Why Being the Best Isn’t Always the Best

Kyle Sokol – Akron, OH

During a 2003 commencement address at The University of Texas, technology entrepreneur Michael Dell said, “Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people… or find a different room.” Around the same time, I was learning a version of this lesson firsthand through childhood experiences on a baseball field in Northeast Ohio 1,400 miles away.

Growing up, I played pretty much every sport and excelled as a kid who was above average in both size and athleticism for my age. In addition, I had a competitive drive to win that was unparalleled by my peers. When I played tee-ball in a league that “didn’t keep score,” I would check my memory for runs for and against my team with my parents as soon as the car door closed after each game. Sure, there were no league standings, playoffs, or championship games, but I knew when we were winning and losing – something that was inherently important to me.

Although I was hyper-competitive, for almost my entire youth I played sports in recreational settings through my community and Catholic grade school. I was the best player on almost all my teams and took the practices and games more seriously than most of my teammates. When other 8-to 12-year-olds were playing in pools and parks during the summer, I had a strict “no swimming on gamedays” rule for myself. I knew the sun sucked up my energy and left me lethargic for my evening games, which I couldn’t allow. I was completely bewildered when kids on my team missed playoff games for family vacations or other commitments. I have a vivid memory of teammates on my fourth grade CYO basketball team laughing and joking following a 12-14 loss, when I had scored all 12 of our points. I felt sad, frustrated, and betrayed. Didn’t anyone else care about the success of our team?

When I was 14 years old, I was recruited to join a travel baseball team that was relatively local but built as a competitive team with the goal of playing high level games in the region. The first few practices and games felt like a dream. Everyone could hit and field their position well and took the game seriously. Although I batted in the bottom half of the lineup and switched positions to third base, I was having way more fun than on teams where I was the best player at whichever position I chose. Our coaches demanded a high level of achievement, and we all relished the opportunity to compete and succeed. We learned to lose games graciously, however there was no joy in the dugout after those losses, and the wins felt even sweeter since the success was a team effort where everyone was contributing.

That summer of playing U14 competitive travel baseball was my moment of clarity in understanding the message Michael Dell was trying to convey in his UT commencement speech. Not only did I learn that I didn’t want to be the best, most athletic, most skilled player on my team, but I also learned the importance of having shared values and goals when being part of a group. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the goals and values of my teammates who didn’t take sports and winning as seriously as I did – I was just experiencing the nonalignment of those goals and values.

While winning is thrilling, and definitely a lot of fun, standing alongside others you align with and trust makes the entire journey all the more special and worthwhile. It’s amazing what a team can accomplish when all members are working together, and for each other, toward a common goal.