What does it really mean to be “good at” something?

15. What does it really mean to be _good at_ something_ (770x409p)
  1. It may be impossible to objectively define what it means to be “good at” something.
  2. But, we often don’t give ourselves enough credit for how good we actually are. Perceptions skewed by the extremes inherent to bell curves go a long way to explaining why that’s the case.
  3. Using incredibly specific language when thinking about our own abilities can help us avoid falling into this trap.

Estimated reading time: 7-14 minutes

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This question came to mind while listening to a recent episode of the Tifo Football Podcast, where the hosts discussed the tendency of fans and pundits to label certain coaches as “bad managers” despite being employed in the very upper echelons of the sport.

They made the point that even those who don’t make it at, say, a mid-table club in the Premier League are by most standards, absolutely elite coaches. They’d certainly improve your Sunday league team if given the chance! And yet, because professional sports are so competitive and only one team can finish first, the manager of the 12th-best team in all of Europe will be deemed “not good enough” to preside over a Champions’ League winning club. Imagine being roughly in the top 20 in the world at something and still being labeled “bad.”

That said, I bet many of us have fallen into this trap of reflexive labeling at one time or another. Whether we’re discounting the achievements or performance of someone near but not at the top of a particular field or deriding ourselves as, “so bad at golf,” after a rough day on the links, it’s easy to do this.

Now, I’ll get this out of the way first. I don’t think it’s possible to truly answer this question in a non-subjective manner. But, in an attempt to see if we can find some objectivity, we’re going to dive deeper on what it really means to be ‘good’ at something anyway, and see what we conclusions we can draw.

Slightly building on last week’s theme of the “game of capitalism,” money offers a convenient place to start.

What does it mean to be rich?

In this instance, “rich” or “wealthy” can be seen as synonyms for “good at the game.” Luckily, we can get pretty granular here, because various organizations publish detailed percentile data. So, let’s start with the fabled 1%. How much annual income and what level of net worth grant you entry into this elite club?

2022’s data tells us that for income, it’s $400,000 per year; for net worth, it’s just shy of $11,000,000. Most people would consider that “wealthy,” right? But if we dive a little deeper, that’s where things start to get interesting. For starters, the top 2% in net worth have an asset value of just under $2.5 million. Those in the top 10% have just over $850,000, and the median net worth is $118,200. For context, the median net worth is a much lower $41,200 if we exclude home equity, but I’ll save that discussion for another time.

Instead, I want to highlight that this means that, in terms of pure dollars, the difference between the top 1% and the top 2% is almost four times larger than the gap between the top 2% and the top 50%. Crazy, right? If we look at the top 0.1%, the gaps get even bigger. And that inevitably skews our perceptions.

The perils of relative comparison

Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank star Mark Cuban has a net worth of over $5 billion, and he inadvertently provided a telling window into how easy it is for our self-judgments to become clouded. A season two episode of Netflix’s excellent series, Explained, focused on billionaires, and here’s a paraphrasing of something interesting Cuban said. “Sometimes you look at those guys [like Bezos, Zuckerburg, Musk, etc.] and think, ‘I’m not rich, those guys are really rich. And then I’m like, hang on, you idiot.’”

He had the self-awareness to “catch himself in the act,” so to speak, but many of us don’t. Perhaps he realized that saying on camera that he didn’t see himself as rich despite his billionaire status wouldn’t play well, but for our purposes, I’m glad he said it. Left unexamined, a thought that says, I’m not rich because these guys have over a hundred billion dollars more than me,” is seductive. But, it’s almost certainly not true.

Here’s another wealth example.

When I worked at North Central College as an assistant women’s soccer coach/strength and conditioning coach, my day job was in the fundraising office. It sucked, and I’m going to write more about that in the coming weeks. But, I’ll never forget the time a colleague told me about how difficult it was to secure donations in the aftermath of the 2009 recession, even from highly wealthy individuals with a long history of generosity towards the school. After being asked about their annual donation, one such person said to my colleague, “I’d love to be able to give more, but I’m down to my last $100 million.”

Talk about a “problem” most of us would like to have, eh? But, maybe we should cut them some slack.

After all, what do they say? “Old is 15 years older than you are now,” or something like that. We tend to almost constantly shift the goalposts when it comes to, well, everything, statistics be damned. To that end, a friend of mine who works in finance told me about a client who told him she couldn’t sleep at night if she didn’t have at least $500,000 in liquid cash, available for immediate use in a checking account. Over the course of five years, this “comfort number” grew to $2 million. But, why do shifts like this happen?

Blame bell curves and percentiles…

In school, we were taught that 70% is average, 80% is good, and 90% is excellent. But, this is functionally meaningless. For example, if the members of Congress were 80% competent at passing legislation to improve the everyday lives of most Americans, we’d all be ecstatic, right?

On the other hand, if you argue that you’re an “excellent” partner because you’re faithful to your significant other 90% of the time, well…good luck with that. Or, recall a recent post where I mentioned my first job, working in customer service at Baxter Healthcare. They expected an order-accuracy rate of 99.5% or higher. This means if I had gotten 97% of my orders correct, I’d have quickly found myself fired. So, it’s all relative.

The trouble with the aforementioned grading system used in schools is that it only deals with performance on a fixed scale, where there is a maximum score. But, in most pursuits in life, there isn’t a set limit. Not only that, perfection is impossible, and doing something “right” 60% of the time may put you ahead of 99% of people.

