The power went out just now as I was publishing a new blog post. Perfect timing, right? I flopped down on the couch to decide what to do with my electricity-less, internet-less time. And I began thinking about the book I’m in the process of writing now. It’s about how to learn anything. Specifically though, I thought back to when I was in high school and my friend Angie and I plotted our ultimate learning project: our rise to Renaissance Man stardom. We wanted to be like Leonardo da Vinci and the other historical “masters of all trades”.
We loosely acted on our plans. We made a list of all things that a true Renaissance Man should know: classic music, biology, art history, world history, math, politics, among others. A true Renaissance Man should be one of the most capable people in the world in all these subjects, we agreed. He (or she) had to be the best. So naturally, we made being the best our goal.
We never became Renaissance Men. In fact, we failed quite miserably.
Thinking back now, that goal was exactly why we failed. It wasn’t that math was too hard to learn on our own or that we didn’t have the time to memorize every lyric the Beatles ever wrote or that art history was just too boring. We failed because we set out to be the best.
When you focus on being the best, you’re serving your ego. You’re feeding the greedy little boogie man inside you who’s never given a word of encouragement to your endeavors. Idolizing being the best is giving in to your insecurities, your desire to compare yourself to others, and then judging yourself harshly when you don’t stand up at all. The mindset is all wrong, and it causes you to lose sight of what you truly have control over. Striving to be the best will always fail.
Instead, we have to strive to be better. When you try to be better, you’re comparing your present self with your past self – which is much more fair than comparing yourself (with your unique set of challenges and gifts) to another (with his or her own unique set of challenges and gifts). And instead of focusing on beating other people and showing off, you’re focusing solely on yourself. The learning process becomes a journey instead of a race. You’re more thoughtful and you’re able to clearly see your sphere of control.
High school’s long over, and yet to be honest, this desire to be a Renaissance Man has come up in me several times since then. But I’m deciding that instead of setting out to be a modern day Renaissance Man, or even just “the best” at some specific skill, I’m going to consistently strive to be better.
Because after much introspecting, it’s clear: It’s best to strive to be better.