About half-way through Elizabeth Bear’s novel Scardown, two characters talk about how merely “good” is not enough any more:
“You ever think about how much better you have to be at something now than you did two hundred years ago?”
“What do you mean?” Koske turned around and leaned his butt against the wall. The mocha was okay as long as he let himself drink it on automatic, without trying to taste it.
“Say in nineteen hundred, or whatever, before there was television and radio.”
“There was radio in nineteen hundred,” Koske corrected, but he wasn’t sure after he’d said it.
“Whatever. The point is, you’re a singer in the year whatever, and you’re a pretty good singer, and you make a pretty good living at local bard or singing on street corners or at fairs or whatever. And suddenly somebody invents the radio, and you don’t have to be the best singer in the town anymore. Now you have to be the best singer in the country. And then you have television, and you have to be the best singer in the world. And you have to be pretty, too, and look good on camera.”
Koske realized he’d finished his mocha and folded the cup into the recycler. “Okay.”
“So a lot of people are frustrated, and go to work making widgets or whatever, because everybody in the world has access to the, like, ten best singers anywhere.”
There’s a whole bunch of context around this exchange–interpersonal and international rivalries abound. The main speaker (Lt. Chris Ramirez) is a covert agent of the Chinese government trying to subvert Trevor Koske to his cause. Koske has been edged out of the first pilot slot on the starship Montreal by nano-enhanced Jenny Casey, and he is somewhat bitter about this. Ramirez is using the above line of reasoning to lead in to the idea that the Chinese socio-political system has its advantages over the free-for-all corporatized Western democracy they live in.
[Ramirez] “…What I’m saying is in the old system, people who had a gift were nurtured. Even if they weren’t the best in the world. And PanChina has protocols that take the place of that sort of nurturing–”
“–creche environments for kids, parental visits on weekends.”
“There’s an old political philosophy…do you know any history, Trev?”
Trvor snorted and kicked his heel against the wall. “Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs.”
“Have you ever heard the expression from each according to his ability, to each according to his need?”
“Can’t say I have. Why?”
Ramirez shrugged and moved to the dispenser to refresh his drink. “It’s the boiled-down version of a discredited political philosophy. One that was the root of the PanChinese system, several revolutions ago. They also believe in individual service to the state, and state service to the individual. It doesn’t seem like a bad ideology to me. I think more people can excel, given the kind of support you see on a village level rather than worldwide competition. And I think people should be given a chance to just be good at something, and live their lives. Instead we’ve got a world full of unhappy people in dead-end jobs medicating themselves to stay sane.”
Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to be the best to be recognized?
Do you ever feel like that? I know I do. On the net, you’re constantly exposed to the best that is available in the digital medium. The best in blogs, the best in podcasts, the best in software, coding, and digital design. And if you live your life in the net, as more and more people do, then you are not only aware of these ultimates, but you and your efforts stand side-by-side with them.
(It’s not just software, either. If you’re a writer, you’re going to be a long time hunting for a field that isn’t already covered by a dozen high-profile bloggers sucking up most of the traffic for it. Anyone whose craft involves shifting bits is sooner or later going to come up against the phenomenon of the long tail, the modern equivalent of the 80/20 rule: 20% of sites get 80% or the attention–or customers, or recognition, or whatever.)
The constant visibility and proximity of excellence is both enormously valuable, and tremendously intimidating. Because world-class excellence is what I have to measure myself against. Sometimes this is a great spur onwards, but often it just feels like great pressure. To perform at that level, and to be recognized as one of the elite (you know who you are), takes a lot of effort. And the fact that I haven’t yet reached those heights feels like failure.
But not only that: because web development is such a fast-moving field, the very act of keeping up with all the latest developments can seem like a full time job, and a black hole down which all my spare time is doomed to disappear.
So here’s another quote to counterbalance the first one. It’s from Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel Paladin Of Souls:
“There is this, about being the sparring partner of the best swordsman in Caribastos. I always lost. But if I ever meet the third best swordsman in Caribastos, he’s going to be in very deep trouble.”
This isn’t an argument in favour of mediocrity, or for not striving to be the best. Rather, it’s a caution to occasionally stop looking forward all the time, and to take a step back and look at what you have achieved already. Second best is usually still damn good.
Lately I’ve been finding myself in the blinkered, forward-looking mindset. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by technologies I feel I ought to be learning, by projects I should be working on, by articles I should be writing, by films I should be seeing, and on and on. I’ve been overloading myself with goals and targets. I’ve been living for the future: planning ahead for what I’ll do after this meeting, what I’ll do when I get home from work, when the kids are in bed, when I’ve got this piece of software up and running, when I’ve finished this project….
It’s time for me to spend some more time in the now, enjoying things that don’t have purpose other than that they’re fun. I need to spend less time in Bloglines, and more time playing games. Less time on my PC, and more time in bed, getting lots of sleep. I’ve got some holiday coming up in a couple of weeks, and I’m going to try and do as little as possible in my time off. Yeah.