ALS Topic 15 - The Gentle Art & Science of Being a Better Second Best

Focus questions for Adelaide Lunchtime Seminar, 18 August 2018
Venue: Chocolat, 281 Rundle St Near East Tce. · Adelaide
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Note: The questions below are not supposed to suggest biased answers. You really can adopt any point of view your can suggest evidence for. Do be prepared for others suggesting counter-evidence! Note: clearly not all of these questions can be properly covered in a meetup, but they give us a conscious choice about what to talk about while making the background context clearer. It is up to the people who come on the day to choose what aspects they would like to deal with.

Focus Questions:

1. There's a gentle art and science in cultivating what we'll always do second best. Some other bastard is always better at it than you? That's their problem. In fact there's great satisfaction in getting better, as well as you can, at what the world thinks you are only second best at. You're not a media idol? Well, that leaves you space to become better at being you. You're not a math genius? What the hell.. you can have endless fun exploring your own limited competence. So on the battlefield of your life's discarded ambitions, what's some skill or quality that you'd like to salvage and muck around with, regardless of never being 'the best'?

2. For whatever you care to name, there's a coven of natural geniuses out there . For them it's easy. The trouble is, they think it's easy for everyone, and on becoming gurus 'teach' everyone else very badly at dummy level. For example, I'm good at analysing languages (linguistics), but lousy at learning them. No doubt I've done some awful linguistics lecturing. But I'm still figuring out what language teaching courses designed for dummies like me (not for the natural language learning geniuses) would look like. What's your opinion about this?. What are some other skills or concepts you would like to see taught in an accessible way for dummies like you? How would you design such programs?

3. The biggest barrier to learning anything is being not fully engaged. (Ask any teacher about disengaged students, including those students with a 10 second attention span: they are a lost cause). So if we set out on an impossible quest - say playing in a symphony orchestra if that's out of our league - the impossible quest might soon become a major turnoff. However, if we decide at the outset that we are in this to develop our own quirky potential, not be a world beater, are we likely to hang in there longer? I think so. Do you have any memories of exiting mentally after you decided that the standards being pitched had nothing to do with your life and ability?

4. If you are a contrarian, being cussed can help you along. If you are a snowflake, you might melt forever. I guess I'm a contrarian. As a 16 y.o. student, a high school sports teacher told me I would never win a race. I thought 'bugger you' and have been distance running for 56 years. I've never won a race, except the race against my own laziness, and at just under 73 y.o. have a "fitness age" of 40 (according to a Garmin tracker). What's an example where you bucked the world's judgement and persisted for your own benefit?

5. Richard Dawkins once wrote a book called 'The Selfish Gene', built around the idea that all living things, not least humans, are dedicated to absolute personal promotion, notably success in breeding with the hottest sex partner in sight to replicate the adorable you. Well, there are a few modifications to this. We have a world of trophy wives and trophy husbands, sugar daddies and sugar babes, all sublimating sex for wealth. But apparently we are all genetically programmed to look for 'the one' which a cultural filter might interpret as the most fertile, or the prettiest, or the richest, or the smartest, or the coolest, or the most powerful. Take your pick. Is this another one of those 'best' seeking searches guaranteeing misery for the greatest number? What would you rate as a comfortable 'second best' in this supreme quest? Would a good second best actually offer more scope for mutual growth and happiness over time, even better children?

6. For about a century now, there has been an entire publishing industry developed around 'success'. Success seems to be becoming a billionaire (Trump is your model..), or finding a cure for cancer, or whatever. The essential magic sauce, apparently, is that you have to become THE BEST at whatever. Which pretty well guarantees failure. Ah, a business opportunity there too. Since 98% of startups crash and burn, FAILURE had to be made another brand of magic sauce on the way to success. Ergo, a whole new publishing industry on how failure gives you the balls to succeed. Well, stuff all that. How about having a satisfying life just pushing on with developing your own potential? Your personal best. So how do you yourself actually go about working on your 'personal best' a chosen area (which might be public or private)?

