A few weeks ago I had a conversation with my friend, Devon. An accomplished designer and illustrator who loves working out, she’s thinking of bringing her two passions together by creating a line of fitness shirts with fun sayings, which she would hand-letter herself. I loved the concept and mentioned a shirt that I’d seen a while back, and the cute saying that stuck in my head. Almost immediately, she started questioning her idea. “That’s the problem!” she said. “It’s already been done.”
Back in my twenties, my friend Maddy and I decided to create a graphic novel together. I wasn’t a comic book person, but I could write and tell stories. She didn’t write, but she loved comics and was a great artist. It was the perfect project for us. We came up with a protagonist, a dashing, time-traveling anti-hero named Grey. We roughed out our supporting characters and the universe they inhabited. Then, in an effort to understand the comic book genre better, I did something that destroyed me. I read the graphic novel series, Sandman. It was such an intelligent, dazzling and magnificent piece of literary work that I never thought of my own lowly graphic novel project again.
What is with this drive to be the first and best at everything we do? I used to think it was the root of all ambition and achievement. Now, I finally recognize it for what it really is: a dark hole where dreams go to die. Here’s how to stay out of it.
Forget being first.
There are too many of us human beings and we’ve been on this planet too long for any of us to be wholly, truly original. In fact, there are 2,404 people around the world right now with the same exact great big idea as yours. (Trust me. I took a survey.) The good news is, novelty is not a prerequisite for success. Ever heard of the MPMan F10? It was the world’s first MP3 player. Launched by Saehan Information Systems in 1998, it beat Apple’s iPod to market by three full years. And we all know how that turned out.
Let the excellence of others inspire, not intimidate you.
Those 2,404 people I mentioned before? Several of them have already taken your idea and run with it. And a small handful of them are fucking killing it. Good for them. You can look up to them, love them, learn from them all you want. But don’t let their mere existence convince you that there’s no space or place for you. Because only one person can approach this idea from exactly your perspective, and handle it precisely the way you would. And that could be great in a whole new way.
Stop trying to achieve greatness.
By now, you’re probably feeling pretty good about yourself. Well, here’s a gut punch for ya. When you finally do decide to dust that dream off and devote some piece of yourself to it, the Earth may not exactly shift on its axis. You could pour your heart, soul and sweat into it and still never be seen as the best. Or even the second best. Or even in the race at all. In fact, the vast majority of the world won’t even notice what you’re doing. Sure, your friends and family will pay attention for a bit, until they get bored and turn their focus back to their own lives. But you won’t get to quit your day job. You won’t win the field’s most coveted award. You won’t be discovered by Oprah through a quirky twist of fate.
The sad (yet liberating) truth is that most of us are not exceptional. We may be passionate about our ideas and enthusiastic in the execution, but in terms of actual ability, most of us are, by definition, merely average. Just okay. Only human. And afflicted with all the hopes and dreams that accompany that condition. You could choose to ignore those hopes and dreams. After all, there are plenty of easier ways to fill your days. Or, you can do something about them. Even if no one cares and greatness is not guaranteed. Either way, our little lives are slipping away. And in the end, you’re the only one who gets to decide how well yours was lived.