Thoughtful ThursdayMy real estate agent isn’t that great. Not terrible by any means, but not the best. My now-former house has been for sale since my mother’s health took a turn for the worse, almost 6 months before she died, which was over a year ago. That means my house has been for sale for a year and a half. It’s been empty for 3 months and counting. We keep dropping the price, and it keeps not getting bought. Our agent does all the things she’s supposed to do, but we can’t help but feel that if we had someone top-notch, they’d be doing more. More marketing, more staging, smarter pricing from the outset, something. It may be the horrendously crappy real estate market, or it may be her.

The catch is that we can’t fire her, and we couldn’t have gone with any other agent — because she is my now-former boss’s wife. He never said that I had to use his wife, but it seemed like it could really be asking for trouble if I didn’t.

DH has a good friend who is the opposite kind of real estate agent, in a different city. He’s the kind you see on billboards. Everyone in the industry knows him. He’s been featured on one of those TV shows that follows someone looking for a new house. If we lived in his city, we’d be obligated to use him, the same way we’re obligated to use my boss’s wife, but I’m glad that we’re not. He is The Best, and he knows it. Maybe because he and DH have been friends for more than 30 years he’d give us extra personal attention rather than charming us at key points in the process and delegating all of the real work to his underlings. Maybe. But he is The Best because of volume, not because of personal attention. No, in the case of real estate I’d rather have someone who wants the best price for me rather than the fastest sale for him. I’d rather have someone who is good but not a superstar.

In many domains, though, I do extensive research to find The Best. Burrito and Tamale’s first pediatrician was absolutely the best in the area, in terms of both skill and bedside manner. My first RE was one of the most famous in the world; my 2nd RE was the most respected in the region. Each car we have bought has been the absolute best possible choice for our needs at the time. Twice I have worked for one of the most important people in the world in my field; both times I have gotten mistreated and been miserable, but I also ended up with letters of recommendation from two of the most important people in our world, and for the rest of my career people will say, “Oh, you worked with him? Wow. He’s my hero.”

In other domains, I settle for fine. For example, the guy who plowed our driveway was fine — I don’t know if it’s even possible to be the best at plowing driveways. Even if it was, how much better could the best plow guy be than the fine one? What difference would it really make? Sometimes, beyond driveways, it does matter. Trust me, when it comes to dentistry it matters — I once had a filling fall out because the crappy dentist hadn’t removed all of the decay. When it comes to selling a house, so far it’s made $100K of difference in the asking price (and counting? please, no, just let it sell, c’mon, please?).

When I was a child athlete, the difference between best and fine was the difference between 1st place and 3rd place.

I was a competitive figure skater as a kid. I was not blessed with natural athletic talent, but I had been taking dance since I was 2, which made me flexible and graceful. I don’t know how my mother chose my skating coaches. My main coach, Brenda, was very nice. Everyone in the rink liked her. Her students did pretty well in competitions. I, however, was perennially 3rd place. There was a Girl Who Won Everything, and every time I moved up to the next level she did too. She was way better than I was, but somehow she didn’t advance faster than I did. It was really annoying. That explained not being 1st, but I almost never got 2nd either. I just wasn’t that good. Not that I was the worst; I usually scored above the middle of the pack. But once I was the only one in my division, and I didn’t get 1st place. They only gave 1st if you deserved it. I was the only competitor, and I placed 2nd. Humiliating.

The Girl Who Won Everything had a very young coach, Tania. When I started skating, Tania wasn’t a coach, just a teenager who skated at the same rink. Then, when she turned 18, she became a coach. And, because Tania had been one of us, a bunch of kids left their coaches and went to her. She was fun and young and so nice, and good. Really good. I stayed loyal to Brenda. I went to her wedding. I helped her evaluate potential baby names. I accidentally blew out the candle on her baby’s first birthday cake. We had a relationship.

Meanwhile, Tania’s students started winning. And winning. And winning. Especially the Girl Who Won Everything, but everyone else too. They collectively swept every competition.

One day, my mother arranged for me to have a single lesson with Tania. I would still be staying with Brenda (and my 2nd coach; don’t ask me why an 11 year old who’s not that good has to have 2 different coaches, but I did), but everyone knew that Brenda’s students were killing it, even the kids who weren’t naturally talented, and I wanted to know what the fuss was about. I had just one lesson with her. In that one lesson, Tania completely changed the way I jumped. I was a better skater after 45 minutes with her. My muscle memory can still recall how it feels to jump the old way vs. the Tania way — I can’t do it anymore, but my brain remembers exactly how Tania taught me to jump twice as high. She was clearly The Best. Yet I stayed with Brenda, fine but unremarkable Brenda.

I don’t know what might have happened if I’d switched to Tania from the start, or what might have happened if I’d switched after that life-changing lesson. Maybe I would have stuck with skating longer. I was never destined for the Olympics, but maybe I could have learned to do the double and triple axels that Tania’s students were doing. I probably would have received at least a few 1st place trophies, which seemed so important at the time even though all of my trophies and medals are gone forever now: after my mother’s death they were all thrown away when her house was cleared out.

Or maybe if I’d switched to Tania, I wouldn’t have learned the feeling of being with someone mediocre and knowing that you could do better, knowing that you are trapped by your own inertia. That feeling is now embedded deep within me. When I should be choosing something better, I feel it at such a visceral level. That feeling has saved me from bad doctors and loser boyfriends and inferior cupcakes. That feeling is why I will find a kick-ass real estate agent for the next house.

When do you want The Best? When do you settle for fine?