the best of the best


View of New Orleans from my friend’s apartment

This post comes as something of a surprise. I would have thought I’d be talking directly about New Orleans.

I arrived this past Saturday to a scene I’ve never really been a part of. No, no, I’m not talking about the music or bar scene. I’m acquainted well enough with both, though truth be told I rarely participate in either. (I’m a “goodie goodie,” remember? Drinking has never really been my thing.) No, I’m talking about the medical academic scene, or, more specifically, the ivy league medical academic scene.

My friend is an internal medicine resident at Tulane, one of the most highly regarded and selective research universities in the nation. Yes, she’s smart stuff, and I’m proud to know her, but I don’t usually think of her as such. To me, she’s just April, my best friend from forever, and that’s enough. All the rest is just fluff.

So at dinner the other night I was surprised as I was talking to another internal medicine resident, a friend of April’s, when he told me about his experience as an undergraduate at Yale. He’d been top of his class all his life — was used to being the “smart guy,” so he said — but at Yale he was suddenly surrounded by people who were “just as smart as me!” His demeanor wasn’t as cocky as his words sounded, but his comment immediately launched me to the meditative — though the conversation went on (to literature references, so as to include me, as though because I was an English major I must have read every classic there ever was), my mind was far away.

Certainly there is something to be said for the competitive nature of medicine. It takes a lot of brains to become a physician, and not just anyone can, or should, go into medicine. I for one would have struggled to get through medical school. (Science, like drinking, was never my thing.) But . . . I guess my question is: What is the value of being the “best of the best”?


April lives near the old Projects (which are being torn down) and the cemetery where Tennessee Williams and Louis Armstrong are buried.

While living in Hong Kong I read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. In the book, Chua, a Harvard Law School graduate, talks about the time she tied for first place in a high school science competition. While many parents would have been thrilled, Chua’s Chinese-emigrant parents reacted quite differently. “Don’t ever embarrass me like that again,” her father said. Ouch!

And as I sat there listening, that scene came to mind, and I wondered if I shouldn’t feel intimidated by the people around me; or, rather if they might expect me to be. I am no Harvard or Yale graduate. I wouldn’t have made it into an ivy league school even if I’d applied. These guys were Einsteins. So what did that say about me?

Funny thing was: I wasn’t intimidated. At least, not fully. I may have gone to a no-name school in Tennessee and be self-conscious about many things, but if there is one thing I am proud of, it is my intellect. I’ve always loved ideas, and connecting them. And I didn’t need an ivy league school to teach me that. Truth be told, there is no school that could teach me to be me.


P.S. Today is my dad’s birthday, and my brother’s was on the 30th. Happy Birthday!

Image: Mine

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34 thoughts

    • Yes, I’ve thought that, too, Kenneth. Mostly, though, I think we as people are more than our academic scores. I’d rather be well-rounded and warm-hearted than an un-relatable Einstein.

  1. “I would *not* have thought…” You may want to add the word “not.”

    When you mention literary references, I often marvel that smart people, like medical doctors, are often just as informed about them as someone who studies English. I am sure my dad, also a student of Yale and Stanford, later a Urologist, knew of English lit.

    I think they just have a general ability to do well. After all, they have almost as many core classes of English as the rest. A doctor, pediatrician friend of mine was a walking encyclopedia.

    It has always been quite horrible when I want to attack meritocracy with people who have so much going for them. My uncle, an electrical engineer, who worked with Teller on the hydrogen bomb was never presumptuous. I remember reading one of his publications and his command of the English language was flawless. I like how these people of the sciences are so succinct and exacting. They are not wordy and the words they choose are probably the best descriptions of events in their parlance.

    I think the truly intelligent are often the kindest because they know there is so much more to know. But, of course in knowing so much you can become overwhelmed and then jaded.

    Like you I have these friends, who will later confide in me that what I was doing was marvelous. A writer, for example, is a good writer if he/she adheres to the truth.

    And like you, I didn’t need to go to a fancy school. I always wanted to because of the self-respect I seem to be missing, but I didn’t know how to write until I finished college. It took that many years to gain confidence that my thoughts about things were sufficient. I remember after getting my BA in Speech that I went back to school and studied Photography, wrote and photographed for the school paper. It was then that I started writing articles exactly as I wanted and they were beautiful. A man, who was an executive for a large company said I should be writing for The Rolling Stone magazine after he read my review of the movie Naked Lunch. Doctors read these magazines and they read The New Yorker.

