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The Perils of Being the Best

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"It got so that every pissant prairie punk who thought he could shoot a gun would ride into town to try out the Waco Kid. I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille. It got pretty gritty. I started to hear the word "draw" in my sleep. Then one day, I was just walking down the street when I heard a voice behind me say, "Reach for it, mister!" I spun around... and there I was, face to face with a six-year-old kid. Well, I just threw my guns down and walked away. Little bastard shot me in the ass. So I limped to the nearest saloon, crawled inside a whiskey bottle... and I've been there ever since."
The Waco Kid, Blazing Saddles

This is a supertrope to all the tropes that expound upon the bad effects that come from being really, really good. The basic idea is that if you're the best at something — often (though not always) at something bad (stealing/fighting/killing/infiltrating/assassinating) — this status of excellence by itself exposes you to a range of perils. For example:

A mediocre assassin or other wetworker who never "makes a name for themself" is simply unlikely to be somebody's target for extortion to carry out the impossible job, or for targeting as a means of the villain proving himself superior. A middling baker is not so apt to be kidnapped and forced to bake the world's greatest cake.

Some examples of The Mentor (and thus having the risk of the Mentor Occupational Hazard) are explicitly told in-universe to be the best at whatever they will teach the protagonist. Also, The World's Expert on Getting Killed (who, well, will get killed) is also said to be very good at his job, if not flat-out the best (obviously, if not, The Worf Effect that they're subject to wouldn't work as well). From a Watsonian vs. Doylist point of view, this happens in order to make things interesting somehow — like the page of The World's Expert on Getting Killed says, if you're supposed to be the top dog in the matters regarding the threat at hand, and the threat curb-stomps you, then what chance does anyone else have?

Compare It Sucks to Be the Chosen One (though the Chosen One may not actually be "the best" at anything, and the one who is "the best" may not be the one chosen), Prestige Peril (where gaining a prominent position, not necessarily being good at something, has lethal drawbacks), and Deliberate Under-Performance (where a character purposefully avoids being the best, for a variety of reasons). Subtrope of Sour Grapes.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In One Piece, Dracule Mihawk, known as being the strongest swordsman in the world, is disillusioned with the world and always looks bored. His first appearance is coming after a pirate fleet that disturbed his nap because one ship survived. He desires someone to be a Worthy Opponent of his and found it in the form of Zoro. When he later finds Zoro marooned on his home island, he accepts Zoro's plea to train him for two years, not for Zoro's quest to beat Mihawk but to be able to protect his crew.
  • It happens to the five members of the Generation of Miracles in Kuroko no Basuke. They're acknowledged as geniuses and were pressured to never lose. They became so good that winning matches becomes trivial, they no longer enjoy playing basketball and that leads to them being jerkasses, doing things like competing between themselves to see who scores most points in a match. Specially Aomine. As the team's ace, he was the one who enjoyed basketball the most, and liked to play with strong rivals and encouraged his teammates to become better, but he was left Lonely at the Top, as no friend or rival could match him, and he eventually dropped practices.
  • A Certain Magical Index/A Certain Scientific Railgun has Accelerator, the most powerful Esper in Academy City. Such a position leads to people constantly attempting to take him down to prove themselves. He has gotten so sick of it that he responds by brutally murdering them, but there are always more challengers. He initially plans to grow beyond known power levels in the hopes that he can reach a tier so powerful that people will stop thinking that defeating him is even a possibility and finally leave him alone.
  • The seinen manga Vagabond features this as a recurring theme, as swordsmen are constantly looking to challenge whoever has succeeded in becoming famous in order to make a name for themselves.
  • Afro Samurai curiously inverts this and has instead "The Perils of Being Second Best" being the issue, as In a World... of assassins/bandits/hunters etc., whoever wears the #2 headband is fair dues to any Blood Knight to try and take him/her out for the right to challenge the #1 greatest warrior. There are other, lower ranked headbands but most people don't care about them.
  • In My Hero Academia, All Might, the #1 ranked hero in the world, had cultivated his image as a symbol of peace and justice, inspiring other people to help others and protect them from harm. Because of the standard he set, he requires a flawless track record of foiling villains and has to be very, very careful with what he says and does in public. When he finally retires after a Pyrrhic Victory that also gave him a Career-Ending Injury, his fears were absolutely correct: Without that symbol of peace and justice, the world goes into disarray while budding villains come out of hiding and commit crimes more openly with All Might no longer being around, and crime-fighting heroes rapidly diminish in cultural relevance. In other words, All Might was more or less holding society together via his reputation, one that became increasingly difficult to hold as the years went on.
    • This is also something that UA High School students tend to face. As the most prestigious Superhero School in Japan, its annual Sports Festival is nationally televised and more popular than the Olympics. But since Provisional Hero License Exams always take place sometime after the UA Sports Festival, that means every other school has already had the opportunity to scout out the UA students' abilities, while their own will almost always be less known, and everybody tends to target the UA students for the glory of having taken down "the best". As such, UA has a lower pass rate than would be expected out of the top hero school.

