The Brain Supremacy

From the frontiers of neuroscience

In Praise of Coming Second

There's a lot to be said for being a runner-up.

Birmingham Library, at night

Birmingham's new library

Heresy though it may be to admit it in our competitive culture, there’s a lot to be said for being runner-up. Winners may increasingly take it all in financial terms (in the US, income inequality has been rising for decades), but as Christmas should remind us, there’s more to life.

I live near England’s second city, Birmingham, and recently went there for a concert in its fabulous Symphony Hall (see my previous post). Whenever I visit Brum, I’m always conscious of being deliberately unsurprised by how pleasant it is these days. Stereotypes linger, and when I was growing up the place had a pretty poor image. For many people it still does. Besides, it’s the second city—i.e. not the first. Loser!

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The prejudice is unfair. Yes, there are parts of Brum where I wouldn’t walk alone in daylight, never mind after dark. But that’s cities for you, and Birmingham’s council has done wonders in recent years to make it an attractive and enjoyable place. Even the oppressive ugliness of New Street rail station is being transformed. Another big project, the splendid new library, was publicly-funded (fat chance of that these days) and, astonishingly, came in under budget, unlike many projects, public and private. Centenary Square, where you’ll find the library and Symphony Hall, is as handsome a space as anything you’ll see in London. And no, I’m not on commission.

Yet Birmingham is widely despised. It’s often ignorance; the national media and government, largely based in London, seem rarely to notice Brum unless someone’s been killed in it (to be fair, this is true of much else outside London). Yet the place has much to offer:

  • concert venues which attract top artists (from Andreas Scholl to Rihanna)
  • excellent sporting, arts, shopping and conference venues
  • fantastic architecture and public spaces
  • fine universities doing world-leading research. Every UK institution is now expected to do this; fewer actually manage it
  • plenty of history, science and technology

Birmingham is, after all, not only an industrial city; it was home to major artists like the pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones, great Quaker families like the Cadburys, scientists like Joseph Priestley, poets like Louis MacNeice, etc. (there’s a longer list on Wikipedia).

But it’s not London. Birmingham always comes second (if not fourth, behind London, Oxford and Cambridge, the so-called Golden Triangle).

Yet being second has its advantages. House prices, for one. They’ve rocketed in recent decades, but they’re still nowhere near the extortionate levels of the Triangle. The countryside’s easier to reach and the city easier to drive through than London—and nicer; my route into Brum soars through the spectacular Spaghetti Junction. The people seem better-humoured and less self-important, the pace less ruthlessly frenetic, and the London attitude of charging you for every possible thing hasn’t altogether permeated the Midlands. London’s a superlative city and a great place to visit, but I’m glad I don’t have to live there.

As for cities, so I suspect for people. Second-raters tend to be better balanced, pleasanter, less wearing to interact with, less highly-strung.

When I was at university, there seemed to be—at every stage, in every subject—one person singled out for special favour. We called them BMGs (‘brightest mind of their generation’). Some of them, I hope, have lived long and prospered, but many failed to develop the predicted stellar careers. Why? Because, I suspect, of the weight of confidence placed in them. Either they writhed with anxiety at having such great expectations to live up to, or they became insufferably lazy and complacent.

Some BMGs dropped out. Others now have academic jobs, and make their colleagues’ lives hell by not pulling their weight. They’re the nuisances every department suffers, the ones who wriggle out of any work they can (except research), who exploit good will until everyone longs to get rid of them. Less flashy candidates are much more useful in real-life institutions, where too many putative geniuses can be a nightmare for actually getting things done.

Real life doesn’t need a world filled with winners. Society isn’t built for it, whatever the ‘all can have prizes’ brigade would have you believe. And not everyone who doesn’t win is a loser. Some simply opt out of the game. Others, too smart to chase the fantasies of money, status and fame, value longer-term goals, like being useful and having friendships with people. In the long run, a wealth of research now suggests that chasing these goals is far better for human well-being. Winners, in other words, win at a nasty cost.

At Christmas and New Year people tend to review goals and values. Perhaps we should think about whether the constant emphasis on coming first is really as fine a thing as it’s made out to be.

Happy Christmas!

(Copyright www.neurotaylor.com)

Kathleen Taylor is a freelance science writer and researcher at Oxford University.

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