You don’t have to be the best

When I was younger, I studied ballet. By the time high school rolled around, I was spending 16 hours a week at the ballet studio, and that number would easily double when we were getting ready for performances. I wanted to be a prima ballerina and I poured most of my free time into preparing for that goal.

Then one day, I looked in the studio mirror and realized I wasn’t the best dancer in my company. I was technically proficient and extremely graceful, but there were at least two other girls who made me look like I had never taken a dance class in my life. These girls were exquisite, and a part of me knew that I would never be the prima ballerina as long as they were dancing.

So, I quit.

After 13 years of eating, studying, training, and living the life of a ballerina, I walked away from all of it without any notice.

I rarely talk about my time studying ballet because I am embarrassed by how it all ended. I can’t believe that I was so arrogant as to believe that if I wasn’t the best, I wanted nothing to do with it.

What surprises me, though, is how often I turn to this flawed logic. Maybe you do the same thing? I didn’t take up running until my mid-30s because I knew I was a slow runner. It never crossed my mind that I might run for some reason other than winning a race. I never thought about the benefits of the exercise, how good I would feel while running, and that I might love running just for the sake of running. I missed out on decades of running because I wasn’t going to be the best runner. Ugh.

I run into this type of all-or-nothing absolutist thinking a great deal when talking to people about uncluttering. They see it as a dichotomy where a person will either be organized or disorganized. They don’t try to get even a little clutter out of their lives because they can’t get all clutter removed. They know that the prima Unclutterers will always be “better,” so they don’t try at all.

The humbling truth of the matter is that there will always be someone who is better at doing something than you are. Thankfully, uncluttering isn’t a competition and it doesn’t require you to be the best. It doesn’t matter if someone does it better than you do. You don’t get rid of clutter for someone else, you get rid of it for you. Comparing yourself to another person is unnecessary; you only need to look at your life and your needs to decide what is best for you.

77 Comments for “You don’t have to be the best”

  1. posted by AM on

    @Karolina – I hate to say this, but some of what you said shows many shades of the “all or nothing” perfectionist approach that is precisely what Erin is talking about. Why did you completely “give up” piano to take ballroom dancing? Most of your skills could have been retained in 15-30 minutes a day if you gave up the idea of progress. Why is it/was it so critical emotionally that you retain the same level if it’s not your focus??

    It sounds like perfectionism talking. ;) I’m in total agreement with Erin. I’ve given up way too much stuff thanks to the perfectionist monster in my head. I’m back at playing music again at 35 – starting over on the fiddle. I have maybe 30 minutes a day, if I’m lucky. The truth is I may never have the time or talent to achieve what I’ve heard.

    And you know what – it’s just plain fun. It’s way more fun than I’ve every had than when I was a kid. I wish someone had pulled me aside as kid and told me to lighten up.

  2. posted by When I Grow Up - The Blog » Blog Archive » Tough (Question) Tuesday: What’s a goal you’ve walked away from that you want back? on

    [...] reading You Don’t Have to Be the Best on Unclutterer,  it got me thinking about all that creative joy that’s been crushed because [...]

  3. posted by Anita on

    Great post, Erin!

    Wanting to be the best (or at least really really good) at something you’re putting that much passion and effort into is normal and healthy. It’s part of what drives us to constantly improve. Realising you can’t be the best is heartbreaking, but continuing in spite of it is, I think, the test of your true passion for whatever you’re doing versus your pride.

    As an amateur photographer, whenever I have to take a break from photography, getting back to it makes me feel awful, because I see just how much of my ease in handling a camera and in seeing potential shots has gone out the window during the break. Looking at other photographers’ sites is also occasionally depressing, reminding me of how perfect I’m not, and what amazing skills I don’t have. But even then, I can’t imagine ever wanting to give up, because of the joy I get out of a good shot, out of learning new techniques, and out of just being out there with a camera. So I try to take all the despondency of not being the best and channel it into motivation to keep trying, keep learning, and maybe one day become just that good.

  4. posted by Anita on

    Wow! This post really struck a chord with me. The last sentence about not comparing yourself to others is a great reminder, I’m going to have to post that some place where I see that everyday.


  5. posted by jan shivley on

    THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! What nice thoughts, especially for those of us who are still taking uncluttering baby steps….but I am not going to quit!
    Your realistic encouragements are wonderful!