7. Whole countries can spend generations sulking bitterly because they are not (or have ceased to be) Masters of the Universe. Parents will whisper to their children that once their nation led an empire; (it is amazing the number of crumbling regions that 'had an empire' sometime in the last 3 thousand years). Brits can still be stirred to nostalgia for their glory days, Russians sink their fragile resources into guns instead of butter to buy back self-respect, Americans descend into self-mutilation as their 'exceptionalism' evaporates, and Chinese gloat that their 'century of humiliation' is coming to an end. Australia can only terrorize some refugees and a handful to tiny Pacific Ocean states. So what is terribly bad about being a 'second best' country without an empire and weapons of mass destruction? What metrics of worthy and civilizational success should we best apply to Australia?

8. Heaven, ah yes that biggest best of all the best places. Do you actually want to go there? You know, singing hymns of adoration for a billion and a billion years... Then the most extreme opposite, Hell. Why do religions always go in for extremes? Couldn't we set up a third way, a kind of supernatural second best place to hang out for eternity? Where do you think the faithful would vote to go then, after earthly death?


Extra Reading & Thinking :

Neil Lyndon (2014) "Why it is better to be second than first", The Telegraph (UK) @

A stray meme seen when searching on this topic: THE BEST PLACE TO HIDE A DEAD BODY IS PAGE 2 OF GOOGLE SEARCH RESULTS

Anne Fisher (2014) "The subtle advantages of being number 2". Fortune Magazine @
Peter Horan (n.d.) "We’re Number Two!!! The benefits of being second". AllBusiness website @

Sue Shellenbarger (April 18, 2017) "How to Be the Best Deputy: When Second Best Is Best - Bosses need No. 2 to deliver bad news and find solutions; deputies thrive out of the spotlight and revel in details" . Wall Street Journal @

Ryder Ramsey (Oct 12, 2016) "15 Advantages Of Being The Other Woman". TheTalko website @

Ken Mazaika (2016) "How To Be the Best Version of Yourself". Time Magazine @

Elizabeth Grace Saunders (n.d.) "Getting Better vs Being Good - Perfection isn't everything. By setting goals based on improvement - rather than looking smooth - you can stretch your potential and reduce your anxiety". 99u website @
Belle Beth Cooper (Jul 9, 2013 updated: Mar 18, 2016) "5 Unconventional Ways to Become a Better Writer (Hint: It’s About Being a Better Reader)". Buffer website @

Stephanie Vozza (17 March 2017) "6 Ways To Become A Better Listener - Humans have an average eight-second attention span. You’re going to need to do better if you want to get things done". Fast Company website @

"Dude, She’s (Exactly 25 Percent) Out of Your League - A massive new study of online dating finds that everyone dates aspirationally—and that a woman’s desirability peaks 32 years before a man’s does". - Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic (August 10, 2018) @ . Aiming for whatever 'best' is in this market? Hmm, I've always been nowheresville in the meat market so decided decades ago that the game wasn't worth the candle, and one of the less interesting parts of being human. Now at just under 73 I'm safely beyond any use-by-date and can watch this peculiar hominid behaviour with the amused detachment of a departing guest.

Seems like the good old days might not have been the best old days. Now what should we aim for? : Sean Illing (April 18, 2018) "Why a leading political theorist thinks civilization is overrated - A new book challenges how we think about human progress". Vox @

Regrets for lost empire - but what exactly was the glory? "The sun may never set on British misconceptions about our empire - An Oxford don wants Britons to stop feeling guilty about colonialism. But evidence suggests it already inspires more pride than shame". Ian Jack, The Guardian (6 January 2018) @

Anand Giridharadas (Jan. 20, 2014) "Balancing Private and Public Needs - Here is a working definition of “developing country”: a place where people trust the sushi and distrust the tap water." New York Times @

Thor's own websites:

1. articles at ;

2. legacy site: .


The Gentle Art & Science of Being a Better Second Best (c) Thor May 2018 return to Ddiscussion