I always want to be the best.
I also want to have a happy and balanced life.
I’m not sure I can have both.
In fact I know I can’t have both.
Being the best means an inherently unbalanced life.
I was reminded of this yesterday, when I caught one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes. Jack Klugman plays Jesse Cardiff, a man who lives for pool, and laments that he is not considered as good as the late “Fats Brown.” This being the Twilight Zone, in walks Brown, who offers to play one game if Jesse will bet his life on the outcome.
What I love about the episode is the way it highlights what it takes to become the champion. At one point Jesse says “I am the best. Do you know how much of my life I’ve spent playing pool? Do you know how many nights I slept on this table? I made a deal with the owner so I could practice after the place closed. I haven’t been to the movies in years. I haven’t dated a girl, or read a book because it would take time away from the game.”
Later in the show, Fats offers a different view of being a champion. ”It pains me to see you spend your whole life in this dark, dingy room. I may not look it, but I’ve made love, swam in the ocean, and had a life where no one had heard of a pool hall. And I’m still the best.”
As a teen, I resonated with the drive to be the best. I saw being the best as an escape, a way to write my own ticket. And I did – to Cornell, to MIT, to Stanford, and then to jobs at the hot biotech companies of the day. What I noticed yesterday was another comparison -Jesse was driven by the need to “show everybody that he could be the best at something.” All those people who made him feel badly that he wasn’t good at this or wasn’t good at that. Jesse is adamant that now he is the best at something. I recognized the insecure overachiever. As talented as I was, I never felt like it was good enough. It’s not a happy place to be. Some of that comes with youth; well at least that has faded to some degree for me.
The price for Jesse was high – yes, he gets the fame while alive. But in the Twilight Zone world, he takes the place of Fats, cursed to travel to cheap pool joints defending his title.
In the real world, the price of being the best is just as high. For example, Michael Phelps is the best swimmer in history, and according to many the greatest Olympic athelete of all time. And what did it take for him to win 8 gold medals in Beijing? He went “five years without taking a day off” he told Baltimore Magazine. “That included birthdays, Christmases, Sundays.” And he needed to eat 12,000 calaries a day to fuel his workouts.
Phelps has incredible gifts – a freakish body with long arms, double jointed knees and feet that straighten 15 degrees more than normal. And he has d what his coach calls an obsessive compulsive streak that kept him in the pool at least 5 hours a day, every day.
That level of work is what it takes to be the best. Phelps was so good in Beijing that he won a gold medal with broken goggles.
For the London Games, Phelps cut down on his training significantly. Prior to the games, his coach Bob Bowman explained. “If we look at his preparation the past three or four years in terms of, did he do everything he possibly could do to be a better swimmer? The answer’s no, [but] he’s certainly done enough work to be competitive. Phelps “only” won 4 Gold and 2 Silver medals. The difference came down to minutia – a little worse on the turns, a little less kick at the finish. Had he worked those extra days, he may have won an extra gold medal. Does anyone really care?
Phelps doesn’t seem to care. He went into London with the attitude that he would enjoy this Olympics, something he was unable to do because of the enormity of trying for 8 Golds. This time he achieved the elusive balance – superior performance amid a sea of calm.
There is a myth that if you don’t work all the time, you get mediocrity. It IS a myth.
Busting Your Corporate Idol will return Monday January 7th