    Comic Books 

    Fan Works 
  • Experienced by the four early in The Keys Stand Alone: The Soft World after a trio of baddies scan them and discover how outrageously powerful they are. This leads one of the baddies, the super-strong but quite stupid Lieyla, to immediately stalk after Paul and hit him since she'd been spoiling for a fight and didn't think he could take her punch. (Boy, is she surprised when he bounces back up and asks why she did that.) Anyway, from then on, the four worry that they're going to be targeted by “every prat with something to prove.” It turns out that most individuals are far wiser than that... but the Power Groups aren't, and cause quite a few problems for the four.

    Films — Animation 
  • The Distant Prologue to Disney's Treasure Planet mentions that, among space pirates, the most feared of all was Captain Nathaniel Flint, whose lifetime of ruthless raiding amassed "the loot of a thousand worlds." When the principal characters arrive at Treasure Planet, they find Captain Flint's skeleton inside, surrounded by acres of gold and jewels, unable to spend a penny of it anywhere safely.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Rambo has volumes of this. Had John Rambo not been a natural hunter/killer, he wouldn't have ended up on Colonel Trautman's special forces team in Vietnam, where he got sent into the most dangerous situation possible, captured, and tortured; and then after escaping, he returned to the US, found out that You Can't Go Home Again, and ended up in a military prison camp. Then because he is still the best that he gets sent back to Vietnam to search for POWs, and again gets captured and tortured. He escapes again, but because he's still the best, Trautman seeks him out for a mission to Afghanistan (to fight Russians alongside the locals who would incidentally eventually become the Taliban), and much later still, his quiet life in Thailand is interrupted and he is compelled to go to Burma to rescue some missionaries (because, again, he's the only one who can).
  • The backstory of the "Waco Kid" in Blazing Saddles involves an example of this Played for Laughs: as one of the best gunfighters ever, he had to deal with every Gunfighter Wannabe that came his way looking for a fight to make a name for himself (and killed them all) up until a literal Young Gun (that is, a six-year-old with a gun) challenged him to a duel and exploited the Kid's decision to not hurt a child (and his belief that the situation had gone too ridiculously far) to shoot him in the ass. The humiliation drove the "Waco Kid" to drink, and he starts the movie as The Alcoholic.
  • In Hot Fuzz, Sergeant Nicholas Angel is spoken extensively as one of the best officers in the London Metropolitan Police Service on the Opening Narration... and it turns out that he's so good that not one single officer of the Service protests him being Reassigned to Antarctica, because he makes them feel so inadequate in comparison. Before him, there was Sergeant Popwell, who was assigned to Sandford because he was too good an investigator... and so he was Killed to Uphold the Masquerade when he started digging too deep into the FWA's conspiracy.
  • Lee from The Magnificent Seven is a deconstruction of the archetypal badass western gunslinger. He's a deadly gunman who has become completely paranoid due to frequent attacks on him, no civilian wants him around because of the inevitable violence that will happen when someone tries to kill Lee to take his fame and it spirals out of control, (he needs to pay a lot of money for just a filthy storeroom and a plate of beans, because "things do get high when they find out you're on the run") and his nerves are completely shot from his experiences.
  • Retired Gunfighter Gelt, counterpart to The Magnificent Seven's Lee, from Battle Beyond the Stars is found by The Hero Shad living alone in an abandoned arcade. Shad is seeking mercenaries to defend his homeworld, and Gelt is a legendary assassin. However, Gelt has killed so many prominent leaders that he's welcome nowhere in the civilized galaxy. Surrounded by riches, he sleeps by campfire and eats rats every day. "Your offer of a hot meal and a soft bed sounds very attractive to me."
  • Discussed in the Hong Kong kung fu film Duel to the Death. In the film, every ten years China and Japan have a contest where they send a single representative to fight to the death in a sort of Combat by Champion. The Chinese representative for the latest duel, Genius Bruiser Ching Wan, sadly muses that whoever wins the competition will probably spend the rest of their life fighting off warriors looking to defeat the winner in order to make a name of themselves. He clearly dreads the prospect of being caught in such a life.
  • In Alita: Battle Angel Motoball player Kinuba is a rising player able to destroy his enemies with his newest weapon: the grind cutters. These turn his fingers into chainsaw-like whips. He isn't champion yet but he is on his way up the ladder far quicker than anyone else. Because he is screwing with the odds and his weapon would be a fine enhancement to one of his mooks, Vector has the man kidnapped, his arms stolen from him, and then Vector personally kills him.

