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Don’t Be the Best. Be the Only.

I’ve been dipping in and out of Kevin Kelly’s Excellent Advice for Living: Wisdom I Wish I’d Known Earlier for the last few months and keep coming back to one of his tidbits of advice:

Don’t be the best. Be the only.

In a short clip from a longer interview, Kelly explains what he means by this:

You want to be doing something where it’s hard to explain to your mother what it is that you do. So it’s like, “What is it? Well, it’s not quite radio. I don’t know. It’s like talking.” And so that’s where you want to be. You want to be the only. You want to — and that’s a very high bar because it requires a tremendous amount of self-knowledge and awareness to get to that point, to really understand what it is that you do better than anybody else in the world. And for most of us, it takes all our lives to figure that out.

And we also, by the way, need family, friends, colleagues, customers, clients, everyone around us to help us understand what it is that we do better than anybody else because we can’t really get there by yourself. You can’t do thinkism, you can’t figure your way there, you have to try and live it out. And that’s why most people’s remarkable lives are full of detours and dead ends and right turns because it’s a very high bar. But if you can get there — you don’t need a resume, there’s no competition. And it’s easy for you because you’re doing it. You’re not looking over your shoulder, you’re just right there. So don’t aim to be the best. Be the only.

Although it works in many situations, my interpretation of this aphorism is from the point of view of a creative person. There’s a point in your work/career/journey when you reach an escape velocity of sorts from your peers and the world around you. What you offer to others is just different enough that you become your own category of one: nothing but you will do. Not better, different. I don’t know if I’m there yet in my creative trajectory, but it’s been a worthy goal to pursue — it takes you inside yourself (in a healthy way) and away from “comparison is the thief of joy” territory.

Kelly states in the foreword of his book that much of his advice was gleaned from elsewhere so I decided to track down where this one might have come from. Legendary concert promoter Bill Graham used a similar phrase in a banner describing the Grateful Dead at a 1991 concert for the band:

They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.

Grateful Dead: not the best, but the only. That sounds about right.

Discussion  21 comments

Jeffrey Barrett

I think you’re the only one who does what you do. I’ve been a loyal reader (and intermittent member) since 2003, and your the only blog I’m still reading.

Jeffrey Barrett

*you’re

D’oh!

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Stephen Voss

Love this. The corollary of this (which I joke about with my photographer friends) is that the longer I hone in on this thing that I do pretty well (in my case - make portraits of famous people in very short amounts of time), the less qualified I become for basically anything else :)

Brady J. Frey

I'm less excited by this idea. It has a solid message. While there's an exclusivity to this belief that's inspiring, it can also be isolating for younger people who are searching for a place and for what life brings us in adulthood. Being the best, being the only, can denigrate work for others just as lofty.

I've been an executive for over a decade and an art and technology director before that. With my weird educational choices and career direction, it's hard to define to my family what exactly I do. But that niche I carved out isn't what matters or what gives me purpose. It's not *just* the refinement of skill and craft. Proving a skill in one area got me here. But I don't organize my life around a bucket of rarity in vocation.

When I mentor younger people, I want them to dig for purpose and passion, and I want them to refine that purpose for life, for sure. But I don't want them to sit under a platitude about doing what they love or what they are best at. I don't want them to lean on Kant that great skill must be fulfilled for some purpose. Desires to be best or the only don't serve that purpose.

I work with a guy who has spent his entire life doing crop irrigation. He will talk to you for hours about his craft, how it established him, how he raised his family, how he looks forward to the seasonal change. That man isn't the best or the only, but he learned to *do* what he loves. And he found a sense of meaning not from some ultimate direction, but from what he felt he had to do. What inspires me is not to achieve an exclusive sense of purpose or a novel position in life, but finding joy and purpose in what I do. Whatever the hell that may be.

Dirk Bergstrom

My first response was "screw this guy". I mean, I understand broadly where he's coming from, but the message falls into "the perfect is the enemy of the good" . There's 8 billion people on the planet, and the likelihood that anyone is going to be the only anything is minuscule. Defining success as achieving something almost unattainable for a mere mortal does everyone a disservice.

Even scaling it back to something like "Be the only person you know who does what you do" is putting the bar far too high. I think I'm very good at my job and I'm proud of what I've done, but I'm not even "the only one" in my 200-person division of my company.

Similarly, limiting it to work in creative endeavors is also damning. I started seriously pursuing at photography seven years ago, at age 50. I'm finally getting decent at it, but I have a job, a wife, and other time-consuming hobbies. I'm never going to be any kind of "only" in photography (my next door neighbor blows my doors off just using his phone, the bastard). I already have to contend with the futility of creating images in a world of Gen-AI, and now I gotta be a one-among-billions superlative to have any meaning?

So yeah, screw that guy. I'm sure I'm making a straw-man out of his actual point (not having RTFA), but I still think even saying what's in the pull-quote above earns him my scorn. That kind of exceptionalism worship trivializes the work and life of everyone who's just trying to get by and maybe improve themselves in the process.

