It hasn't been a great week for our friends in New Zealand. On Saturday, after an extremely close game with England, they lost the cricket world cup. Yesterday, just to make matters worse, one of their roads lost its global title as the “world’s steepest street”. For many years, Dunedin’s Baldwin Street has held this vertiginous title in the Guinness Book of Records (yes the image above is from actual Baldwin Street and yes I've been there - it's very steep). It wasn’t until Tuesday 17th July 2019 that a little lane in Wales ripped the award away from the inhabitants of this small town on the other side of the world.
My first thought when I heard about this newly awarded accolade was; how can a street in Wales become steeper over time (without a noticeable and terrifying shift of tectonic plates) thus having the ability to take the title away? However, after a bit of research I realised that, when hearing of the award, the Welsh people in the town of Harlech challenged the Guinness Book of records to compare their, already, steepest street. It might seem harsh to force the council of Dunedin to change the Baldwin Street road sign to “world’s second steepest street” but, as the main campaigner Gwyn Healdey put it, “steeper is steeper”! Now, if you’ve ever been to New Zealand, you’ll know that it is pretty much the most beautiful place on earth, so, to deal with these epic losses, all the Kiwi’s need to do is step outside and take in whatever stunning view is before them to realise that they’re the real winner of, well, everything.
Thinking about the world’s steepest street made me wonder why humans are so obsessed with being the ‘world’s most’ anything. For example, recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records is the most people to apply a face mask at the same time. Unsurprisingly this was recorded in Japan on July 28 2013 when 1,213 people were brought together to place moist sheets on their face for a whole ten minutes. A world record that I am both hugely impressed with and also convinced I could beat is Etibar Elchyev’s award for ‘Most spoons balanced on a human body’. He managed 50. Am I the only person to think I could do better than this?
Guinness World Records is 64 years old and is full of recognisable names from Elvis, who is still the world’s bestselling solo artist, to Edmund Hillary, who, in 1953, was the first person to climb Mount Everest. When flicking through those A3, shiny, hardback books, one soon realises that those people who are in there because of accomplishments that are generally considered accomplishments in their own right, like Elvis and Johanna Quaas (the world’s oldest gymnast), are certainly in the minority and those who populate the pages are generally in there for doing things such as wearing an extravagant number of socks. But what does this bring those winners apart from a sweaty foot?
In The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failure Ian Robertson says that “The thing that motivates the person to win a race or an athletic performance is a mix of motivations similar to what you get in trivial things like setting bizarre records’”. What motivates us as humans can be categorised in many different ways. A popular form of categorisation is the “three needs” theory which breaks motivation into the need for achievement, power and belonging. So, in terms of the strange and wonderful Guinness World Records, one has a burning achievement motivation to pursue success in something and, if they haven’t had the opportunity to do so in a conventional way, they find a strange niche.
Along with this, regardless of the existence of the Guinness World Records, we regularly bestow awards upon ourselves to make it seem like we are in some way at the top of our imaginary tables. We are constantly trying to stand out without losing affiliation in the groups that form our identity. So, by dangling 50 spoons on his body, Etibar Elchyey has managed to stand out just enough to feel individual, without being shunned by his friends and family for being too individual. The fact that an achievement is niche, doesn’t lessen the satisfaction that comes from reaching it and, especially for those in the Guinness Book of World Records and the residence of Harlech, the feeling of being the best and arriving at just the right level of individuality is enough to strive for these weird and wonderful goals.