I’m No. 2 (or thereabouts)

My quest for non-excellence

YOU HOLD IN YOUR HAND, dear reader, Minnesota Monthly’s “Best Of” issue. Herein is an inventory of things in the region that have been deemed excellent and of the highest quality.

Now, I would never bite the hand that feeds me (unless it was breaded and deep-fried), but allow me to submit this proposition: What’s so bad about second best? Or third or fourth or—I should be so lucky—fifth best? Some people never even get that far.

I suggest this as a gal who was 98th best in her high school graduating class of about 204 folks. I have come to terms with the fact that I will never be the best at anything. I will never be Miss America, presumably the best of womanhood; nor will J.D. Power and Associates ever award me its highest honor for customer satisfaction and product quality. I will never win a Nobel Prize, unless a category for outstanding contributions to averageness is created; nor will I receive a Heisman Trophy, an Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, or an Oscar. I will never become ISO 9001 certified. The possibility does exist that Mr. Blackwell may name me to his worst-dressed list, the best of the bad. The list of things I won’t excel at is endless. And I am perfectly okay with that.

Perhaps my apathy is the product of living amid a culture of abundance. Designating some things the best of their lot is a useful organizing principle in a noisy, cluttered world where so many things demand our attention—a way to cull the herd of everything that is forced upon us.

We are also supposed to be constantly vigilant in our quest for superiority in our particular domain, whether it be math or massage therapy. This “search for excellence” has been imposed on everything and everyone, even those realms that tend to be absolute and have no distinguishing gradients. I mean, how much excellence can the bag boy at Cub really bring to a cut-and-dried task? Shouldn’t “pretty damn good” suffice?

Consider the possibilities. Avis admitted their secondary ranking in the car-rental business—and increased their market share by 28 percent. In 1984, Miss America runner-up Suzette Charles took over Vanessa Williams’s reign after she resigned. Sure, it was only for seven weeks, but it’s more than I can claim as Miss America. And David Letterman, bless him, established a scholarship at his alma mater for students—stellar GPAs not required.

Why, it’s even become its own economic theory. Richard Lipsey and Kelvin Lancaster developed the Theory of Second Best, which describes what happens when optimal market conditions aren’t met. But alas, neither of them have won a Nobel Prize for it.

We Midwesterners have an uneasy relationship with “best.” I don’t think we’re ever comfortable with things being too good. As Minnesotans, our expectations have become tempered by being runners-up on so many occasions: presidential campaigns, professional football, the not-quite-coldest place in the nation in any given winter.

Were I ever declared the best at anything, I know I would be driven slowly mad wondering what went wrong in the tallying. I’d start living like Richard Kimball or Jason Bourne, trying to outrun the discovery of my fraudulence. I would never be able to simply enjoy it—the other shoe would always be dangling.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s enough to do one’s best, even if it might never be declared the best. Call it Zen, call it apathy (I get the two confused), but maybe the real test is to live contentedly with a job well done. After all, criteria are always fluid, changing, and subjective, one supposes—and then what? I don’t want to spend my life watching my back, or second-guessing what “best” means.

Besides, I find my peers who inhabit ground toward the middle of the bell curve much more fun—they don’t have a lot of motivational posters around with the words “perseverance,” “achievement,” and “determination” bolded and enlarged within a pithy statement. A lot of us have the sort of knowledge that blustery motivational posters do not: We know that sometimes all the persevering, achievement-ing, and determination-ing in the world does not always determine outcome.

In fact, I intend to spearhead the charge for the first annual “Not So Bad” issue of Minnesota Monthly. If I still have a job, that is.