Many people who strive to be the best and make it to the top are less happy than you are.
The reason for that? It’s the tension between significance and love, as described by Tony Robbins (someone who himself aspires to be the best in his profession): the more significant you are—and what is being the best if not a sign of significance?—, the harder it is to feel loved… because significance is coming from a different place than love. Significance is about seeing how someone is different from you whereas love is about seeing how that person is the same.
Like almost everyone, I’m guilty of unintentionally perpetuating the myth that the significance of being the best is something to aspire to. In my articles, I quote people who have made it to the top of their fields. I reference those who stood out, such as Steve Jobs or Muhammad Ali.
In part it’s because that’s what people are interested, and in part because I can find out what Barack Obama said in public but I don’t know what your grand-aunt told you the other day, even though it may have been much more insightful. In fact, there are probably many things ordinary people have said or done that are more insightful or admirable. I just don’t know about them.
But perhaps those who are not burdened with being the best are actually the lucky ones.
Why being the best won't make you happy or loved
Love is the principal positive emotion between equals. Respect is the principle positive emotion when there’s a hierarchy.
I love and respect my husband, my family members, and my friends… and the respect I feel for them is borne out of love. That makes it a different type of respect than the one I have for Angela Merkel, who’s been the leader of my home country for most of the time I can remember. I have a lot of respect for Merkel… but that's not the same thing as being loved.
I’m sure Merkel’s husband loves her… because they’re equals. But how often does she get to feel like an equal? Her being the head of government must make it harder for people to see Merkel as a person with her own challenges and concerns, than, say, if she was a school teacher. Even leaving her intense work schedule aside, having equal relationships is hard when you’re in such an exalted position.
While being seen as significant by many people who have never met you may sound great, in reality, it must be incredibly lonely.
Do you think it’s fun to be Queen Elizabeth? Despite (or perhaps because of) having all the paraphernalia of significance—an expensive crown and throne, ownership over all the unmarked mute swans in England (I didn’t make this up), and fancy parades on her birthday (instead of a regular party like the rest of us plebs)—she doesn’t seem happy to me. At all. I’ve seen parents with toddlers (or teenagers) who screamed at them at the top of their lungs who still looked like they were having a better time than her.
When Queen Elizabeth goes somewhere, she might get subjected to yet another rendition of “God save the Queen,” which is like the royal equivalent of having people sing Happy Birthday to you every day of the year. It’s probably nice to be treated like a special cookie for a week or so and then, you never want to hear that blasted song again.
Leaving musical impositions aside, people who aren’t at the top enjoy other privileges: their family feuds don’t make the front headlines. When they get married, it’s not a public affair. And when they want to retire, they can just do so.
How does this relate to our lives? Well, have you ever thought that you wanted to be the best at something? Have you wanted to stand out? I know I sometimes envy people their position or their achievements and their successes. Unless you’re fully enlightened, you probably can relate to that.
But is that actually true? Would you really want to stand out? If so, let me share an example of what “standing out” could look like in practice: I once attended a special weekend workshop with a visiting trainer at a gym. A Hollywood star was watching the training from the sidelines (presumably to say hi to the amazing trainer during the next break). His face was half-covered with a baseball cap. I didn’t know him so I just wondered why he was sitting there instead of participating and considered asking him if he’d like to join in.
However, other people recognized him and got really excited. Soon, a lot of people talked, wondering about this person’s private life, that sort of thing. I later had a conversation with someone that went like this:
Would you really want for people to feel this way about you and treat you that different from everyone else? To discuss your life as if you were back in high school when you’re just somewhere incognito, wanting to talk to someone you know without drawing attention to yourself? Wouldn’t that make you feel incredibly awkward and out of place?
After considering the ethics of it, I realized that the right thing for me to do was to treat this star like I would treat any other person. If I were an extrovert and just randomly chatted up people all the time, it would make sense to do the same thing with him. Given that I don’t regularly start conversations with strangers, I figured I should just leave him alone.
Of course, my slightly more levelheaded response didn’t stop me from wondering if I should have asked for an autograph or a picture… from someone I didn’t even know before people around me started talking about him.
Given that this might well be the regular experience people have who made it to the top, is it really a wonder that bestselling author Tim Ferris described fame as “picking up a fire extinguisher for your pain that ends up being a canister of gasoline”?
The alternative to being the best
Of course, none of that means that you should aim to be bland and boring. That you should be okay with failure. You can still strive for a great, successful life.
What could that look like? Well, let’s talk about countries and baboons, and what we can learn from their strategies.
Countries first: at this point in history, it seems to me that the desire to be the best is much stronger in America than in many other parts of the world. America wants to be the best. America wants to be the top dog. In short: America first (with the comedians from many countries hilariously scrambling to be second).
Of course, being top dog requires a ton of resources. After all, America spends more on the military than the next 10 countries combined (which includes China, India, Russia, and some of the most populous countries in the EU).
None of that will keep America at the top forever. The Roman Empire fell. The British Empire… well, let's not talk about it. As Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor and thus once the most powerful men of the world, so accurately put it:
“Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future, too.”
Let’s move on to a study about baboons: Male beta baboons might have it better than their alpha counterparts. Why? Well, both alphas and betas have mating opportunities (although alphas have more) and access to food… but alpha male baboons are way more stressed than betas. In fact, their stress levels are as high as those of the lowest ranking males.
Of course, this doesn’t directly tell us anything about people or entire countries. We probably should make life decisions (or even redefine our definition of success) based on the reproductive strategies of hippy-apes and yet, isn't this a fascinating insight.
So, here’s a thought: the current US is an empire in decline but it’s still an empire (and will continue to be one until it will eventually be replaced). Germany isn’t an empire, it has never been one, and doesn’t aspire to be one. If Germany were a male baboon, it’d be a beta, alongside other countries with a strong economy. The US would be the unquestioned alpha of the pack.
Do you think it’s easier to live in “alpha US” or in “beta Germany”? Well, your mileage may vary but as someone who has lived many years both in Germany and in the US, in my experience, it’s less stressful in beta country. Despite not being alpha, Germany still gets to be successful. It plays its role in the world. It’s trying to do a good job. It’s just not the top dog.
It might be the same in life. Beta country is more relational. You have some company (other beta baboons, countries, or humans… depending on what area we talk about), instead of being the only one at the top. You might not be the first to get food but you’ll have plenty of food anyway. You don’t have to spend as much time and energy defending your status. You just go and live your life.
And you’ll probably feel way less stressed out, even if you are in an elevated position in a beta country. Just compare the aging process of Merkel (who’s been the hard-working Chancellor of Germany since 2005) with the rapid one Obama went through in 8 years. It’s stressful at the top but it’s even more stressful at the top-top.
The next time you feel jealous of someone who seems to have made it, ask yourself if you would trade your lives with them. If you’d really throw away your chances of talking to random strangers like equals and go to places without becoming the immediate focus of attention. Perhaps you’re not a failure, perhaps you’re just incredibly fortunate.
There’s a Goldilock Zone to most things, including success. And that zone is likely not right at the top.
As James Acaster put it: “If you just focus on getting better, and not being the best, you have such a good time.”
That, then, might be the solution to finding happiness… focusing on the process of getting better, rather than trying to be the best. And when I put it that way, doesn’t it also sound more lovable?
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