When I see my 12-year-old on stage with her school chorus, I am amazed by the level of talent that some of the better singers have. The ethereal voices of some of these adolescents can serve to suspend breathing, while moistening the eyes. Spring-time in heaven is likely not as exquisite.
My daughter has a very nice voice-but not to the level of the best children in this school chorus. (They actually sang at the Presidential Inauguration this year), but she sings well. The reason she is in the chorus is not the hope that her voice becomes as beatific as some of her peers. She’s in the chorus so that she gets to experience fellowship among people with talents that are beyond hers. It is so that she can look up to people who are genuinely good at what they do.
She’s pretty good at math as well. When she competed in the statewide math competition this year, she came in the top 10% or so, which certainly made my wife and me happy. But some of the children who did better than her were exponentially more competent in mental gymnastics than she. The level of acuity that these kids could summon with the help of only pencil and paper approached, in my mind, that of NASA aspirants. Actually, Rainman comes to mind for some of them. Really. In some cases these kids (eighth graders), were raising their hands with the answers before the proctor had finished reading the problem.
My daughter will likely never be the mental hummingbird that some of these children are, yet she contributes to this competition every year. This is not done with the intention making her as good as them, but because it enables her to look up to people who are genuinely good at what they do.
The point of this essay is to suggest that those who excel tend to create updrafts. They bring others with them by setting standards that are higher than would have existed without their having been there. They cause the degree of minimum acceptability to climb to levels that would not have been attained without their having been part of it.
I’ve never aspired to be the best at anything, yet I turned out to be pretty good at lots of things. How? By perpetually looking up to those who are more accomplished than I. By acknowledging higher levels of intelligence, a sharper wit, greater insight into political, religious and social issues, greater skill at racquetball kill-shots, better luck with women, etc.
I have always preferred to engage with those who are much smarter than I, because when they speak, I need only listen, and their knowledge, experience, intellect, wit and on occasion, brilliance, fills the air like the steam from a whistling tea kettle. It remains for me, simply, to breathe.
That is why my daughter is in chorus. That is why my daughter engages in math competitions. Not to win. To engage.
We, as a society, place too much emphasis on achieving greatness when true greatness is better absorbed than attained. Being the best at something is an illusion, since we can never know if one has achieved this ostensible superiority because one is truly at the pinnacle, or because he who is better didn’t know that there was a competition going on that day and, regrettably, stayed home.