If You Can’t Be the Best, Change the Category
If you can’t be the best at something, is it even worth doing? It turns out, being “the best” is something we have 100% control over.
If you can’t be the best at one thing, then change your category. Do it your way and become the best at that.
Here’s how it works.
You Are Either the Best or You’re Irrelevant
I love coffee. But the best coffee place in town is not the place I visit every day.
The best place is small and crowded and lacking good Internet. The owners want you to come in, enjoy a $6 latte, and leave. There are no artificial sweeteners or flavors you can add. You can get your coffee with milk or without. That’s it.
The point is the coffee. And I respect that.
The place I visit every day, however, is a place where they know my name. They have solid Internet, and the place is almost always filled with hundreds of patrons — mostly young, working creatives who came to Nashville with a dream.
Upstairs, there is a wall of outlets where people are encouraged to spend their day treating the coffee shop as their virtual office. The food is good, the staff is friendly, and they’ll add whatever flavor to your coffee you’d like.
The point is the experience. (Oh, and the coffee is pretty good, too.)
The other day, I visited this place for an afternoon caffeination session. When I ordered a small drip coffee, the server told me “I got you,” meaning I didn’t have to pay. Why did he do that? I don’t know. Maybe because I’m there every day. It impressed me.
Don’t get me wrong. I love great coffee. I’m kind of a snob about it (just ask my friends). But I go to one coffee shop for the coffee and the other for the experience. As a matter of fact, the latter is doing something the former would never do in giving me a free cup of coffee. For them, it’s not about the coffee.
So it occurred to me:
If you can’t be best at one thing, change the category and be the best at that.
You are either the best or you’re irrelevant. So why not be the best?
How History’s Heroes Changed Their Category
Do you know who was the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic? If you know your history, you’d probably say Charles Lindbergh.
And you’d be wrong.
In fact, it was two people. In June of 1919, John Alcock and Arthur Brown landed in Clifeden, Ireland in the first nonstop, transatlantic flight.
Between then and Charles Lindbergh’s famous 1927 flight, many more would do what they did. Lindbergh was, in fact, the nineteenth person to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. But he was the first person to do it solo.
Do you know who was the second person to complete a nonstop, solo flight across the Atlantic?
Still drawing a blank?
It was Amelia Earhart.
Why was that so hard? We don’t think of her as the second Charles Lindbergh, do we? What is she known for? Being the first woman to fly solo without stopping across the Atlantic.
She changed her category and that changed everything.
You can do the same.
Second Place Doesn’t Matter
In The 22 Immutable Laws of Leadership (summary here), Jack Trout and Al Ries call this phenomenon the Law of Leadership, which states that it is better to be first than it is to be better.
If you can’t be first in a product category (like Heineken was the first imported beer in America), their advice is to change the category.
This was precisely what Amelia Earhart did when she became not the second person to fly solo across the Atlantic but the first woman.
The second best coffee shop in town is really the best at experience. But the experience at the place with the best coffee is less than optimal. You can’t get flavors for your espresso drinks. You aren’t encouraged to linger. And they only have a handful of drinks.
One is not better than the other. It just depends on what your measuring. But just remember: greatness is not about second place. Being the best means you have to be first at something. Even if it’s some new thing you create.
Pick What You Want to be the Best at
Here is my point:
We can all do this. We get to choose what to be best at. But we have to be careful, because optimizing for one thing almost automatically means you can’t be good at other things.
Oftentimes, I look around at my friends and feel jealous of their abilities. I’m not as good of a leader as Michael Hyatt or as talented of a writer as Ally Fallon or as disciplined of a researcher as Ryan Holiday. But I try not to dwell on that.
Instead, I stay in my lane and run my own race. It’s not easy, but it’s all we can do. Not to mention, the reasons they’re good at the things that I am not is that they’ve paid the price. And in many cases, I’m not willing to do that. I want the result without the process. It doesn’t work like that.
Do you want to be epic?
If so, you probably need to change your category.
How do you do this?
You create your own category. You pivot slightly to highlight what you enjoy and simultaneously what you do well.
You don’t have to fit the groove of what’s currently happening in your space. If you can’t be the best, stop playing that game.
Change your category and do it your way. Be the first and best in your category. People will recognize you for that and appreciate you for it.
If you find yourself doubting whether you’re really winning at anything in life, maybe you’re just chasing the wrong thing.
Maybe it’s time to stop playing someone else’s game.
Maybe it’s time to change the category.
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