    I think we just narrow down what it is we love most to do and we take whatever income and social esteem that provides. Sometimes, we do jobs that have nothing to do with who we are because we have to survive.

    I cannot be my father, although I tried. I am more like my mother, who I admire just as much. She walked into her first advertising job with a band-box look and flourished.

    And you Ms. Butterfly, have my ear. I know what you mean having to listen to these geniuses and at least for me, knowing I often wait for them at the restaurant, while they discuss extravagant terms, I wish I weren’t such a nobody and always so defensive, but I plan to carry-out projects the rest of my life proving that I can perform the eloquence of an idea. As my mother said, I do exactly what I intend.

  2. Glad you made it safely, sounds like a thought-provoking dinner. The best of the best, kind of seems pointless if it’s done for purely egocentric purposes. In my opinion if one doesn’t have something worth to give the world then being the best you can be is a far more rewarding place to be. I could be mistaken but I don’t believe Einstein was the best of the best in school yet he managed to do okay ;) same with Van Gogh. Happy b-day to the family.

    • The best you can be… I like that, Benjamin. I like that a lot. And I agree about egocentric purposes versus giving something of worth to the world. I’m pretty Mother Teresa didn’t have her PhD. ;) And thanks for the well-wishes! I’m off to a wedding rehearsal right now. Hope your weekend is off to a great start!

  3. I think the ‘best of the best’ varies for most of us. Some think being the best is being smart and knowing a lot of scientific facts and want to climb that eternal corporate ladder. Doing jobs we don’t feel a connection to to survive…sounds like someone is trying to make the most of the opportunities in front of them at the moment because there isn’t anything else more worthwhile doing at the moment. In frustrating times like these, I think we come to learn who we are and what we love doing.

    • I can’t disagree with anything you said, Mabel. I too believe the best of the best varies for everyone, or, rather, the best we can be… Some people were made for science. I was not one of them. But I guess my point is that I don’t feel I am less of a person because my education was not ivy league. I am every bit as capable as someone who went to Harvard or Yale. It’s just that my path — and yours (or whoever’s) — is different.

  4. You don’t need to have a degree from “X” University to be smart, funny, etc. Our experiences in life have just as much impact on our intellect as any book ever will. I would venture to say that while they were experiencing their textbooks, you lived a whole lot more by experiencing Hong Kong. Good post!

    • Thank you, Guy! I love your point about learning from experiences versus textbooks. I’ve thought about that a lot over the last few years. If I’d gone straight to graduate school after college, how different my perspective would be! There is nothing like living in a different country to open your eyes to the world. I wouldn’t trade my experiences in Taiwan and Hong Kong for anything.

  5. Being able to regurgitate academic facts does not make someone a genius, although it may help considerably in securing certain kinds of careers. Mental acuity and imaginative creativity is what makes someone a genius on par with Einstein, and perhaps even more clever than that!
    The innovators are the ones who can think and dream in creative ways, and I think you are more than adept in your field :)
    Have a great weekend Jess!

    • Thank you, Ishaiya! I feel we all have different talents — for a reason! I also feel there are many ways to success, and that just because a person does not go to an ivy league school does not mean that they are not just as capable or should feel intimidated by those who do. You are right about mental acuity and creative genius. And I guess that’s what I mean when I say I am proud of my intellect! I also happen to think you should feel proud about yours, too. ;)
      Hope you have a great weekend, too! Mine has been a whirlwind so far! :)

  6. “(Science, like drinking, was never my thing.)” :o) Best line ever…

    There’s smart, and then there’s wise. Me, I’ll take a wise man (or woman) over a smart guy (or girl) any day of the week.

    • Haha. You’re easy to please if you think *that’s* the best line ever. ;)

      I was thinking about that, too. There are many different kinds of smart. There’s the really smart doctor who can’t relate to people. And then there’s the dumb jock (to use a stereotype and cliche) who everyone loves. I think the key to success is to be well-rounded, to find the balance in between. I don’t want to be a genius in my field and dumb about life.

  7. I envy your confidence in your intellect. I lack that. Every time that I begin to gain confidence, I find myself knocked backwards one again. However, I wouldn’t have been intimidated by any medical personnel…I worked as an RN for too many years to be intimidated by that group ;) Great post!

    • Thanks, Jess. No, I wouldn’t say I’m confident all of the time. The thing that frustrates me most, though, are the things I know I can do something about. I *can* read more and *can* relearn the things I’ve forgotten since college. I am not at all confident in my grasp of the various philosopher’s contributions to societal progression of thought, for example, and I surely *am* intimidated by my more scientific-minded friends. What I *am* confident about, however, is my ability to engage in a meaningful, rational, and intellectual conversation. I am not afraid to admit when I don’t know something, and I’m smart enough to reason things out with others and for myself.