Not only can this be hard for us to wrap our heads around, it means that the high ends of bell curves yield some wild results. Discrepancies exist between data sources on this, but to return to the wealth example, according to Princeton University, the top 0.1% have a net worth of around $50 million. That’s about $40 million higher than the top 1%, who already have a net worth of $8.5 million higher than the top 2%, who only have a net worth of about $2.4 million higher than the households in the 50th percentile. That’s nuts!

Now, let’s look at a non-wealth example.

I recently started training a client who has what I would consider to be a massive YouTube following, with well over two million subscribers. Yet I’ll bet if I said to him, “Your channel is huge!” he’d probably disagree.

Diving into the data on this was pretty fascinating. Guess how many subscribers a YouTube channel needs to be in the top 10% of all accounts. A million? Five hundred thousand? Surely at least 100,000, right? Actually, it’s only 1,000! In fact, having a “mere” 10,000 subscribers puts you in the 98th percentile, while having one million subscribers means you’re in the 99.97th percentile. But to crack the top 10? You need over 100 million subscribers.

These extremes also apply to competitive online videogames. A friend of mine has put many hours into Rocket League, which is basically soccer with flying cars. It’s an incredibly fast-paced, technically demanding esport with a massively high skill ceiling. He’s ranked somewhere between the top two and five percent of all players, but when I asked him if he was “good” at the game, he said no. In his opinion, you can’t start calling yourself “good” until you achieve the rank of “Grand Champion I,” which puts you in the top 0.5% of all players. And there are three whole tiers of rankings higher than that!

So, we need to remember, being well above average is a lot closer than we think, but being at the very top can seem almost impossibly far away. But, we often only focus on the latter portion and downplay our own skill in the process.

So, why are we like this?

Subjectively, being ranked in the top 5% of an activity in which millions of people participate, like Rocket League, means you’re pretty darn good, in my opinion. Yet, we’re often hesitant to label ourselves as “good.” I believe this is due to a mixture of humility and identity. In general, we’re conditioned not to boast or brag, because not many people really want to hear about how great you think you are, do they? We learn that pretty quickly.

On top of that, if you’ve participated in any competitive endeavor for long enough, you’ve inevitably been on the wrong end of some butt-kickings. The way identities often work, we’re likely to use less and less grandiose-sounding descriptions of our own abilities the more times we’ve been humbled. So, someone who has never been humbled in their competitive endeavor of choice is either the best in the world at it…or simply isn’t experienced enough to understand the true level of competition that’s out there.

It’s also why you’ll hear young children describe themselves as “the best” at something like Mario Kart, but you’ll rarely hear someone over the age of twenty say, “I’m so good at soccer,” or, “I could kick anyone’s ass at golf.” Even people who have played those sports professionally don’t talk like this, because they know better. A humbling may never be too far away.

But, this humility can also be taken too far in the opposite direction.

To illustrate this, I’ll share a story my brother recounted to me from the time we played in a high-level U23 soccer league. Our team was part of the Chicago Fire youth development pyramid, and we were technically only four steps away from the professional squad. This isn’t to say any of us were in danger of receiving a call-up to the first team, but the overall level of talent, coaching, and competition was quite high.

In a game that I had to miss for some reason, we played against one of the other top teams in the division, and the match was apparently growing quite feisty. That is, until one of the opposition players said something like, “Guys, calm the **** down. In the grand scheme of things, we all suck.” Apparently, his words had the desired effect, and the tone of the game cooled a bit. But, is this fair?

I mean sure, compared to true professionals, we were, indeed, “bad.” But, legitimately saying that, “We suck,” would be a little like Mark Cuban declaring, “I’m poor…well, compared to Jeff Bezos.” Yeah, I’m not buying it, and I don’t think pseudo-humble labels like this help anyone.

I’ve come to believe that someone who tells you that you suck at something effectively only communicates their own insecurities. Chances are, they think they’re better at whatever it is than you, skill in this activity likely makes up a key part of their identity, and they probably wish they were better at it. So, in order to preserve their identity, if they’re better than you but can’t call themselves, “good,” you must be “bad.”

And that’s BS. I can say that, because I used to do this in regards to opposition soccer players all the time. And I’ll admit it. I was wrong.

Because if we follow this “grand scheme of things” logic, you’re only “allowed” to say you’re good at something if you’re the best in the world at it. And that’s if such a title can even be objectively determined, which it often can’t.

So if you start falling into this trap with your own abilities, try this on for size. “I’m not as good as the people who would hypothetically be ranked in a way higher percentile than me, likely because they have dedicated more time, energy, and money than I have into this pursuit.”

Sounds a little ridiculous, right? Well, that’s kind of the point.

By framing it in language this specific rather than the lazy and oversimplified, “I’m bad,” we’re less likely to internalize a negative message. This means we can hopefully avoid seeing skill (or lack thereof) as a stick with which to beat ourselves and others.

So in the end, I’m sorry if this disappoints you, but I don’t think we can truly answer the question of, “What does it mean to be good at something,” in any sort of objective way. It will always be subjective. Life is like that, sometimes. But that’s a relief, in my opinion. We’ll enjoy our various pursuits a great deal more if we start worrying less about how “good” we are at them. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for excellence or to improve our skills. Far from it. But we’d do well to remember that we’ll never arrive at the mythical “good,” if being perceived as that is all we care about.

Before you go, I’d love to hear from you! In which activities is your skill likely noticeably better than average? Have you ever called yourself bad at it? Plus, do you think we can objectively define what it means to be good at something? If so, how would you do it? Reply to this email and let me know!


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