  • According to legend, Tsar Ivan IV of Russia (aka "Ivan the Terrible"), asked the architect of St. Basil's Cathedral if he might ever be able to produce anything greater. The architect, mistaking the question for a possible future commission, said he might, and the Tsar had the architect's eyes spooned out to prevent that from ever happening.

  • In Ender's Game, it is because Ender is the best that he is targeted by enemies for attack, isolated by being singled out by the Battle School trainers, and ultimately tricked into committing xenocide against an entire alien race. Had Ender been an average strategist, none of these fates would have befallen him.
  • Harry Potter has a variation where having the best wand in existence, the Elder Wand, comes with great danger for the current holder, who'll be at constant risk of assassination by power-hungry wizards and witches wishing to defeat - usually kill - them to gain the wand's allegiance, making it relatively easy to trace the bloody trail of the wand's owners.
  • In Discworld this is frequently brought up. The cost of being the best is having to be the best.
    • Granny Weatherwax has to deal with every magic challenge simply because she is the best witch, even if she doesn't want to. In her early appearances, she's bitter that it means she has to be good by default and doesn't get to be the Wicked Witch of the story.
    • Jason Ogg, the blacksmith of Lancre is the best blacksmith and farrier on the Disc, but the cost is he must take up every challenge- from the stupid (having to shoe an ant - he made an anvil from a pinhead) to the exceptional (re-shoeing Death's horse, or forging silver shoes for a unicorn and shoeing the beast). He simply is not allowed to refuse a commission.
    • Vimes is the best policeman on the Disc, which means if there is a crime, even outside his jurisdiction, if he hears about it he must investigate. He also has to live up to his reputation of being the police version of The Paragon even when he would much prefer (and it would be a hell of a lot easier and safer for him) to use underhanded and ruthless methods to get the job done.
    • Goldeye Silverhand Daktylos, one of the finest metalwork artisans on the Disc, is frequently mutilated or imprisoned by his employers after completing a commission for them, since they are so in awe of the art he creates that they end up not wanting him to create anything for anyone else (his name is a reference to the fact that his first two employers respectively gouged out his eyes and cut off one of his hands, forcing him to craft prosthetics and learn to identify metals by taste alone). His final job in The Colour of Magic is constructing a space-faring vessel for the Grand Astronomer of Krull... who promptly has him executed with a crossbow bolt through the chest.
  • Halo: Evolutions: Admiral Preston Cole is reputed as the greatest admiral the UNSC has ever had. Because of it he (1.) can't surrender in battle because no one would believe it's anything but a ploy (especially since his first act as captain was to pull an I Surrender, Suckers), (2.) is the target of many Insurrectionists (including one who turned out to be his wife), (3.) is under constant stress from PTSD (leading to four divorces and several replaced organs), and (4.) is constantly pulled out of retirement to battle the virtually unstoppable Covenant. Eventually, he goes "Screw it" and executes his own Dying Moment of Awesome during his biggest battle yet during which he fakes his death and flees with his old wife to places unknown.
  • The Princess Bride: Inigo Montoya is the greatest swordfighter in Europe of his generation, reckoned beyond the level of mastery. However, as he wins prize fights to fund his search for the man who killed his father, he starts to realise that not only is he too good at fighting to be beaten, but he's too good for the fight to even be enjoyable anymore. In the end, he turns to wine to help him get through the emptiness of no meaningful challenge and would have remained so if Vizzini hadn't found and recruited him.
