Is it better (more important?) to be really good at something or to feel like you are really good at something? To be very good at something or is it important to be the best around? A decent sized fish in a big ocean or the biggest fish in a small pond?
Malcolm Gladwell gave an interesting talk at the Google Zeitgeist conference (video link below) last year on this topic. He was presenting some of the ideas from his latest book, David and Goliath, which has drawn relatively sharp criticism from Esquire and the New Republic, the latter of which called him “American’s best paid fairy tale writer”, so caveat emptor.
Caveats aside, he talks about a few different things, but one element is issues in what causes college students to switch out of STEM majors, which seems to be relative performance to local peers. For example, even if you are one of the top 10 performing students (say as measured by an exam) in the world, but you are at a school with the 9 people in the world who rank above you, then there is a good chance you will give up, despite being better at your chosen discipline than everyone else in the world except the other people in your local group. An example of why this is important (if you think money is important) is that being in a STEM major seems to be one of the major determinants of future income, as highlighted by the latest PayScale report, and although there is some dependence on where you went to school, the choice of major seems to be a much more important factor. So one thought is that if you are studying something really difficult, and you seem to be the worst at it around, it may be in your long term best interest to stick it out, even if immediately you feel horrible. As an aside, I have heard this joke: “What’s the graduate of Harvard Medical School with the worst grades called? Doctor.”
However, Gladwell goes into some research on publication success of economists, and how that the same effect seems to be at work here as well. I guess I have seen very talented people at elite universities sort of “intimidated” out of academia because of their peers, despite being incredibly talented on their own, so maybe there is something to it. However, there is also the important aspect that you need to be challenged by talented people and cooperate with talented people to drive success. In some of his (Gladwell’s) other work he has talked about pockets of high achievers appearing in different areas, supporting the idea of the advantage of a critical mass of people all challenging and driving each other toward excellence, so there is a flipside and an advantage to finding a very good group to work with and not looking for a small pond to be the big fish. I have certainly found that I am most productive when I’m working with the smartest people I can find.
I have heard boxing coaches (maybe this was just in a movie about boxing though, I can’t remember, so take this anecdote with that in mind) talking about how to support the career of a new boxer. You have to have the new boxer move up through bouts progressively. If they go up against the champ right away, they get intimidated and basically ruined. However, they also need to be challenged by progressively more difficulty opponents so they improve their abilities as they go along. Incidentally, that’s how video games work to be wildly addictive. Relatedly, certainly people have written about why winning a bronze medal can be psychologically more satisfying than winning a silver medal.
I think it is important to recognize the importance or being an expert or leader at something in your life for your happiness. Robert Sapolsky (one of my heroes) has talked about this before with regards to stress reduction. There seems to be an emotional need to feel like you have prestige and competence in one area, and I think that’s a good thing (as long as that thing is a pro-social area). If everyone can have different aspects of life in which they have a lot of prestige, then everyone can be happy at having their own little bay where they can retreat to and be the big fish, but also swim in the larger ocean most of the time to flex their fins. To paraphrase the Lego Movie, “Everyone is the Special”.
Anyway, I certainly feel (or at least think I feel) like it’s more important to be really good at something for the sake of working hard and trying to be good at something, independent of what anyone else is doing. There is a certain reward to progressive improvement at a task all on its own.
Good luck out there!