Jason KottkeMOD

Hi. Can you find a way to participate here that doesn't involve saying things like "screw this guy"? The rest of your note is thoughtful and thought-provoking — it doesn't need the (admittedly gentle and tongue-in-cheek) personal attack. Thanks.

Dirk Bergstrom

Fair enough. I was feeling pretty cranky about it, but I can certainly moderate my tone in the future. Sorry for lowering the tone in your living room.

Or, and hear me out, I could be "the only" guy making personal attacks in the kottke.org comment section...

Jason KottkeMOD

*tents fingers* I will consider your proposal.

Jo Ma

Excellent! exchange gentlemen

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Adam Rice

This is absolutely what I’m aiming for. I certainly never want to prepare a resume again. Thanks.

Katrin

Echoing others' thoughts - I did a presentation to middle schoolers about my (winding, singular) career path and current work last year. One of the teachers pointed out to me afterwards how much privilege had been at play to make all of this possible. Yes, point taken. Being the only one is not achievable for everyone.

David

It takes a lot of hard work to be "the best", but it takes an insane amount of bravery to be "the only", because, at a certain point, you're Cortez burning the ships behind you. This is part of the reason that I'm rooting for and supporting Jason.

Jason KottkeMOD

Being the only doesn't have to be about achievement or global in scale. We all know people who are irreplaceable in our communities because of the lives that only they have lived, the experience only they bring, the example they set just by being comfortable with themselves and others. "Living it out" and reaching that escape velocity is something many people can do in all sorts of ways and areas of life, regardless of power. privilege, or position.

Brady J. Frey

That's fair, although I think it may speak to some of the confusion about what 'being the only' really means. I don't want him to give me a narrow definition (a one-size-fits-all exercise without much value), but I'd like to know what things cluster around this idea for him. What is only to him? How can you be this thing? How can you know it? Can others, too, be only?

It could be their place in the community you note, and their unique experience, but that just described every kid in my daughter's 5th grade class. It can't just be carving a new path–that feels right, but somewhat narrow to his definition. The people in my life are irreplaceable, but factors of their work could be replaced. I want me an ontological and epistemological breakdown. And then I want to know why I should value this exclusivity (aesthetics) as purpose. On the surface, it's a cool idea, but now I'm really gonna have to read this book to see if it's the low-calorie beer of modern philosophy or something profound. So thank you:).

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David

And, more broadly, the point Kevin Kelly is making is that, all things being equal, it's often better to be differentiated/unique than good at something where you must compete with a mass of people. I'll never be "the only" one of anything, but hopefully I can carve out a niche that makes it easier to compete.

Karen Euler

Differentiate or Die, the name of a classic marketing book

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Colter Mccorkindale

I first took this to mean something that I intuitively understood as a teenager: I'll never be the best guitar player, but I can definitely be the best guitar player who is also a writer, actor, film buff and nonfiction reader. Combine your interests in a unique way.

Similarly a friend once said he preferred Jimmy Page to Jeff Beck because Jimmy was the total package: player, composer, producer, etc. He's the only guy who does all those things that particular way. But Beck is still the pinnacle of his own style. He may not be a producer or composer, but as deliverer of melodies on a guitar, he is the only.

Bill Amstutz

I love the Bill Graham quote about the Dead and couldn't agree more. They were the only ones traveling incessantly playing improvisational dance music that included the audience in the performance. Now, of course, there are dozens of others trying to do the same thing.

Stephen Knezovich

I enjoy Kevin's work (and loved this book), but as this thread illustrates, as a maxim, "Don't be the best, be the only" is a bit divisive.

For some, it's inspiring. For others, deflating.

A better mantra (which I'm stealing from the writer Jay Acuzno) is probably:

Don't be the best. Be their favorite.

This, at least, values being an empathetic, kind, and generous human above raw skill and talent.

Phil Gyford

This sounds related to the Helsinki Bus Station Theory, which I assume you're aware of (because I assume you're aware of everything!) but I don't think you've mentioned on the site.

I do like that idea, and Kevin's, although it feels that in both cases being "the only", or "staying on the bus", is automatically a good thing, or a way to achieve success (however you define that for yourself). But I can imagine people could work their whole lives becoming more distinctive at their particular niche but not necessarily end up doing something useful, beautiful, interesting, or even distinctive.

Is there not a danger this is one of those lessons from successful people that describes what worked for them? Survivorship bias? (I'd love to be argued out of this pessimistic view.)

Samantha Bloom

To me this is a such an outgrowth of a capitalist mindset. (I say this as a US-ian.) I see the meaning behind it, but I also do read a darker message. I don't want a society of people striving to be the Only. I want people striving to move forward, and then leaning back to pull up the next generation onto their shoulders. A society of Onlys will fail, because everyone will be trying to out-niche each other instead of working together. I don't want to be the Only, I want to be the Next.

That said: The one-offs who strive to be the Only are certainly an inspiration :)

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