  • The Unexplored Summon://Blood-Sign discusses the many ways this trope screwed up Kyousuke. 1) being skilled enough to succeed even if he did things the wrong way meant he never learned the importance of the right way, resulting in several very damaging mistakes; 2) he is humanity's best hope of defeating the White Queen, so he is morally obliged to fight her on their behalf even if he has no quarrel with her personally, 3) the Training from Hell it took for him to get to the top has left him unable to enjoy most of life's pleasures, and 4) his brain is more-or-less wired to solve summoning problems by using summoning before anything else. For example, he can't solve high-school-level physics questions because he instinctively assumes they're using the parameters of the Material Realm, the world he's familiar with, rather than those of Earth.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Americans:
    • Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings are two of the KGB's best undercover spies...which means they've both done a shitload of sleeping with and murdering people for no other reason than because the Centre told them to. They're both constantly dealing with the emotional toll of that kind of work.
    • Averted with William, a colleague of theirs who is spying on the Americans' biological warfare program. He's been deliberately dragging his feet on advancing through the ranks at the lab because operating at clearance level three is already ruining his physical and mental health.
  • The Twilight Zone
    • In the episode "A Game of Pool," the main character is a pool champ that laments he can't challenge the legendary Fats Brown. Then Fats' ghost walks in to take him up on it. The original version ends with the champ winning, and being cursed to spend his afterlife accepting challenges. A remade version for the 1980s series (which actually stuck to the original script) has him losing, and Fats denouncing him a second-rater who will die in obscurity. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
    • Another episode called "Mr. Denton on Doomsday" features a Wild West quick-draw gunman who turned into a town drunk due to the psychological weight of all the people he killed, including some challengers who were quite young and wanted to prove themselves against him. (Fun trivia: The Waco Kid's monologue from Blazing Saddles is, in fact, a spoof of a speech that Al Denton gives in this episode, but the parody became far better known and remembered.)
  • In The Lazarus Man episode "Panorama", Lazarus discovers that a legend has developed around him as "the man who can't be killed," and now people are coming after him to try their hands at killing him. It's all this one storyteller's fault, so Lazarus goes to him to ask that he stop. He can't stop in the "middle" of a story, so he ends the story by saying that he killed Lazarus. In the final scene of the episode, some random greenhorn gunfighter comes up and shoots the storyteller from behind, killing him. "I killed the man who killed the man who can't be killed!"
  • Similar to the above, an episode of Maverick has Bret being chased by a Carnival of Killers hired by a penny-novel writer that has made a living out of fictionalizing Maverick's adventures, and believes that Bret's life (and thus the novel series) deserves a more action-packed ending than what Bret really wishes (which is, obviously, to become rich and live large someplace safe).
  • Old and famous Immortals in the Highlander tv series tended to learn how to keep a low profile in order to avoid this, otherwise every ambitious Immortal out there would try to take their Quickening. The most on-point example is a former friend of Duncan's named Brian who once had a reputation as the greatest swordsman in Europe, only to constantly have to fend off challenges by Immortals and mortals alike looking to take that title for themselves. Brian eventually fled Europe to get away from his reputation, then became a drug-addled, paranoid, nervous wreck living in seclusion when the challengers just wouldn't stop coming.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Paranoia: While High Programmers have a ton of power and leisure time, they still have to contend with each other, plus all the second-tier executives gunning for their job, plus all the traitors trying to find a way through their defenses and ambush them, plus the Computer periodically making them actually deal with a crisis (and when that happens, oh boy is it a big crisis). The absolute best outcome is that they stay where they are; there's nowhere else for them to go but down. (Rumors of Gamma clearance are treason. Report all rumors.)