  6. posted by Jen on

    I agree with Jobinana that this is endemic to an individualistic society; it’s also partly about a fear of failure. If I fail at something without trying hard I can always reassure myself that greater effort would have brought success. If I try my hardest and still fail, that is much harder to take.

    Reminds of my favorite innaccurate quote (J.S. Bach) – “I had to work hard. Anyone who works as hard will get just as far.”

  7. posted by Yodder on

    I haven’t a competitive bone in my body. I walked away from the high school swim team when the coach insisted I compete in a meet. I knew I wouldn’t win, and knew that my ‘effort’ would disappoint all to whom winning is desirable. The only person I’ve ever competed against is myself.

    A few years later I was taking tap – for the challenge and the joy of it – when my leg broke in an accident. It took 2 years to heal. When I finally could I immediately went back to tap class. I knew I would be terrible and was overweight and out of shape, but I made an allowance and a promise to myself: No looking in the mirror or self-judgement or comparison for the first 6 months. That was so VERY freeing. Without that contract, I would have quit within a month. I kept dancing for over 10 years, only taking time off at times it stopped being joyful.

    I do recognize that clutter is never “joyful”. But I’m a strong believer in bettering myself within my personal context; if, yesterday I cleaned for 10 minutes, today I’ll attempt 12. Doable steps trump unrealistic goals every time.

  8. posted by Michelle on

    Ugh, I am completely stalled out on a business project right now because I keep thinking about all the competition out there, many of whom have spent years doing something similar to (but not exactly like) what I plan to do.

    And you know what? During the time I’ve been putting off getting started, others have launched into the same space and done perfectly well, and are getting better every day. Which just shows that getting started is half the battle.

  9. posted by Josh Kaufman on

    Great post, Erin. Great mind think alike: I wrote a similar post yesterday, which you can find at

    It’s so liberating to free yourself from the necessity of performing at a certain level so you can focus on enjoying the situation.

  10. posted by Rachel Z Cornell on

    My very “guy like” husband offered me some of the most “sage like” advice I’ve ever gotten. He said, “Rachel, most of our unhappiness comes from when we compare ourselves to others.”

    I’m doing less comparisons than I used to but I still can be bit. Happened last week – We went out to dinner with friends and I thought I had put together a pretty cute outfit. When I saw what the other women in the group had on, I felt more like I had dressed for a night on the coach.

    I like the idea of being perfectly imperfect. When I’m at my best, I’m doing things imperfectly. When I’m doing what I love I’m at my best, I don’t care if other people are on their game too. I actually am exited that they are. It’s when we are not first attending to what makes us hum that we care if someone else is better, taller, smarter, faster than us.

  11. posted by Where Unhappiness Comes From : ProNagger on

    [...] You don’t have to be the best [...]

  12. posted by Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome on

    I didn’t apply for music in University because I knew I would “only” become a music teacher if I got in.

    Then again, I think that kind of language is a cover up for not being passionate about it. Perhaps you were merely continuing to dance because you had always danced and the excuse of “I’m not the best” was a way of rationalizing quitting due to a lack of passion, which would be harder to admit after so many years invested in it.

  13. posted by VJB on

    Oh my. This is so me. At the age of fourteen I gave up writing stories because if I couldn’t be the best, I didn’t want to try. Even now, I haven’t picked up my sketchbook in six months because I’m not very good at drawing.

    After years of recurring depression, I’ve come to recognise that this perfectionism has ONLY ever made me miserable. Not to imply that it was the only reason for my illness, but all-or-nothing thinking is one of the areas a therapist will help you to remedy.

    This post was a good reminder. I’m going to go get my sketchbook.

  14. posted by perfection | dailycoffeeandcream on

    [...] Thanks Erin! Here’s a link to the original post. [...]

  15. posted by Vanessa on

    I was the same way. When I was in the 3rd grade in New York City, a ballet school came to my school to audition all the 3-5th graders for a program that allows students at public schools to attend their dance school for free two times a week, replacing regular classes for those days. I was one of four kids that were admitted into their program, and I loved it. It was a really great company, Gregory Hines was a director, and it was a lot of fun.

