Number one or number two?

I was reading an interview with Steven Soderbergh the other day. There were lots of interesting answers, but this one stuck out for me:

I was watching one of those iconoclast shows on the Sundance Channel. Jamie Oliver said Paul Smith had told him something he hadn’t understood until very recently: “I’d rather be No. 2 forever than No. 1 for a while.” Just make stuff and don’t agonize over it. Stop worrying about being No. 1. I see a lot of people getting paralyzed by the response to their work, the imagined result. It’s like playing a Jedi mind trick on yourself, and Smith is right. That’s the way I’ve always approached films, the way I approach everything. Just make ’em.

OK, so it’s actually a point from Paul Smith via Jamie Oliver, but that interests me even more. Soderbergh, Smith and Oliver are all incredibly successful people in very competitive fields. They have innovated, gone against the grain, maintained their relevance and produced work of a very high standard for much longer than most of their peers.

And yet…

I think it’s fair to say that they are also capable of producing a lot of work that is less inspiring. For every time Jamie tries to take on the entire government there are several books on how to make a quick meal, and his restaurants are good but never great. Paul Smith can make a nice suit but he’s no Alexander McQueen or Miuccia Prada, restlessly forging ahead  to push past the boundaries of creativity. And Soderbergh’s great films (Solaris, Out Of Sight, Traffic etc.) are more than matched in number by the not-so-great (Ocean’s 13, The Girlfriend Experience, The Good German etc.), leaving his rating behind that of people like David Fincher or Paul Thomas Anderson.

So the idea of ‘just making stuff and not agonising over it’ seems like a good one. If you are a creative person of a certainly quality you might as well just keep moving forward. Some things will work better than others but the risks are worth taking and there’s certainly no shame in producing less than 10/10 every single time.

I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of people would love to have had the careers of Oliver, Smith or Soderbergh. If the philosophy that informed those three lives was one of ‘number two forever beats number one for a while’ then maybe that’s not such a bad way of going about your day.

(Perhaps this is all a bit too theoretical. I wish I were number two in any of my fields.)