    Video Games 
  • Arcanum has William Thorndop, former bandit and the continent's finest marksman, but he left his old life behind him after shooting a man in cold blood and having a My God, What Have I Done? realization. He's the only character who can provide Master-level Firearms training, but asking him to train you will cause him a severe moral quandary since he's adopted an Actual Pacifist philosophy and sees aiding another in casing bloodshed as a violation of his vows.
  • Mass Effect: during the whole saga Shepard is emblematic of this trope and sometimes this is explicitly said by characters. His first task is also a test to evaluate his skills, since he is a distinguished soldier and a possible candidate to become a special agent for the galactic council. But in the process he stumbles in the pathway of a Reaper and unwillingly enters into a cosmological war that menaces to erase space faring civilizations. After defeating it, Shepard attracts the attention of another Reaper who wants to destroy him (and a secret organization who believes he is the right man to solve all the mess around), and defeating it too makes him a target for the remaining fleet of Reapers coming to wreak havoc in the galaxy (and also the leader of the human resistance, trying to unite the galaxy against the common threat). Many people met during the three game will openly admit that they are after him because he is simply the best - whether to ask for his help in challenges of increasing difficulty, or because he is an obstacle to their increasingly dangerous business.
  • Metal Gear Solid is one long aesop that War takes the best of the best, organizes them as disposable parts into killing machines, and then drives those machines across third-world countries into each other until everyone is sick of themselves:
    • Solid Snake is one of the best heavy-infiltrators in the world, and has prevented nuclear war thrice. He's also a miserable wreck who would rather stay in retirement in Alaska because most of his 'greatest' missions involve discovering the horrible war-crimes of his screwed-up super-villain family and then murdering them. The brass keeps finding ways to pull him back into their wetwork operations, and the Government Conspiracy seeking to turn the entire planet into a police state means he can't rest until they're dealt with. And since the government was afraid his super-soldier genes augmented at birth would let him turn rogue and form a third-world empire-dynasty in his old age, they gave him genetic defects so he would age rapidly past 40.
    • Big Boss, Snake's father, was also a great infiltrator and a charismatic mercenary captain who also saved the world thrice. For his efforts, he has been forced to murder his mentor, watched one of his kid sidekicks turn into a killing machine, was cloned against his will, discovered that his other kid sidekick was a complete psycho threatening to bomb the Atlantic coast, and watched his mercenary unit get slaughtered as he fell into a coma. All because the world kept depending on him... as a scapegoat. The stress drove him insane and he started slaughtering civilians so he could raise their children as TykeBombs.
    • The Boss was the greatest heroine of WWII, became the Jeanne d'Archétype of the Cold War, and practically a princess to boot. Except she gained so much international power and influence that her own country stabbed itself in the back, practically crippling itself from winning the war, just to ensure that she would never create a new world order that didn't involve using war as a pretext for control. Then one day, she 'fucked up' and didn't assassinate an innocent man, whose inventions inadvertently created the Crapsack World of Metal Gear. She let her self-righteous guilt torment her until she finally allowed herself to be killed in a duel against her best student instigated by the CIA.

    Western Animation 
  • Vin Moosk from Codename: Kids Next Door was a respected accountant who ditched his job once he found how much he hated wearing ties and became a "tie hunter". His employers are on his trail in hopes of getting him back because their stock prices plummeted the second he left.
  • A variation shows up in the Batman: The Animated Series episode "The Man Who Killed Batman". Sid the Squid, who had apparently killed Batman, experiences all sorts of trouble resulting from his new notoriety, including bar toughs challenging him to a fight on the theory that beating up the (supposed) "toughest guy in town" will establish them as the real toughest guy in town and a very pissed off Joker.
  • The titular character from Archer is the greatest spy in the world (or "the world's most dangerous spy", to be more precise), but has made more than a few enemies, who all want him dead because he's humiliated or annoyed them in the past. In a slight twist, this has just as much to do with Archer's reputation as it does the fact that he's a massive asshole who's just as dangerous to his friends as his enemies.

    Real Life 
  • While every athletic champion has to deal with this to some extent, by far one of the worst examples is John L. Sullivan, the very first officially recognized world champion of boxing. Sullivan had the misfortune of being recognized right when boxing was caught between being a chaotic mess and an officially recognized sport, meaning that he had every lunatic imaginable coming out of the woodwork to challenge him. His successor, "Gentleman" James Corbett, had it even worse, as he was known as "the man who beat the great John Sullivan" and constantly had to fend off pretenders to the point that he only had one official title defense.
  • Bruce Lee had to deal with challengers constantly, not just by wannabees who wanted to show how badass they were, but also by traditional martial artists who were pissed that Lee was breaking traditional rules with his adaptational techniques. One particularly ridiculous example was a man who broke into Lee's home in the middle of the night to challenge him, which scared Lee's two children. Bruce put him in the hospital. With one kick.
  • Pretty much any popular sportsman or woman of their respected sport who is known to be the best at it, has to deal with critics whom will nitpick their accomplishments and finds reasons to cast doubt or reject them completely. And when those criticisms are silenced by the athlete in question, they find something else to complain about, instead of giving credit where it's due.
  • In the 1970s, the Dallas Cowboys got dubbed "America's Team", but Tom Landry, the Cowboys' head coach, didn't particularly like it, thinking it would give opposing teams extra incentive to play harder. However, he came to accept the nickname.


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