    I did ballet for six years after that, but after my 8th grade recital, I gave it up. I loved ballet so much, but when I moved upstate, I went to a new dance school and was never allowed in the intermediate program, only the adult beginners. I was in the beginners program for 4 years, and I always thought I just wasn’t good enough to get into the higher class. Eventually, I just gave it up.

    I really wish I had kept going, because it was something I loved doing. It’s one of the few things I regret in my life.

  16. posted by CC on

    Totally on board with the “good enough” attitude. I have a range of interests and talents, but I am no expert at any of them.

    Last night was a great example: I constructed a baby sling for my partner – she couldn’t use the other baby carrier we have since the fit was too large. So I sewed one similar to a product retailing online and at brick-and-mortars for $100, at a third of the price. I won’t be on Project Runway but can sew some things if need be.

    Love to bike, but I am slow. Love photography, but sometimes feel perplexed with the whole process. But, I keep on doing it because it gives me enjoyment. I like to surf and snowboard, but I am not the most agile nor coordinated. I have some basic skills in the kitchen, but will not be anything like a Top Chef.

    I keep doing those things because I am “good enough” to get feel satisfied with my efforts.

  17. posted by It doesn’t have to be perfect « on

    [...] a parent has made me have to learn this.  Because kids make it harder to be a perfectionist.   Like this article says, don’t give up on something just because you can’t do it perfectly.  Often I have been [...]

  18. posted by Simona on

    Erin, I feel exactly the same most of my life! I want to be an animal activist, a bass player, a student, a perfect employee and to be remarkable in everything I do. Most of the times I don’t even start what I’d love to to try because I know someone will do it better! So my mind begins to be cluttered, instead of my house and this is really overwhelming. But I think I’ll be more frustrated if I fail in something I try instead of not trying at all. Is a remorse worst than a regret?

  19. posted by myra on

    Here’s a quote I find helpful (I’ve posted it above my desk as a reminder):

    “Use what talents you possess – the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there but those who sang best.”

    -William Blake

  20. posted by Jenn on

    Great post, and so true.

  21. posted by The Simple Dollar » The Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: Places to Follow Me Edition on

    [...] You Don’t Have to Be the Best I know some people who are driven to be “the best” in every aspect of their life. Usually, they’re either incredibly stressed or things eventually fall completely apart. Instead of being “the best” at everything, choose one or two things and be “good enough” at the rest. (@ unclutterer) [...]

  22. posted by Better Than Magic » Blog Archive » On Perfectionism on

    [...] had another post planned for this evening, but by chance I happened upon this post at Unclutterer. It is brief, but the author illustrates an important idea with a simple story. When [...]

  23. posted by Return of the Daily Links | Follow My Money - Financial Advicer, Money Management, Debt Free Tips on

    [...] Erin at Unclutterer (one of my favorite blogs) recently made a brilliant case for why you don’t have to be the best. “Comparing yourself to another person is unnecessary,” she writes. “You only [...]

  24. posted by Lana on

    This is truly funny, because I had the opposite experience I want to share it with you.

    When I was in college as an English major, I took an entry-level ballet class. All the other girls were dance majors or minors, and had been dancing for years. I was clumsy and big, not graceful at all, or even particularly flexible. Going to class was overwhelming at first – I was shamed that I wasn’t very good. And then, I realized that no one else cared. Because I wasn’t a dance major or minor, no one even took much notice of me. Knowing that I was easily the worst dancer there, and that it didn’t matter one bit, freed me to enjoy the process of dancing without feeling too self-conscious.

    But thank you for this entry. You’re right, of course – we shouldn’t care whether we’re the best or not, only what we get out of it.

  25. posted by More Lessons in Perfectionism on

    [...] Unclutterer: Sometimes done is better than [...]

  26. posted by When I Grow Up - The Blog » Blog Archive » Link Love: August 2009 on

    [...] You don’t have to be the best on unclutterer [...]

  27. posted by Play in Progress on

    Oh my, I nearly cried when I read this, and the comments. So much of my story there, too—the disappointment and pain over not being, or not really having a shot at ever being “the best” after all, as well as the liberating feeling and fun that can be had when doing something although you know you suck at it, simply because it is fun anyway. I wish I could have that swagger in everything. Life would be so much fun! Maybe I’ll get there, sometime. Or maybe just getting a bit closer is enough…

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