“I want to be the best in the world at something.”

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Moments of terror can look purely foolish when the threat is removed.

After you leap in fright, it’s pretty funny that it was just a broom that caught your eye in the dark. Even when the terror was real, after we survive, we usually can eventually joke about being stuck in that elevator. Later on, we have a tendency to laugh about the risks and stress. With doom removed from memory, romance can flourish.

I do find that soothing. When you feel like you can’t survive something, rest assured that afterward either it will be a hell of a story or, as a boss used to remind me, “you’ll be dead, and nobody expects you to show up for you own funeral.”

I’m reminding myself that a lot this historically disrupted year — pandemic, economic shock, racial justice movement, new fatherhood (!), navigating a company through it, and what seems likely to be our country’s most contested election in modern history (shoutout to 1877). I’m doing the best I can, trying to give more than I take and reciting to myself: this stress level is going to be preposterous — or I’ll be dead, and no one will expect me to show up at the funeral.

Grim. Maybe too grim. So I hold on to something else boss said, something that forms the very bedrock of who I want to be as a person. That boss was a carpenter, and like a lot talented tradesmen I’ve worked with through the years, they take their work seriously. They see something very noble in a job well done.

I took to asking him (and other bosses of mine) all sorts of heady, and invasive questions, usually in the cabs of their truck on the way home at the end of the day. (Once when I tried to start too deep a conversation at the beginning of a day, I remember one boss saying something to me like “Wink, you’re going to have to shut up until after coffee.”

One time, I must have gotten us into a conversation about legacy, and what it all was for. I asked him what he wanted his own legacy to be.

“For those I actually care about,” making a qualification as he started, “I want to be remembered as kind, and I want to be the best in the world at something.”

When I’m at my most stressed and strained — perhaps never for such an extended period of time as this year — I retreat to that idea. It is somehow both modest and ambitious. There is also a tension, as we don’t often associate competitiveness with care. It was also telling he drew a circle around those he “actually” cared about. It was personal and honest. This year is a good reminder that I’m likely on a similar path.

I want to be a great writer, and I want to tell great stories. I want to learn, teach and share. I want to do this for a group of people. I want to take on big challenges to be able to do this better, and differently, than just about everyone else in the world. But I really only want to do that if those people think I do it with a compassion and intention that we’d call kind. Maybe the point is you can make a narrow enough line that any of us can be the best in the world, if we focus, work and strive.

We all should also be an “awkward student” of something new, while we aim to be great at what we care most about. What do you want to do better than anyone else in the world?