The Problem with Superlatives

Photo by Jon Tyson / Unsplash

The Premise

Superlatives exist everywhere. In a race called life, where people constantly compete, there is always a question of who and what is the best. If we listen to people talking about their life, they describe things such as, "this is the best decision I've ever made," "this is the best place I've been to," or "this is one of the best movies I've ever seen," etc. The best has a special place in our world.

We have seen people say, "I want only the best of everything" or "I want to be the best at what I do." We find ourselves or others looking for the best burger place in the city, looking for the best weekend hangout spot, finding the website to give us the best discounts, or finding the best place to live. Whether the choice is small or big, most of us have the mindset of chasing the best. This chase continues beyond just our materialistic choices.

Let's talk about people. We constantly seek the best in the people in our life. For the new people who enter our lives, we have the highest expectations of them. We expect the next person to be better than the existing or previous one. It could be a new romantic partner, a new friend, a new boss, and most importantly, our children. It gets a bit trickier with parents and children. Whether the first child or the subsequent ones, we expect our children to be the best in what they do. The titles and positions may vary, but the underlying idea is clear.

Existence Vs. Narrative

The best has to exist, and that's the way Nature works. From an evolutionary standpoint, Nature keeps looking for improvements. We've all heard of the phrase, "survival of the fittest." Humanity has progressed primarily because of the quest for being the best, and we would've been extinct if we didn't look to improve and pursue better things.

However, the story is different today. We are better off these days in most things. We have our problems, but we are better educated, have access to better food and science, and the average global life expectancy has increased by 30 years in the last three centuries. Most of our problems are geopolitical, scientific, or more "modern" in general, rather than existential or critical, except for issues like climate change, etc. Climate change is the grave we dug for ourselves to pursue the best via industrialization.

The problem I'm getting at is not about the best's existence but the narrative we spin around the best. Please pay attention to the following sentence the next time when you hear someone or yourself describe something. More often than not, we use the superlative degree of words for something to sound valid. Remember, the superlative degree of terms can be both positive and negative — "this is the most adventurous trip I've ever been to," "this is the worst coffee I've ever had," "he is the best at what he does," and "this is the most advanced smartphone ever." We must realize that the best is meant to be beaten, except probably Mount Everest, which keeps growing very slowly. And the worst is meant to be overcome. The word "ever" only lies in the past, and the permanence of the best or worst is uncertain. We must realize that it doesn't have to be the best or the worst for something to be enjoyable or valid. That brings us to the next point.

What about the good stuff?

Why does everything have to be the best to sound credible? What about stuff that's just good enough? Why does someone have to be the best at what they do? Why can't someone instead be just good at several things? Many of us have heard of the saying, "Jack of all trades; master of none." It has been used as an insult to someone who is not well versed in one thing and dabbles in multiple things to get their way. We tell our children to be the best at one thing and do that properly.

But how many of us know that the original saying is, "The jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than the master of one."? Robert Greene first used it in the 16th century to describe William Shakespeare as a compliment. We have a terrible habit of shortening things to fit a narrative, and this is one such example.

We over-glorify the best and underrate the good. Doesn't it reinforce some sense of greed and a never-ending chase for the best stuff in our lives? Doesn't it convey that being the best is the only way to live? Doesn't it mean that being just good is not enough? The grass is always going to be greener on the other side. Do we forget to appreciate the good in pursuit of the best? This applies to food, relationships, work, people, habits, health, etc. Social media only makes it harder for us to see the value of good, making us think everybody is living their best lives. It makes us ungrateful for our lives and diminishes the value of being or having enough.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear says that "the best is the enemy of the good." We often tend to aim for the highest, and we forget that the idea of "either the best or none" doesn't work consistently. The pursuit of the best is not wrong per se, but let us not forget to appreciate the good and the normal. Let us remind ourselves that for the best to exist, the good, the normal, and the bad should co-exist.

What about the bad stuff?

On the flip side, it doesn't have to be the worst for someone's trauma or suffering to be valid. It could be minor in our definition, and their suffering is still valid. People are allowed to be sad about anything, no matter how big or small. In his book named "Man's Search for Meaning," Viktor Frankl says,

"To draw an analogy, a man's suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber is. Thus, suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the 'size' of human suffering is absolutely relative."

Though pulling themselves out of the situation and finding meaning in the suffering could be a reflection of their moral convictions, we must not judge the intensity of their sufferings just because they are not the worst or they are not "bad enough" to be sad about, or "other people have it worse." All we can do is be empathetic and compassionate in aiding them to find their way out of their suffering and give them enough time to see and learn the lessons presented to them.

Regression to the mean

In the book "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman, a chapter is called "Regression to the mean." In a nutshell, Kahneman proves in this chapter that "poor performance was typically followed by improvement and good performance by deterioration, without any help from either praise or punishment." When something terrible happens, more often than not, we notice something good happens after that, and vice versa. This is how the world works. We fail to observe that it's not that good happens after bad, but things return to normal after being bad. Things in life eventually regress to the mean or "normal." The extraordinarily good or bad things that happen are rare instances.

For example, let's say you are an instructor at a military training school (I can't give such an example and not mention Top Gun). So, let's say you are an instructor at Top Gun. You praise a cadet (Val Kilmer) for one of the best maneuvers you've seen in your experience, and you criticize another cadet (Tom Cruise) for one of the worst mistakes he could make. More often than not, the first cadet performs poorly than before, while the second cadet improves. You might be inclined to think that criticism works better than praise, and that's human tendency.

Kahneman says that neither criticism nor praise proves to be helpful. Val Kilmer didn't perform poorly the second time because he became complacent due to your praise. It's just that he was returning to his original "normal" skills. His ordinary skills seemed worse because his first maneuver was a rare best instance. On the other hand, Tom Cruise didn't perform better the second time because of your criticism; he returned to his original "normal" skills. His ordinary skills seemed better because his first maneuver was a rare worst instance. They both were regressing to the mean. Kahneman proves this with real-world data in the book and explains how it applies to our thinking.

Final thoughts

In this essay, I'm not urging people to give up pursuing the best or not care about the worst. I would be very much misguided myself if I suggested that. Instead, I'm saying that the best and the worst instances are peaks and valleys that come and go. We all eventually regress to the mean, where normal things await us. Let us be grateful for the normal things in life. Let us appreciate the value of enough. Let us realize that for our experiences to be valid, they don't have to be the best or the worst. Let us recognize that a small victory is still a victory, and minor pain is still pain. Let us allow and encourage people to explore different things than be the best at one thing. Let us be conscious when describing things as best or worst, and use those adjectives only when necessary.

Let us remember and appreciate the normal things — the comfort food we have; a friend who, even though they haven't done anything extraordinary, has been there for us; a local restaurant where we have eaten a thousand times before; our parents or parent-figures who have been our constants; the local park in our neighborhood or a beach in our city; for the peaks and valleys may come and go, but the normal things are the ones that stay. Thanks for reading. Peace out!

Vivek Arvind

Vivek Arvind

Santa Clara, CA