Devil's Advocate 

You Don’t Have To Be The Best

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This is a Devil's Advocate post.

Do you play a sport? My favorite sport to play is basketball. There’s something about hearing the ball swish through the net that brings a smile to my face. There’s something about threading that perfect pass that makes me just a little bit giddy. Oh and setting a good solid pick to get my guy free? Love that too. While I love all the other aspects of the game, I love winning the game above all else. I don’t care how many points I score or how many assists I get, the point of the game is to win and if you don’t win, none of that other stuff matters.

It’s not like that in life. In life, you don’t always have to be the best. In this Devil’s Advocate post, I talk about how in personal finance, you don’t have to always get the best offer, sometimes good enough is good enough.

I think that, as Americans, we’ve become conditioned to try to be the best, try to get the best returns on our investments, and try to get the best deal on something. There’s nothing wrong with wanting and trying to get the best you can, in fact you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t at least try. However, you shouldn’t let your pursuit of the best investment prevent you from acting. You must avoid paralysis because you’ll be left behind.

The Best Investment Returns

The funny thing about making money is that the truly successful people ignore the glitz and the glamor and focus on the fundamentals. The proverb about the tortoise and the hare rings true. Think about the recent explosion in popularity with poker. People fall in love with the idea of working on their own, on living in casinos where you can get free drinks and flashy lights, on making tons of money sitting around player cards. What people don’t see is how much of a grind it is. You might hit a payday or two in your life but poker is strictly about probabilities and pot odds, to be successful you have to do a lot of math and make smart bets.

Investing for most people is the same way. It’s about doing a lot of analysis and picking your spots, you won’t get rich over night and it’s better if you don’t try to get the best investment returns possible. You don’t need rock star returns on your investments, you simply need pretty good returns year in and year out. Over the course of decades, your investments will grow and grow.

The Second-Best Deal

I recently bought Frontline for our new beagle Toby and opted to buy the slightly more expensive 6-month package, instead of the 12 month package. The price difference? Only a few dollars. I didn’t get the best possible deal because I didn’t want to have to store an extra six months of a drug that I knew I wouldn’t be using for six months! The premium I paid to avoid the storage was a few dollars I could’ve saved but I knew I wasn’t going to use that Frontline for a long period of time. I didn’t get the best deal I could’ve because who knows what I could’ve done with the Frontline while I stored it somewhere. I could’ve lost it, I could’ve stepped on it and broke the package, I could’ve done a lot of things in six months.

Pursuit of Perfection

Finally, you don’t have to be the best at something, or even good at something, to start doing it. The great achievements in life are the ones where we must work the hardest. Very few people can just up and run a marathon, that’s why it’s considered a tremendous achievement. Some achievements are never mastered, like golf, and the joy is in constantly trying to improve your performance. And some skills can’t be measured quantitatively and there is never a “best,” like playing an instrument.

In life, it’s about the pursuit of perfection, not about perfection itself.

{ 9 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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9 Responses to “You Don’t Have To Be The Best”

  1. I think we’re pushed to do our best, not so that we can BE the best but simply to maximize our own potential. I wasn’t the fastest swimmer in high school, but I pushed to be the best and reached a certain degree of success. Doing so gave me the confidence I needed to continue to TRY to be the best in other areas of my life.

    While it’s no dispute who the best personal finance blogger is out there, I’m more than happy to give Jim a runner’s up trophy.

    • ManVsDebt says:

      I hate to admit it, but I have to agree 100% with the weakonomist. He basically stole my comment so I’ll just add a big:

      Amen, brotha!

  2. Cap says:

    “When I grow up, I want to be a principal or a caterpillar” – Ralph Wiggum.

    A topic about not being the best? That’s where I’m too, am a Viking at.

    Stupid quotes aside, a pretty solid devil’s advocate post. I think for certain cultures, excelling or literally having to be the best academically is one such example. Some of the most successful people I’ve met in life aren’t the smartest or the best at what they do, they simply worked hard enough to get to where they are currently at.

  3. Deuce says:

    Some achievements are never mastered, like golf, and the joy is in constantly trying to improve your performance. And some skills can’t be measured quantitatively and there is never a “best,” like playing an instrument.

    I like.

  4. Paige says:

    “ don’t have to be the best at something, or even good at something, to start doing it.”

    I think that is something we all need to remember. It is important to keep trying. When your children see you doing this, they will be more likely to do so. I am always singing the Doodlebops song Keep Trying to my daughter, then one day I told her I couldn’t do something and she sang it to me! It was a great teaching moment. Great post!

  5. MissMartha says:

    I think that in many ways this article is not a devil’s advocate but a different way to look at life. My father always told me that “you may not be the smartest kid in your class but you are the hardest working.” He wasn’t trying to put me down or call me stupid but he realized that it takes more than being the smartest student to be the best student in the grade, it also takes hard work. This attitude is one that I have continued to embody as I go through life. I may not be the best at something but I can try to become better.

    The only thing that I struggle with is being willing to work on the things that I don’t want to get better at but should, e.g. sports, working out, speaking another language, etc. I’m willing to get better at the things that I like to do; but for the things that I don’t like to do its hard to motivate myself! Does anyone else have that same problem?

  6. Bargain babe says:

    Jim, we may both like to make smart money decisions but I HATE basketball. 🙂 Never liked people getting in my way. My sport of choice is Ultimate Frisbee, very fun and games can either be super laid back or really competitive. You can find a pick-up game near you at

  7. Kathy says:

    It’s very restful NOT to join in the reindeer games sometimes.

    After getting several speeding tickets and being sent to driving school and put on probation for a year, I forced myself to slow down when I was driving.

    Now I like it that way.

    I start to work early enough now not to have to drive like a bat out of hell. I actually enjoy the trip every morning since I don’t have the same aggressive mindset. People pass me up and it doesn’t faze me a bit, I keep my peace of mind, without being affected by their attitude. Usually, they’re only going a short distance and pulling off. One wonders what they are really gaining by their huffy attitude. It’s all kind of silly.

  8. AverageJoe says:

    I liked this post. In my financial life, I definitely do this–I don’t switch from bank to bank, or fund to fund, to get an extra .50%. If I have a good deal, even if it’s not the BEST deal, that’s OK with me. It often depends on other factors, some very basic–is it convenient, do I get great service on my accounts, do I like the statements, etc?

    Interestingly, in my career, I don’t settle. I love competition and if I come in second I do whatever it takes to come in first next time.

    In my personal life, however, perfectionism has hindered my growth sometimes. For example, I wasn’t the best at Tae Kwon Do, so after 4 years I gave it up. Looking back, I was in the best shape of my life, but because others were more dedicated or more talented my perfectionism told me to give up as I wasn’t “the best”.

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