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The power of being the best

[Originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 5/29/07]

I’m back from vacation. During a layover in Houston, I came across,
in an airport Borders, the latest title by marketing guru Seth Godin.
It’s called “The Dip.” I was struck by how closely some of Godin’s
points connect to our ongoing discussion of the Paradox of the Relaxed
Rhodes Scholar. Today, I want to discuss one of these ideas in

IDEA #1 : Being “the best” is significantly better than any other position.

We give people at the top of a category disproportionately more
rewards than those who are slightly below them. In academia, there
exist obvious examples of this idea. Being valedictorian, for
instance, provides much more value than graduating with high honors —
even though the difference is slight (maybe just a handful of A’s).

I think, however, that this idea performs even more useful work if we
apply it to non-academic activities. Remember, for a moment, our
sample Rhodes Scholar, Daniel, from the previous post. Instead of
doing well in a broad category (or numerous broad categories), Daniel
constructed his own narrow niche in which he could be the best.
Specifically, his niche was non-profit work related to sustainable
development. Searching through the resources available at his college,
he was able to cobble together a collection of summer internships,
awards, grants, and events (i.e., the conference he organized), that
allowed him to really stand out. What’s important to note, however, is
that unlike a valedictorian, there were not many other students at
Amherst struggling to be even more impressive in the category of
sustainable development. Daniel was alone in his niche, and this
simplified his climb to the top. Daniel, in essence, used his time as
the seed capital in the leveraged buyout of a more powerful resume.

Some other examples where we could apply this idea:

(1) If you’re an economics major interested in banking, don’t just
get good grades and join the investment club; start your own student
fund, focused, perhaps, on youth ventures, and construct an advisory
board of professors. No one else is doing this, so you immediately
become “the best” student fund manager.

(2) If you want to be a novelist, don’t just take creative writing
courses; start a new literary journal on your campus. If there already
exists one, focus yours on a specific niche, maybe genre fiction. Sure
it’s not Hemmingway, but it’s much easier to break into, and once
there, you’re free to write great, interesting prose. This will make
you “the best” fiction magnate at your school; the person editors
interested in young voices will want to talk to.

(3) If you want to be a top surgeon, deconstruct your pre-med courses.
Find out exactly what to expect from the teachers, talk to former
students, find outside sources, begin your studying absurdly early,
and experiment aggressively in streamlining your study techniques. To
be the top in this category your grades need to blow away everyone
else taking this class. Doing very well is just not the same as being
“the best” student in this grade-centric program.

Where in your life do you have an opportunity to carve out a niche in
which you could be the best?

10 thoughts on “The power of being the best”

  1. Well what happens when you got off on a really bad start (really bad) and ur trying to get yourself together by starting anew for your sophomore yr?
    P.S. this coming from a psych and pre-med major.

    • Read the posts in this blog for beginners. Plan and focus. Do the ‘deep work’. Your success will be much more appreciated because of the bad start.

  2. I don’t know if the methods described in your books can be applied to pre-med students. Pre-meds typically have to study harder than everyone else because of the nature of their courses. That brings me to my question, were any pre-meds interviewed for “How to be a straight A student”?

  3. @Jon:

    Yes, there were pre-meds as well as double science majors, one triple major, and other assorted academic masochists interviewed. 🙂

    It is a hard major. So you have to be extra diligent with the scheduling advice and more skeptical about the extra-cirricular advice. But the general ideas apply.

  4. What about students interested in a career in academia? I want to get into a top masters + Ph.D combined program, not only I need killer grades but also experience. What would you say would help me be the best in this aspect? I also want to qualify for scholarship so it is even more challenging


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