  8. The best of the best…I like this title. The people out there who have succeeded academically really have put in the time to excel and that is pretty cool. They have my respect and a very good dose of positive envy. I feel the same way about people who may not have even gone to college, but picked a profession where they excel and and have experience many people could only dream about…they too have a gift. Wisdom is the great equalizer, and for those who live life well are the same ones who I think end up being the people we all admire. You are well on your way :-)

    • Thank you, Randall. I fully agree that there are different ways to success, and different kinds of wise. As I’ve stated in other responses, I don’t want to be really smart in one area but dumb at life. Truth be told, I’m not at all confident in my wellspring of knowledge or ability to regurgitate facts or even ideas. This is what I want to work on. What I *am* confident about, however, is my ability to say “I don’t know — tell me more” and to connect ideas in a rational and meaningful manner. I fully agree that those who realize their dreams by *not* following the rules should be applauded in the same way as those who push themselves to the limits academically. Wisdom *is* the equalizer, and our differences are what make this life a beautiful thing.

    • Haha, Professor! It certainly will. That’s why I really try to focus on just being the best “me” I can be. I can’t compete with the whole world — and, really, why try?!

  9. Another excellent topic by the immutable Jess. I’ve never been intimidated, just unreasonably impressed. That all changed for me a few years ago when I realized that everybody is relatively dumb. There are a few of us who know a lot about a couple things, but in the vast expanse of things, we each are quite limited. From that perspective, I’m not all that impressed with anybody. Ironically, this makes it easier to love people because I’m not concerned with rating myself against them.

    • Ahh, such a good point, Lucas. That’s part of what I was trying to say with this post, but what I really did a rather shoddy job of doing. The people I met at Tulane were very smart in their various fields, but put them in a kitchen? In a classroom (as a teacher)? In real life? I’d rather be smart at life — thoughtful and kind — than worry about being an Einstein in one field. None of us can know everything, and you’re right: That’s kind of nice. It really does level the playing field.

      Hope you’ve been well!!!

  10. I have been feeling quite dumb lately. I have asked myself to figure out why, and alas, myself cannot come up with any answers. I know enough to identify a nice day in those shots of the sky. I like how those puffy clouds line up and space out. I imagine a cloud coach yelling, “alright arms length from all your neighbors, and keep electron discharges to yourself.”

    • Lol. You’re far from dumb, Mike! We all are experts in our own field. The next time I need a real push in my outdoor workout, I know who to turn to… (Not to mention a lot of people in New Orleans, including the medical residents I talked to, could use a little help with their workout routine, too!!)

      We *did* have some beautiful weather while I was there. Humid, too!

  11. What is best of best? It can be shortlived because someone else will come along being better thab best (can it be written this way? lol…) And you are the best at being You. But what’s the point of being the best if fear of not being able to hold on to being the best prevent one from being happy? :D

    • That is a REALLY great point, Sam! I fully agree that our primary concern should be to be the best that we can be. Worrying about anything else is just silly… because you’re right! It’s only by being the best that we can be — and quitting worrying about everyone else — that we can truly be happy. :) You’re so wise!

  12. I’m glad you weren’t intimidated. I found myself writing a response just for myself at 4 am while reading the Tiger Mother a few yrs back. The piece evolved 100x over into a magazine article that’s been out this summer, a revision of this:

    I didn’t even know how to tag back then. I realize later the post didn’t even show up on the Reader. LOL. But hope you enjoy.

    Xxx Diana

    • Haha, it’s funny how our concept of blogging evolves and grows over time, isn’t it? I keep thinking I need to go back to some of my older posts and re-tag and categorize them…

      That book was intense, wasn’t it? At parts I found it boring, but the overall ideas Chua expressed really got my mind reeling, especially since I was living in Hong Kong and dating a local at the time… Do you have a link to the full magazine article you wrote? I’d love to see it!

      Thanks for reading and sharing! :) Jess

      • I have to put up my magazine articles one of these days. I’ll let you know if I do, though I know you pop in now and then. Your mentioning the local you were seeing reminds me that you would’ve read Tiger Mom quite differently than I did. So very much of it resonated with me, as I mentioned in the intro to my article, for the east coast milieu as well as the Asian culture that were the very fabric of my upbringing. I also share in her temperament (gah)!

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