The quest for technical best is a form of hiding. You can hide from the marketplace because you're still practicing your technique. And you can hide from the hard work of real art and real connection because you decide that success lies in being the best technically, at getting a 99 instead of a 98 on an exam.
What we can become the best at is being an idiosyncratic exception to the standard. (my emphasis) Joshua Bell is often mentioned (when violinists are mentioned at all) not because he is technically better than every other violinst, but because of his charisma and willingness to cross categories. He's the best in the world at being Josh Bell, not the best in the world at playing the violin.
The same trap happens to people who are coding in Java, designing furniture or training to be a corporate coach. It's a seductive form of self motivation, the notion that we can push and push and stay inside the lines and through sheer will, become technically perfect and thus in demand. Alas, it's not going to happen for most of us. (my emphasis)
Achieving ever-higher technical proficiency in our occupations is seductive, but fruitless. Past a certain point of competency, the ways we need to develop become less about specific skills and more about infusing our own personality, strengths and point of view into the work that we do.
Knowing when to start this process can be difficult. Our organizations often resist the idea because they are focused on "competencies" and "career ladders," which from their perspective are easier to manage.
Companies, especially large ones, are in the business of bureaucratizing and codifying work, which lends itself to a focus on technical proficency at the expense of the person. They need this for efficiency and productivity and because it's easier to do than supporting the development of individual people. Less risky, too. If you supported the growth of individuals, then they might take that growth someplace else. Better to focus on making people great at working for YOUR company, rather than helping them to be better in general.
For many organizations, it's just not part of the culture to look at the growth and development of individual people, so counting on your employer to signal when it's time to make the shift is useless.
Instead, my friends, you have to find this time for yourself.
For some people, the itch to be more than just a collection of skills, to become that "idiosyncratic exception to the standard," is felt as a certain restlessness and boredom with their profession. There's an urge to tweak and shape and be more authentic at work, a certain rebelliousness of spirit that begins to take hold.
For others, there are no signals. Just a sinking into inertia, a "going through the motions" approach that sucks the life from them and makes going to work a chore.
Regardless of how it manifests, the only cure for the disease is to shift your focus. You must move from building your technical skills to infusing your work with your unique gifts, talents and points of view. This is the time for you to dig deeper into yourself, to excavate the buried treasure and bring it to the surface where you can use it to construct something only you can create.
Last week I wrote about social artistry and how this is the work of using who you are to create spaces for learning and growth. Ultimately, I would argue that this is where most of us need to land in terms of own career development. We need to find our core strengths and the key talents we bring to what what we do and find ways to infuse these parts of ourselves into the work.
What this ultimately looks like will vary, of course. I have no recipe or easy list of steps I can give you to make it happen. It is really a messy, iterative process of working each day to uncover the core of who you are and to bring that authenticity to your work.
Although I can't tell you HOW to do this, I can tell you what it feels like when you get it right. You will feel energized and whole. What you do will feel like art, like a passion, rather than drudgery or a series of steps you must take to achieve a soulless end. Your work will feel "right" to you, like you're fitting into a slot that you made for yourself, rather than forcing yourself into a slot made for you by others. You won't feel like you are wearing a mask or assuming a role at work. You will feel like YOU being great at what you do.
So don't shoot for technical competency long past the time when you've achieved it. Instead, stay alert for the time when you must make the shift from the being good at your occupation to being great at being you. That's what "being the best" is really about.