How to become the best in the world at what you do

If you are reading this, there is a 38% chance that you are an athlete and a 17.5% chance that you are a powerlifter. Ok, I just invented those figures: numbers are important. If they are not available, invent them shamelessly and proudly admit your invention.

I’m a powerlifter but also a scientist, writer, and many other things – that is what identities are made of: things you do that produce an emotional reaction that defines you as a person. Usually, if that is your personality type, you will choose one activity in which you are particularly good because of a combination of factors and invest in that. For example: if I wanted to be the best basketball player, accountant, translator or social worker in the world, it would be a problem. All the indicators point to failure, which is bellow mediocrity. Let’s see the factors involving that:

  1. Although I am fast, agile and have a high power output, I’m 5ft tall, I have some unusual motor coordination problems for jumping and space processing. Yes, a recipe for disaster
  2. Even my own stupid domestic accounting makes me crazy. I think it is boring, no amount of rational self-talk can convince me it is not a total waste of productive time and it produces a general state of anxiety that can only be quenched by benzodiazepines
  3. I hate translating. I love languages and literature. I read translations that made me want to write hate mails to the translator. And I spend as much time or more translating a text (even my own, in languages I am totally fluent in!) than producing it from scratch, which, again, gives me that annoying sense of wasted time
  4. I have a profound admiration for social workers. I lack the empathy needed for basic human interaction. I have a strong moral response to injustice and suffering after a long rational analysis of the situation and several filters. People crying in front of me make me want to transport myself to another planet. With no ability to read people, I’m gullible and easy to manipulate. I would be the worst social worker in the world.

The first thing you need to come to terms with are your weaknesses, deficiencies and inadequacies. Everyone is born with innate strengths and weaknesses. Some people are born with extreme innate abilities or disabilities.

That’s the second part, which is recognizing the innate abilities strengths. One of them are the anthropometric dimensions. I am an elite bencher. During my childhood, I was humiliated by the little girls that could swing their bodies standing on their hands. My hands didn’t reach much bellow my waist. Decades later, this deficiency made me a superb bencher. I have nothing to do with this: I was born with these short, t-rex arms.

The third part is the psychological component. The fact that you want to be the best shows a desire. But are you really that aggressive? Do you really have that extreme competitive drive inside of you? Are you able to disregard things that a rational mind would consider worth stopping at? And just move on, when the risks are really high? Are you an extreme risk taker? If not, forget it.

Then you need to understand why you want to be the best in the world. That is the textbook extrinsic motivation: you are not doing it for any intrinsic reason, but to be better than everyone else – something external to you. Are you ok with this? Are you aware that some people become the best in the world without the extrinsic motivation of being the best in the world, but end up there because they keep outdoing themselves? Do you realize one is completely different than the other? And that wanting to be the best in the world implies a high chance of frustration and long term depression? Think about it.

Now we come to the most significant part of this article: there is no “best in the world” in anything except in extremely circumscribed activities. Two days ago a friend asked me to give him a list of the 10 best male and female powerlifters. I told him this was just not possible: too many divisions, weight classes, etc.

The featured picture is of Canadian-Israeli powerlifter Amit Sapir. As far as I know, he is the only lifter who broke all time records in three different weight classes in one year. Does this make him the best in the world? No, but c’mon, it’s one of the most amazing things I ever saw in this sport. If you ask any powerlifter who was the best powerlifter EVER, they will tell you it was Ed Coan, who is no longer competing but is very active in the sport. Eric Lilliebridge broke an all time record few months after an important muscle tear that made many people (me included) think it would take some time for him to resume that level of performance. Does that make him the best in the world? I don’t know, but admit it: it’s pretty amazing. April Shumaker broke 4 consecutive all time records on the bench press in one competition, almost two decades after she started lifting. Is she the best in the world? I don’t know, but again: have you even thought this was possible?

So… maybe there is a problem with this sort of catchy title. And maybe you can use it to your advantage and consider your goals in a more harmonious and rational way.



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