When Others Are Better at EVERYTHING

by Site Author

On an anonymous web forum for economists, a graduate student posts a message with the title: “Honestly, how do you deal with someone being better than you at EVERYTHING.” He writes the following.

In my cohort, I’m by far not the smartest, or the quickest; others have much better paper ideas, and more brilliant comments, and are better writers with better programming skills.

I started working out but guys at the gym my size easily lift twice what I can, and some friend laughed at my running time for a 5k and even that time I felt like my heart would explode, and I am so awkward and unathletic and I’m trying to bulk but just getting fat.

And also there are more handsome guys, and I’m losing my hair, and guys have more money, and I live in the city and don’t even have a car, and my apartment is old and crap and overpriced and smells like stale sushi and cat pee depending on the time of day.

I remember feeling the same way during my first year of graduate school. My classmates seemed better at everything. I struggled just to keep up with them in class and then on weekends they would go backcountry skiing. (Needless to say, I could not ski.) Some of my classmates just seemed better at life than me.

I think back to a profile of Steve Jobs when he had just returned to Apple. Microsoft had won: nearly all computers ran Windows, and Apple, before Jobs took over, was nearing bankruptcy. And so Bill Gates told a reporter that it didn’t make sense for Jobs to even bother with Apple: “What I can’t figure out is why he is even trying. He knows he can’t win.”

Eventually, Jobs did win: he turned Apple into the most valuable company on Earth. Today Apple’s market capitalization is over twenty percent larger than Microsoft’s. Apple’s iPhone business—just the phone—has at times been bigger than all of Microsoft.

But in the early 2000s, it wasn’t so clear that Apple would ever beat Microsoft. The iPhone and the iPad were years away. What interests me is one tech reporter’s take on Steve Jobs back then. It had not yet become clear that Jobs would actually win by every measure. But the reporter argued that Jobs had already won, and on his own terms.

In Steve Jobs’ mind, he has already won. Those of us who last for a few decades in this business find our own kind of peace and Steve Jobs’ is best exemplified by the George Herbert quote, “Living well is the best revenge.” Apple’s future as a boutique computer company is secure. He dominates Apple completely. When he doesn’t feel like being a high tech mogul, he can be a movie mogul, something Gates will never be. In Steve’s mind, he has the best of everything. Apple software is cooler than Windows will ever be. Palo Alto, where Jobs lives, is trendier than Seattle. Even Jobs’ plane, a Gulfstream V, is cooler than Gates’ Challenger 604. It goes on and on. Gates has never even considered this latter point, but I’ll guarantee you that Jobs has, and he revels in it.

I think of Steve Jobs’s story when contemplating that anonymous, defeated graduate student, or, for that matter, my own experience as a defeated graduate student. We make a mistake when we compare ourselves to others. The mistake is to take out a yard stick and measure away. But it’s like laying a yard stick against an ocean. We are more than a collection of things, and so no one can be better than us at everything. Steve Jobs never had as much money as Bill Gates, and, for many years, it seemed as though Apple would never be as powerful as Microsoft. But Steve Jobs had better taste and he built products that were beautiful. That was enough. He lived well.