I Want to be the Best – But What on Earth does that Mean?

I have had this obsession of wanting to be the ‘best’ ever since I can remember. I wanted to be the best daughter, the best child, the best student, the best player, the best artist and the best all-rounder. It was a list with no beginnings and no ends. I don’t remember how it started and how it became such an important part of my existence. I do remember however that the idea of ‘best’ had overwhelmed me to such an extent that I was pretty much obsessed by it.

My evolving intellect soon came up with frameworks that made this loosely defined notion of ‘best’ more attainable. I started conjuring relevant comparison groups in my head to give meaning to the otherwise vague notion of ‘best’. Soon I had ambitions of being the best in my class, the best in my section, the best in my neighbourhood etc. Society, School, and my Culture helped me make the idea of ‘best’ even more tantalizing (and easy to attain) by creating various verticals of categorization. There were different ‘bests’ to strive for. Best student, best player, best quizzer, best in maths, best in science, and so on.

These titles (both formal and informal) were highly addictive for me. Each time I gave myself (or someone else gave me) an illusionary certification of ‘best’, I experienced a high. A high that soon faded but gave birth to cravings for future such highs. It amazes me how creative our minds can be to somehow obtain for ourselves that which we want. My mind would re-draw the rules of the game and re-craft the comparison sets on an ongoing basis to make sure that wherever I was and whatever I was doing there was some ‘best’ I could award to myself.

For example when I went to IIT for my engineering I knew within weeks that there was no ‘best’ possible for me here academically. The academic ‘bests’ in most subjects were no longer the low hanging fruit they used to be in my hometown school. So I forgot about academics and started pursuing other ‘bests’. In IIT the bests I could try to chase were best player, best dancer, best orator, and sometimes (most teenagers have been here at some stage) even best looker. When a certain best seemed way out of reach then my mind would quickly build in extra criteria to bring the ‘best’ within reach. If best orator seemed too impossible, hey I could at least be the best girl orator. If best looker seemed improbably, hey I could at least be the best looker in my batch. It was an addiction of a very stressful kind, but my mind was crafty enough (and I was willing to work hard enough) to ensure that there was always a steady flow of ‘bests’ to get high on.

This energy sucking addiction has followed me well into adulthood and by no means do I claim to be completely cured of it. Yet a dream I had some time back has helped me break free of it to a large extent.

During the dream I found myself in an extremely beautiful garden. There were flowers of every possible colour and size that were dancing beautifully in the breeze. I was walking around looking at them, stopping to smell a flower here, kneeling to kiss another, and visually savouring the riot of colours that was present. I love flowers and this garden was paradise for me.

After I had spent some absolutely delightful moments in the garden an imaginary voice asked me to pick the ‘best’ flower. I was shocked by the suddenness of the question. What on earth did the voice mean? The voice gently but firmly re-stated my task. I was to select the ‘best’ flower in the garden. I flatly refused. There was no way I could have selected a ‘best flower’. It was a completely impossible task. Each flower was so wonderful and exquisite. There was a delicate tiny bluebell who was standing shyly with her head bent down and beside her was a large sunflower, head held high and smiling. Whom could I pick? There was a pink rose who smelt so exotic and just beside her a tantalizingly fragrant white jasmine. Each flower was wonderful in her own way. Each flower was perfect in her own way. What was this stupid notion of best anyway? There was no way I was going to pronounce one better than another. The voice however, was ruthless and adamant and it kept pushing me to select the ‘best’ flower. Finally, I just crumbled onto the earth and started crying helplessly.

When I woke up from the dream, the message was clear to me. I had answered a question that I should have posed to myself (and tried to answer) long ago. What exactly was this notion of ‘best’. Was there any real foundation to it at all? What are the dimensions along which we compare two (or several) things? Colour, fragrance, size? Further even if we identify enough dimensions how do we compare along one dimension itself? Why is red better than blue? Why is one fragrance better than another? Why is big better than small (or vice versa). This notion of ‘best’ itself is flawed and pointless. It is perhaps one of the biggest lies we have ever invented but sadly a lie that many of us have easily bought into.

It is quite clear to me today that we cannot compare any two things, leave alone any two people. Each one of us is so so unique. No wonder there is no concept of ‘best’ in Nature. Nature has no concept of best river, best mountain, best tree or best weather. We humans have created this monstrous notion of ‘best’ and this notion is eating away at our well being. For an individual it can create mammoth amounts of stress (like I have experienced), but socially it can rupture the very fabric of cooperative relationships. I remember (very sadly) how I used to help classmates of mine (with their studies) only if I was sure that they were someone who did not pose a threat to ‘my rank’. In IIT we used to jokingly call this kind of tendency ‘RG Giri’ (where RG stood for Relative Grade). It meant your grade mattered only in ‘relation’ to what the other people’s grades were.

