Let me give you a completely ridiculous, totally implausible scenario.
While you’re sitting in line at the DMV, or in some other scenario with a fairly representative cross-section of society, aliens abduct you and everyone else in the room/mall/town/whatever. The aliens have been watching the NBA playoffs, and they are now totally infatuated with basketball, but they can’t play because they’re gaseous, or they have no hands, or something sufficiently debilitating. So they take all these random humans (since they don’t know how to evaluate talent for this kind of thing, they just know to find humans), and they whisk them off to this faraway space arena, and they set up a tournament. Let’s say they abducted 1,000 random people, so they form a hundred teams of ten, completely randomly, and they give you cool uniforms and set up a schedule and all that. Your motivation is this; if you lose before, say, the third round, they eat you, or launch you into space, or if you’re turned off by the morbidity (and randomness) of that, assume that you just end up living relatively crappy life as a human refugee who’s viewed as not good at the one thing humans are known for being good at. In short, it’d be really, really good for you to get past the third round. There’s no prep time. One minute, you’re looking for a Cinnabon, and the next, you’re in the arena, getting ready to play your first game. It’s single elimination. You’ve never spoken to any of your teammates, who are totally random people (let’s say Americans, just to keep it somewhat simplified) of wildly different ages, physical makeups, and backgrounds.
I wonder how I, and other people I know, would fit into this scenario. I mean, I spent a lot of time playing in basketball games where I’m average, or slightly below average, but at the same time, I spend a lot of time playing in basketball games. I’m 29 years old, just under six feet, 175 pounds, and I can jump pretty high — don’t all those things put me at a distinct advantage against my typical opponent/teammate? Sure, there are lots of people — total — who are better than I am despite being older, or fatter, or out of shape, but out of the entire world population? The odds can’t be that high. Look around you right now; are you the best basketball player in the room right now? Top three? Top five? I think it’s very likely I’m the best basketball player in my entire office. That’s simultaneously saying a lot, and not saying very much at all at the same time, which I suppose is really the point of this whole exercise.
We spend a lot of time being informed, through analysis, competition, or conversation, of how good we are at different things compared to the best people on Earth. That’s what we aspire to, in general. But almost none of us actually live in that aspiration-based world; we play in rec leagues, record CDs, we write witty e-mails, we try to make our spouses and kids laugh; we try to be the best looking person in the bar (okay, some of us do; I try to not be at the bar, but I’m trying to be as inclusive as possible here). We THINK we have a good sense of where we are in this giant life pyramid, from things like high school — but despite the cliche, life is really almost nothing like high school (or any other school). How many of the people who were good at basketball in, say, 6th grade, still play basketball? How many kids who were great writers became engineers, or discovered World of Warcraft, or beer, or just got bored with it, and watched their skills erode? Is anyone still good at “Magic : The Gathering”?
And then, take that weathered, diffused bunch of students, and throw them into a pot with the other generations of people who are still around, or just now entering the real world. Where does everyone stack up now?
You don’t have to do this with basketball, obviously, or even something you’re relatively good at. What if the aliens liked soccer? I’d still have some advantages — big ones, even — over the elderly, and the especially unathletic. I probably know more about soccer from video games than, say, the average mom. I have, technically, played soccer against other people, even people who were pretty good (I didn’t say it went well). When my team assembled, would the crappy people look at me hopefully, expecting me to be “good” at soccer? Is it possible, or even likely, that a team composed this way would be so bad, that I might still be the best player on our team? What would that experience even be like? What if it was a giant Halo tournament? Or some competitive version of a random craft activity, like weaving? My Mom would end up getting all these endorsements, and I’d be like Mark Madsen, running out and high fiving her during timeouts, hoping I’m never actually called on do anything important.
The possibilities are endless. So keep practicing whatever it is you do — just in case the aliens come.