I’ve often thought that if you are truly in love with doing one particular thing in life, you should seek to be the best at it, because you have your entire life to be simply average at everything else.
Grooming yourself to be the best at what you do has positive ramifications for your life, both practical and psychological. Psychologically, being “the best” does wonders for your self-esteem. Practically, being “the best” ensures your value to a company or organization, for instance.
However—and this something I recognize even at my tender age of 22—it is a fool’s notion to assume that making yourself irreplaceable depends solely upon being the best at whatever it is you do.
I can say that because I’ve failed. Despite a 3.9 GPA, a laundry list of extracurricular activities, publications and community service work, I received neither the Rhodes Scholarship nor the Fulbright Grant for which I applied. Both awards are indeed hyper-competitive endeavors of the kind that, one might say, invite failure. And failing unto itself is nothing novel, or unique to only my situation.
But being the best at what you do also means being the one person most apt to fail at what you do. Incessantly seeking excellence and communing with failure are bound inextricably. What I’m suggesting, is that your “irreplaceability” depends on a bit more than just being the best. To be precise, I believe being irreplaceable comprises three crucial benchmarks.
1. Learn to revel in your rejection
Remember what Dr. Seuss said? In Oh, the Places You’ll Go, Seuss writes:
Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.
I’m sorry to say so, but sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.
To relish rejection is to avoid paralysis. No matter how many controls with which we voluntarily beset our lives, we cannot social engineer our way to success every time. Thinking you can breeds arrogance, not confidence. Be confident in your abilities, and believe in yourself. But immunizing yourself against failure will invite nostalgia for so-called better days when you were successful all the time. This is what, inevitably, will paralyze you, and relegate you to Seuss’s Waiting Place, “for people just waiting . . . for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come . . . or a Better Break.” Fuck that. When you do fail, embrace it as a test of your mettle, and search for the hidden lesson.
2. Know the difference between critical feedback and empty accolade-giving
Accolades are for people who need constant praise to reaffirm they’re doing something right with their lives. (I understand that the definition I just gave is a biased one that reflects my personal prejudices.) If you’re going about life soliciting advice from those who consistently tell you that everything you do is great, you’ve entered the Waiting Place. Constant improvement should be the mantra. And I’m not talking about working yourself to death and avoiding the pleasures and wonders that life has to offer. But to get better—indeed, to be the very best at what you do—you must recognize those who have come before you, respect that they know more than you, and actively seek critical advice from them.
This is the “Red Ink Rule.” Turn in a paper, even an A-level paper, and get it back with no red ink, and you’ve learned nothing. But if your A-level paper comes back to you littered with red ink—and an A—then you’re improving and receiving intellectually rigorous feedback. Look for those people in your life. Ask them to challenge you.
3. Internalize your goals, and see them as ends unto themselves
This final point dovetails off the previous one, but what provides structure to the unpredictable malleability of life is your ability to internalize personal goals rather than seek external accolades. Reflect upon your decisions and your motivations. Figure out, as Whoopie Goldberg says in Sister Act 2, what wakes you up in the morning. Then, view your goals and potential accomplishments as ends unto themselves, and not as jumping-off points to other things. This is not to say that those accomplishments won’t lead to bigger opportunities. But if the sole purpose behind what you do daily is to achieve something bigger, you are not the best at what you do. We transition into greatness—we don’t catch it in a Wile E. Coyote-style surprise attack.
Above all, remember what George Bernard Shaw says in his 1893 play Mrs. Warren’s Profession (incidentally, Mrs. Warren’s profession is that of brothel owner, but for our purposes here, it’s an inconsequential matter of fact):
People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.
Circumstances, gentlemen. Make them, and become irreplaceable.