Most parents would refuse to pick one from their litter as the ‘best’ child. Yet why do we distract teachers and institutions from their core task of education and ask them to pick out a ‘best student’? Can they ever come up with criteria and dimensions that they feel satisfied enough about to truly make this judgement? For example if a teacher wants to pronounce a student as ‘best’ in maths, how can she be sure that the kind of maths test she is setting is the only way to test maths? Surely a different kind of maths test will throw up a different child as ‘topper’. The exam results only testify that ‘xyz’ student scored the highest in that particular exam. By no means do they provide enough evidence to announce that xzy is the ‘best maths student’.

The awards and titles of ‘best’ that we dole out (both formally and informally) are a disservice to both those who get them and those who don’t. They are a disservice because they are illusions and they lead to false notions of either being superior or inferior to other people. The truth is that no measurement is accurate enough to make such a claim and no dimension is well defined enough either. You can say that one child can count faster than another. But that does not make him ‘better in maths’. The other child might have a deeper intuitive understanding of numbers. The notion of ‘best’ gets even more ridiculous when we examine some other contexts where it is liberally used. For example when we give ‘best player awards’, that too in team sports. Or our truly bizarre beauty contests which these days even have sub-categories like best hair and best skin.

Before I wrap up I want to mention one further context where I have heard the word ‘best’ being used. Has anyone ever urged you to be the ‘best that you can be’? I agree that this kind of motivation (where one is encouraged to compete with one’s own past achievements) is healthier than competing with others. However, even here, the usage of the word ‘best’ perturbs me a little. Given that we live in an infinite universe, what is the basis to assume that there exist bounds to our own potential and possibility. If we cannot be sure that such bounds exist, then where does this notion of ‘best’ come from? Perhaps a saner way to motivate ourselves is to strive to be better tomorrow than we are today (in whichever way we have decided to measure better). Even with this form of self-motivation I would like to remind myself that the way I am gauging my own ‘betterness’ is a meter of ‘betterment’ I have decided to accept and not an absolute that exists in nature.

I invite you to pause for a minute the next time you find yourself or someone else using the word ‘best’. Ask yourself whether you know what is really being measured and how. What dimensions, what criteria, and what comparison sets are being used and to what avail? Ask yourself if YOU are satisfied by the usage of the word ‘best’ in the context it is being used. If you are not, then come over to my boat and we will throw overboard that loose (and potentially dangerous) notion of ‘best’.

If, like me, you have been addicted to the highs of pronouncing oneself the best (that illusionary, meaningless, and logically flawed title of ‘best’), then come and join my de-addiction club. We will find new ways of getting ‘high’ where we don’t need to perceive that we are ‘higher’ than the others in our consideration set.

4 thoughts on “I Want to be the Best – But What on Earth does that Mean?”

  1. This explains one very interesting chapter of mahabharat, when Guru Drona declares Arjuna the best archer in the world. Who can confirm whether Arjuna was best or Karna ? This led to perpetual enimity between the two which ended with the great war of mahabharata

  2. Excellent site you have here.. It’s hard to find quality writing like yours these
    days. I honestly appreciate people like you! Take care!!

  3. Wonderful writing, It must be useful to our students, who has killing desire for to be best in every aspect of life.

  4. Dear Prof. Ranganathan,

    I came across this site today and found it to be pretty fascinating with all the content that you have put here.

    I also read this particular article and just like you professor, it resonated with me too as I come from the same socio-cultural background as yours. I thus understand and empathize with your points about how people get classified (or they classify themselves) and how it can be detrimental to their view of the world about them (hint: low self esteem) and what they can achieve in it (hint: lack of any worthwhile action and only existing). So I fully support what you are say here.

    However, in a world where resources are limited (such as jobs/careers and others) and number of people wanting those resources are more (the basis of competition and economics as such), how, in your opinion would you suggest we handle this imbalance so that people stop (or lower) their strife for being the ‘best’ as you say?

    Further, if I may say this (and with all due respect ofcourse), I also see that although you have reached this realization at this point in your life, your strife to be the ‘best’ DID ultimately lead you to the position you are in today to make you realize this point, isn’t it? I am referring to your background (IIT, IIM, LSB) which the world considers as best-in-class (pun intended) institutions. The admissions process at IIT and IIM is so very stringent that only the brightest and the best can get in. So for someone like me who does not have such top-notch institutions behind me (although I also tried real hard to be the best in whatever capabilities I had but somehow fallen short of achieving the success that I dreamed of) should it be a case of lowering my expectations from myself and live a life of less success as say my peers from IITs / IIMs and other sought-after worldly resources?

    Regards,
    Sudeep

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