At the school where I teach I have a colleague who likes to tell us that we are the best at what we do. It gets on my nerves. I think we’re pretty good. Maybe we are the best. Yet I can’t help feeling that there is something unseemly about saying such a thing out loud. It’s a little like a pretty woman or a handsome man telling you that they are good looking. If it’s really true, it should be obvious. Besides, what if the people who hear you say such a thing aren’t so bad looking themselves?
A few years ago we invited someone from another school with a mission similar to ours to give a series of lectures. This colleague of mine was running through his usual litany, saying that we were the premier school in this speaker’s particular discipline. “You know, we don’t do so badly ourselves” the speaker finally replied, in that patient but slightly irritated way people have when they are reminding you of the obvious.
I realize that I am saying here is out of step with the culture. We live the age of vision and confidence. We have been told since childhood that we are unique and above average. We are all destined for greatness. I often see this in churches and Christian organizations. I have yet to find one that says that it’s just run of the mill.
I can see that the same is often true of me. When I was a pastor, I could never understand why some people who visited our little church would choose to attend anywhere else. They certainly wouldn’t find better preaching there. I am always astonished when a publisher rejects my idea. I feel hurt when a student drops my class. I usually figure that the problem is with them. They just don’t recognize greatness when they see it.
There is an ancient word for this kind thinking and it’s not confidence. It is what the ancients called hubris or pride. Instead of being the secret to success, the ancients considered hubris to be the fountainhead of all other sins. Of course, to modern ears this kind of talk sounds like a return to worm theology. We don’t want to view ourselves with contempt. We don’t think it’s healthy. Spend too much time talking like that and in twenty years you’ll find yourself in therapy working on your adequacy issues. But I suspect that a little self-contempt might actually be good for us. If not contempt, then at least we might leave room for just a smidgen of self-doubt.
Years ago Avis, the car rental company, launched an advertising campaign built around the idea that they weren’t the best in the business. Their slogan was, “We’re number two; we try harder.” I don’t know how it made their employees feel but as far as marketing went, it was a stroke of genius. There was also a measure of wisdom in their slogan. The trouble with being the best is that it removes any room for improvement. What is more, being the best at something is usually a moving target. Ask any record holding athlete who has seen their accomplishment surpassed by some up and comer. In a way, when you’re the best, you’re never really the best. Somebody is always gunning for you. Sooner or later they will overtake you.
Oh sure, being the best has some value when it comes to ego. But if we are being brutally honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that it’s probably not a realistic assessment for most of us. Being the best is certainly not a good position to be in, if you are aiming for significant improvement. If you really are the best, well then, I suppose the most you can hope for is to maintain the status quo. Either way, we should probably opt for a new goal. Here’s one to consider: strive for mediocrity. It always leaves room for improvement.