Most of us are taught from a very young age that the ultimate goal, whether we're competing in sports, the academic world, or other arenas, is to become "the best." Of the many lessons we learn as children, this ultimate goal-driven approach to the varied things we choose to pursue is one that I've found to apply just as powerfully and expansively later in life.
Instilling this singular drive makes a lot of sense in teaching children how to play the many games and competitions that make up a large component of our society, and you certainly won't find any who don't have that drive in the elite group we consider to be "The Greatest of All Time" in their particular fields. That said, for all of the good it may do as a learning opportunity, the constant, unrelenting way competition seeps into, and in some cases, controls our lives can needlessly hurt us and others.
I love questions like the one posed as the title of this post, because they force me to think about things that make me uncomfortable. You may have guessed that, because I'm writing this post, I do believe there is a difference, but I can tell you it's a fairly recent realization.
Having three talented siblings, competition was consistently and constantly a part of my life. Regardless of how many times my wonderful parents told me not to compare myself with my older brother (we're only 15 months apart), I still did. And he was the best at a lot of things. I wanted to be the best in not only the areas where I was strong, but in the areas in which he had excelled as well. By my own doing, my childhood was much more difficult than it needed to be, as I tried to reach the top of someone else's scoreboard. It took me until my junior year of high school to figure it out, and I cannot describe the sense of relief I felt when I decided to be my own person.
As most of us know, high school is essentially one big competition, seemingly designed to separate us all into black-and-white categories based on the high school definition of success. The goal for any student whose sights are set on college? Beat your classmates to get into the small percentage of students (based on GPA) that will be accepted by your school of choice. While more flexible and less of an incubator, the ultimate goal for many college or university students is very similar. Beat your classmates to get the best internships or job placements.
Sadly, I've found workplace culture to be little different. The incentives that drive most people in the workplace, such as promotions, raises and additional levels of responsibility, are often positioned, officially or unofficially, as a competition. Outperform your peers to access these rewards. I'm certainly not saying that these incentives should not go to those who deserve them - far from it. I do believe, however, that the quest to be successful in our lives, however we individually choose to define it, does not always need to be at the expense of others.
To me, the fundamental difference between being an expert and being the best is that, while being the best places us in a club of one, being an expert elevates us into an elite group. In short, while I had always thought of expertise as an individual journey, it's actually one spawned from our fundamental human need to belong. Thus, the greatest difference between the two are in the journey itself, the choices we make as we walk the path and how we perceive it and ourselves as we look back on the life we lived.
To that point, I've included a few thoughts on how to change our lens from competition to expertise.
Changing the Lens from Competition to Expertise
You don't have to "win" to become an expert, and often, the most valuable part of becoming an expert is the journey itself. Experts still strive to achieve greatness in their field, but many of the greatest I've met don't care one way or the other if they are the very best. They are more concerned with sharing their gift with others, a goal that fulfills them on a daily basis (as opposed to the goal of reaching the top, which can change a person's perception of a life of great accomplishment to one of complete failure).
Expertise is a two-way street, as becoming an expert often requires the support and nurturing of existing experts. While all great competitors have coaches and trainers, the ultimate goal of the training and coaching is naturally in how to best others. In a community of experts, we can share knowledge with each other, as the more experts we have in a given field, the better the field as a result. For any expert, the greatest reward is often to see an apprentice go on to do great things, and even to surpass the work of their teacher. As Master Yoda so wisely said, "We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters."
College majors are a great example of how competition can curb creativity and passion. If a child decides to pursue ballet, the violin or a sport as a major, many parents' first thoughts are to the end result: Will they be able to get a job? Will it make them successful? These thoughts are natural, as parents want to protect their children from harm and failure, and set them up for "success." But success is often defined by our penchant for competition - "Only the best will emerge and go on to have careers in these areas, and the rest will have failed."
My perception is that anyone with enough passion and talent to attain scholarships for sports or attendance at a high-end school for dance or music will learn so much through that education that they will be able to apply to later life. Being a part of a community of expert peers in any university environment is likely to teach any child willing to learn much more than instruction from professors or other adults. What I've learned from playing and studying hockey is about so much more than the game. Part of being an expert is understanding what it takes to become one, and that is a universally applicable skill.
The greatest communities are often those in which you don't need to be "the best" to join, and that responsibility often falls on the leaders of the community. When we step into any new situation or approach a new challenge, it's human nature to look at our "competition" and feel like we don't belong, and that we somehow aren't worthy of being a part of something because we're not "good" enough. These thoughts are a function of our brains trying to protect us from the shattering pain of rejection. Often, though, these thoughts can stop us from doing the things we need to do to grow. It's useful to remember that, if we feel this way, others do as well. If you have the chance to include someone, it sometimes helps to let them know they don't need to compete to be "the best" at whatever it is (i.e., sports, Book Club,) to belong - they can belong because they want to be there, and you want them there.
To put a fine point on it, there's certainly nothing wrong with being the best at something. These incredible people give us role models, inspiration and something to strive toward. What I'm saying is that it matters how we choose to get there. From a purely competitive standpoint, becoming the best is often an all-or-nothing proposition, and there will be times where we are forced to make choices that help ourselves at the expense of others. If we all strive to be experts, to help each other as we move forward, and use the quest for expertise as an opportunity to build important, lasting relationships, becoming the best can be a useful by-product of our journey, but something we don't need to feel fulfilled.