They Told Us the Only Thing That Matters Is Being Number One

I know better now

Yi Shun Lai
Human Parts
Published in
3 min readApr 24, 2022
close-up of the base of a trophy. Cheesy blue-and-gold sticker reads “1st place” with stars everywhere.
“first place” by EvelynGiggles is marked with CC BY 2.0.

You can listen to the Soundcloud recording of this post here.

I sometimes think of myself as a failed experiment. My parents hoped I’d be valedictorian of everything, but my college GPA was a dismal 3.2, and I’m convinced I only ended up in AP Calculus because of a clerical error. (I have the same last name as someone who really was AP-Calculus-qualified.)

I really only participated in one high school sport, and I only earned my varsity letter after three years on junior varsity because the coach took pity on me.

It’s easy to say now that there’s not much I excelled in and feel okay about it, but back then, it was labeled as — and felt like — dramatic, total failure.

“It’s pointless if you don’t win,” was the message I got, and since I never won at anything, maybe everything felt pointless. (Oh, there were a few wins, I guess: My suggestion for the name of our elementary-school year-end fête was selected — “Ye Jolly Olde Renaissance Faire,” wha?)

renaissance-era oil painting of a man with questionable facial hair and a huge hat. His eyes are rolled upwards in sheer reverence at the glass of champagne he is holding in his left hand; his right hand looks as if it’s blessing the glass.
Photo by Europeana on Unsplash

Still, I plugged away, and at 47, I’m feeling pretty okay about life. Most days I think life is pretty great, actually. I live in southern California, so some days it’s literally all sunshine and an annoying rose bush in my backyard that I have to keep on trimming.

What changed?

It’s not like I suddenly became a winner. Why I once came in dead last in a triathlon! (Check that off the list, and don’t tell my parents.) In the races I run I usually come somewhere in the bottom of the top half — or in the top of the bottom half!

No, what happened is that I started valuing competency over everything else. “I can do that” became a thing I strive for, as opposed to “I should only try this if I can excel at it.”

Here is a partial list of things I am okay at, and their attached caveats:

  • Cooking, except near everything I make is ugly.
  • Running, except I am slow…



Yi Shun Lai
Human Parts

Author: A SUFFRAGISTS’S GUIDE TO THE ANTARCTIC (2024), Pin Ups (2020). Columnist, The Writer.; @gooddirt. Psst: Say “yeeshun.” You can do it!