is subjective. How would you determine the answer to "Who is the greatest rock star?" We could look at how many albums a band has sold, the average attendance of their concerts, their net worth, how often and with how high quality women they get laid, their rankings on Rolling Stone or Billboard, the impact they had on the genre, the number of popular songs they put out within a certain period, and on and on and on. The fact is, there is no number one rock star because no one rock star ranks highest in more than one or two of these categories.

Let's ask a couple more interesting questions. Does ranking number one on any of these metrics make someone special? Would they think of themselves that way? The Beatles hit the top of the charts every time they put out an album. They made successful movies. They sold out standing room only baseball parks. They created rock as we know it today. Does that make them special?

Two of the four members of the band are dead, so I guarantee they don't think so. Paul McCartney couldn't sell out a baseball park anymore and Ringo Starr couldn't sell out Madison Square Gardens, but they probably have a good idea of the success they've had. Still - the four of them couldn't keep their band together for more than about thirteen years and they all used hard drugs regularly. They weren't superhuman, just really popular and creative.

It seems the best we can hope for is to accrue some evidence that we're number one and be able to jealously ignore any evidence to the contrary. Some people could probably do this, but I'm terrible at ignoring evidence. I will never be number one.

You can do the same thought experiment with political power: is President Obama more powerful than Representative Boehner, Senator Reid, or Justice Roberts? Even if he is, don't confuse political premiership with omnipotence. Obama doesn't have time to pat himself on the back and relax with the knowledge he's the single most powerful person on Earth. Nor will he ever be the most powerful human ever. Nobody can hold that title.

Whatever else we tell ourselves, we all die one day. We all can get sick, or shot, or hit by a car. We all live on a mote of dust suspended on a sunbeam.