On Being Too Good

When Roger Bannister broke the 4:00 barrier, a wave of runners suddenly poured through the hole he had smashed.  Before Bannister, a sub four minute mile was unthinkable.  After Banister, well, who cares if you ran a 3:59?  So did 20 other guys, last week.

A similar phenomenon has been happening in the world of piano.  There is now a large group of people who can easily, and flawlessly, play what were once impossible arrangements.  You might think this is great for the field, but, predictably, it leaves people jaded.  As music critic Anthoni Tommasini notes, “With pianists getting better and better, so many are so good that, paradoxically, I am less impressed by virtuosity.”

This is the problem with attempting to compete in any rigidly defined field.  At a certain point, it doesn’t really matter how good you are at hitting someone else’s notes in succession if a lot of other people can do that too.  If that’s all you can do, even if you’re the best in the world at it, eventually the field will catch up.  At that point, you’re replaceable.  All that skill you’ve honed over the years is suddenly far less valuable.  (Remember, #1 gets disproportionately more of the pie than #2.)

It’s far more valuable to become as good as necessary.  Good enough to do the stuff you want to do.  Then you can focus your effort on learning to be creative.  Because nobody can catch up to you if you’re always making something new.

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