If you’ve ever tried to join a football team, they always ask.
“How good are you?”
What does that even mean?
If you compare me to everyone in the whole world, I am definitely in the top quintile!
NOTE: if you divide a population into five equal groups, each group will have 20% of the people. Those groups are called quintiles. The best 20% are in the top quintile.
Saying that I am in the top 20% of everyone in the world doesn’t say very much though because most people have never played football. What if we just focus on the people who have played football recreationally?
If you compare me to everyone who has played football recreationally, I am definitely in the top quintile!
That still doesn’t help us figure out if I am good enough to play on your team. I’ve played with a lot of folks who never figured out that you can kick the ball harder if you bend your leg when you kick it or that kicking with your big toe is not the best option. We need to narrow the field a bit more. Maybe the next group is everyone who plays regularly and strives to be the best they can be. Call them amateurs.
If you compare me to all the amateurs who play at least once per week, I am probably in the second or third quintile. I can hold my own in a competitive league but a lot of players are much better than me.
I played a lot of football in the States in some very competitive leagues and we won a lot of tournaments. My team was usually one of the better teams but I was usually in the middle of the pack in ability.
Every now and again, an ex-professional or even an ex-international player would join the league and those guys were just so much better than everyone else, it was hard to compete with them.
I was in a really crappy indoor 7-a-side team for a while that played in the bottom division at Off The Wall and this Mexican team joined our division because they could only play on Thursday nights (crappy team night). They just stood in a circle around our penalty area and played keepy-uppy, scoring goals with headers when they got bored. Even their goalie came and joined them. I think we only touched the ball twice and they beat us 24-0.
People who play professionally — even if they only play for Cray Wanderers or Welling United — are just so much better than everyone who plays socially. They belong in their own category. Maybe the top quintile of professionals gets to play in the Premiership but I think there is still room for one more category.
Among the very best players who play in the World Cup or in the Champions League, there is still a big difference between your David Beckhams and your Emile Heskeys; your Paul Gascoignes and your Peter Crouches. I’d call this last category the truly world-class and the top quintile in this group will be remembered down the ages.
To summarize, we’ve got five categories. I’ll call them:
- Everyone (E)
- Recreational (R)
- Amateur (A)
- Professional (P)
- World Class (WC)
Now, if someone asks me how good I am at football, I can say I am in the third quintile of amateurs (maybe the second quintile on a good day). I am A3 (or A2). Actually, make that ‘was A3’. I tried to join a team here in Bristol but they only let me play for 10 minutes and they never called me back. My footballing days are over.
What about other abilities?
I tried pretty hard to learn the guitar but I never got past the bottom quintile of recreational guitar players (R5). I was a bit better at piano; maybe R4 and maybe R2 at harmonica. I feel like I reached my peak at all of those. I enjoyed playing (and still enjoy playing) but I never felt that more practice was going to help very much.
Art too. I still enjoy drawing and made it much further than I thought I would at the beginning — let’s say R3 — but I never felt there was a path to me being a great artist.
There are a few skills where I never felt like I reached my limit. When I was a kid, I was good at maths. I was first in maths at a school that regularly sent several kids to Oxbridge. A few years later, I did A-level maths in six weeks just to prove to myself that I could still do it. It was still easy.
I did about half a Maths degree with the Open University and it never really got difficult; my average grade was 95%. And yet, if I compare myself to anyone who takes maths seriously, I am nowhere. Maybe I am in the top quintile of recreational mathematicians (R1) but most amateur mathematicians would laugh at me.
I used to love maths but it bores me now. I do wonder though: if I had stuck with it, could I have been a contender? I don’t even know how to answer such a question. Same for science. I was always good at physics and chemistry and I know more about science than most people (unless they are actual scientists) but maybe I could’ve been a world class scientist if I had taken that route. Who knows?
My first career was in electronic and communications engineering. I was a sonar engineer on a ballistic missile submarine. I never felt like I was very good at it (P3, at best). Maybe I could have got better if I’d stuck with it but I never enjoyed it very much. I ditched electronic engineering and was on my second career by the time I was 23. I still love software engineering as much as I did at the start and I’m good at it. I like creating things more than I like fixing things.
Now that the end of my second career looms, I wonder what I else I could be good at if I decide to embark on a third career. I enjoy philosophy and I am pretty good at it so far but they don’t let you do philosophy for real unless you do a PhD and the idea of another 5 years of study makes my eyes glaze over. Maybe I don’t need to be good at it. Maybe I could just read the books I want to read and enjoy them and forget about being a philosopher altogether.
I like to write. Could I be a good writer? I have no idea.
I remember watching an interview with John McEnroe when he was at the top of his game. McEnroe said that, driving home, he sometimes saw a kid hitting a tennis ball against the wall. Just hitting the ball over and over. He was never going to be good at tennis, this kid, and if he wasn’t going to be world champion one day, what was the point? Why even bother?
I’ve always been competitive and would have liked to be world champion at something or other but maybe just hitting the ball is fun too.