Always second best - the curse of being a Dux
My mother packed me off to primary school with a long list of children I should never tease. It included the overweight, the bespectacled, kids with skin conditions or strange-smelling lunches, and those with embarrassing surnames. Mum's list has stayed with me, and I still believe that what a person is called, no matter how silly it might sound, should never be held against them.
Just the same, I am grateful I was not born a Butman. I have a friend whose surname is Butman, and even as she approaches 40 I see her unconsciously wince as she introduces herself at parties. And if you think she's got problems, consider her unfortunate brother, Dick. I imagine that being descended from a line of Smellies, Cocks, Hoares or Cracks would have a similarly dispiriting effect.
With a name such as ''Dux'', my school years were relatively free of name mockery, the worst I suffered being the occasional ''Quack, quack''. This changed when I graduated. From that moment, when I was introduced to people I'd almost always be asked if I had been the dux of my school.
That's no big deal, I hear you say. Think of poor Dick Butman, sitting in a crowded waiting room, dreading the moment his name echoes through the PA system. Except that I very nearly was the dux. The dux question stung me precisely because I had come a close second at school, something I subsequently made into a lifelong habit. I can't remember coming first in anything, but I have scored solid seconds aplenty. There have been so many near-wins in my life that my biography should probably be titled Monica Dux: A Life of Almosts, except no one would read the biography of a serial second-placer.
Aspiring athletes do not dream of winning a silver medal at the Olympics, nor do Australian children carry a burning desire to be the vice-captain of the national cricket team. No politician has been immortalised for nearly ousting a sitting member, and the rictus smiles worn by Miss World runners-up are legendary.
We're told winning isn't everything, but this old cliche is now drowned out by all the newer and sexier cliches that say the precise opposite. Reach for the stars! Don't settle for second best! Just do it! These are the mottos of our age, sold to us by talk-show hosts and motivational gurus, advertisers and irritating internet memes. It's what your ludicrously buff personal trainer screams at you when you plead for mercy moments before you vomit in the gym toilets.
No matter what Facebook might say, the truth is we can't all reach the stars. Imagine if every child really did decide to Just Do It and refused to compromise on their dreams. What sort of world would it be, populated entirely by rock stars, ace footballers, astronauts and prima ballerinas? Who would make the coffee?
But the real barb in the dream-fulfilment imperative is the implication that if you fail, you weren't trying hard enough. As one email forward recently told me: ''Stop saying, 'I can't'. You can. You just chose not to.'' Think about that, loser.
As a sop to those sensible enough to see they are never going to win, there's a new, gentler version of the dream-fulfilment message. It's called achieving your ''personal best''. Instead of being stuck in a race against others, you are pitted in a race against yourself. But is that any better? Always striving to be the best we can be means constantly monitoring our own performances, lamenting our moments of weakness and putting ourselves under ridiculous, unnecessary stress.
This kind of thinking seeps into our collective attitudes as we start to blame others for their failures, rather than feeling empathy for them. We sneer at those who slack so that - ironically - relaxing and letting yourself go becomes fraught and stressful as it attracts derision and condemnation.
All of which makes me wonder about the list my mother gave me and whether it's time we expanded it. Because in a world where discrimination is frowned on, slackism remains perfectly acceptable. Shouldn't we teach our children to respect those who can't be bothered? To embrace those who couldn't care less? ''She'll be right'' used to be part of our national ethos - what freedom and liberty are to the US.
And if everyone else stopped trying so bloody hard, I might finally win something.