There’s No Crowd on the Leading Edge

Peak-SuccessWe all strive to be better people and to embody what most of us call excellence. But there’s a fairly large gap between excellence and what we might call innovation. Both qualities live on the leading edge. Excellence surpasses what might be considered required or average performance where innovation takes our actions into expanding beyond the envelope of what is expected in terms of perspective and options. In accomplishing either there’s also a tremendous difference in the rapport we can expect to have with others, especially our peer group, relative to the support we might also expect to come from them. Being on the leading edge can be extremely exciting but at the same time disconcertingly lonely.

Portraying excellence sometimes embodies a few unexpected twists but it, invariably and generally, matches some “job description” or intended and publicly assumed goal. With whatever is accomplished there remains a sense of consistency and the feeling that things will go on as they are and that we are all on the “right path.” Humans love consistency. It provides a reassuring and solid point of reference for us to know that we stand within the specified limits of what is possible for the average person and what will be acceptable by our society’s majority for our approval, continued support and our guaranteed sense of belonging. In this we remain part of the herd and will keep receiving their shelter and protection. Innovation moves way past excellence in what is expected, however. It does have its perks in connecting us with like minded individuals who usually, end up becoming our support system. But even there, jealousy and resentment can rear its ugly head but, perhaps, not quite as much as simply excelling past our limits.

This regard for excellence and hero worship has spawned many proverbs and myths about socially desired perspectives designed to promote success but within specified social parameters protecting the status quo so everyone may feel safe and secure within accepted guidelines. “Everybody loves a winner” is one of our proliferated social proverbs. On the surface it requires our expected, and usually granted, public adulation of the winner but underneath it sparks cloaked jealousy and resentment within “average” people. Why?

Within our contemporary social context we have a spoken, unspoken and often accepted assumption that to be considered “good” and productive by others we must always strive to do our best and even more so when life and its circumstances challenge our survival and our comfort. But living life with life’s challenges can often be overwhelming and draining of whatever energy we have well past our capacity to regenerate it and resume our struggle. In light of this perceived “battering” we often assess our resiliency as not being “up to snuff’ with what we think others expect us to cope with. This tends to lead us to feel “badly” about ourselves and to either hide our perceived inadequacies or, if they are too obvious, rationalize them away. We may also find refuge with others through commiseration. Generally, if we don’t commiserate we just accept “discommendation,” pull back and refocus elsewhere. This is not a self-empowering feeling when we live in what we might perceive as a highly competitive society. However, we usually just do our best to put I out of our minds.

When someone exhibits excellence in something we have struggled with and have not been able to overcome, it resurfaces our feelings of frustration, overwhelming and defeat. Depending on our level of maturity, strength of self-confidence and if the person achieving excellence is “one of our clan” will determine how we react. If the person is “one of our clan” we may have mixed reactions; partly happy for them and the group and partly sad about our own experience with our past efforts. If either or both of our maturity or self-confidence are below the threshold of feeling compassion, we will tend to congratulate them outwardly and resent them privately.

Achieving excellence puts us in a precarious position with our friends, loved ones and peer group. First, it puts us in a position of leadership whether we want it or not. This, in itself, can put us into circumstances which accelerate resentment and competition among and with those who “follow” us. Second, it puts us into a position that, were we to repeat the challenge, we would be expected to repeat our excelling performance, at the least, to the degree that would qualify us for continued accolades regardless as to whether the circumstances had remained the same or had become more difficult. Third, if we did not repeat our performance to the level that we gained accolades for on a subsequent challenge, those who “followed” us would denigrate us mercilessly. Why? Because we had been reluctantly elevated, to a level of “better than,” by them, and was expected to and failed to “spearhead” as a “point man” the task that no one else could or would do leaving a vacuum that someone else will have to fill and, potentially, fail at revealing their perceived inadequacies.

In no way am I attempting to discourage anyone from attempting and achieving excellence and innovation. However, it is necessary to become aware that the support system or even the commiseration that once came with being part of an “average” or “regular” group of people may often change from what we expect from them. The security, belonging and acceptance of being just one of the “regular guys” evaporates when we outstrip our peers in performance. Our excelling performance reminds them of what they should or could be doing exposing their self doubts and, if they employ projection, they begin to look at us as a problem diminishing their self-image in the presence of their peers and the world. I actually had a coworker say to me, “Don’t work so fast. You’re making us look bad.” This type of attitude tends to make them distance themselves from us allowing their self-doubts to again retreat into their shadow and then validate their withdrawal by commiserating with the remaining peer group about their differences from us through rationalizing their perceived inadequacies.

There is one other perspective that I wish to bring to your attention. And that is the plight of a family member who is used as a “catch all” for blame when the family is unable to either accomplish something or live up to a standard that’s “required” for social approval. This is can also be a person who moves onto the leading edge relative to their family’s health and functioning. This family member then becomes the “scapegoat.” Even though they may receive derision for being the cause of perceived but hidden family “incompetence,” they still receive a form of family protection and inclusion through maintaining the dysfunctional family rapport with the perceived family inadequacies by keeping them covered and hidden from public knowledge. When the “scapegoat” moves past his or her role as sustainer of the projected family mask by reclaiming his or her own self-respect and dignity, the family feels intensely threatened and will subject him or her to much more pressure while additionally threatening them with “excommunication” lest they return to their prior supportive role in keeping the family secrets intact and unexposed. As we can see here also, excellence and innovation are relative to what is expected regardless of the level we start at.

There's no Crowd on the Leading Edge. Not only must we deal with the challenge of the circumstances that we strive to overcome to be an excellent or innovative performer, but we must also deal with potential feelings of jealousy and resentment coming from our immature co-workers or family members who were either unable or unwilling to achieve excellence on their own. Our fate is often in becoming the object of gossip and, perhaps, being ostracized. Being on the leading edge can truly be exciting AND a lonely place. It often requires us to make a choice between remaining as a safe and secure sheep among the “average” in the herd or moving past our limits to accomplish what others may only dream of. All of us must eventually choose.

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