Earlier this week, Stuart Sobeske, a high-school student from Coldwater, Michigan, finally accomplished the feat he had spent the past six months preparing for: He rode his unicycle up and down a runway at the Coldwater Airport for a little under an hour, and one by one, he solved Rubik’s cubes. Eighty of them, to be exact.

In a 2008 interview with Freakonomics, Craig Glenday, the Guinness editor, said: “We get ‘chancers’ writing to us on the off-chance that the potato chip they’ve just plucked from a packet is the world’s largest unbroken chip, or that the string of words their young child has spoken is the longest sentence by a 1-year-old, or that their 400 consecutive pogo-stick jumps are a record.” But to pass muster, he explained, a record must be measurable (“so we don’t accept the category for Ugliest Dog,” he said, “but we do accept the claim for the Most Wins of the Ugliest Dog World Championships”), superlative, breakable (with the exception of “significant firsts”), specific, and interesting.

“Any time you create something that’s measurable, you also create a kind of competition.”
This last qualifier is the one that separates records from simple facts. Technically, daily life is chock-full of world records that pass unnoticed. Out of all the people at The Atlantic’s office, for example, I’m the one who has spent the greatest amount of time sitting at my specific desk: a claim that’s measurable, superlative, breakable if we all switch desks, I guess, and superlative. (And verifiable, another Guinness requirement: They built the desk last month.) But interesting? Not exactly.

But interesting or no, Guinness or no Guinness, we regularly bestow these small, mundane awards upon ourselves, explained Stephen Garcia, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who studies competition. “People are always trying to find a way to make themselves seem like they’re at the top,” he said. In psychology, the “optimal distinctiveness” theory argues that people walk through their lives on a tightrope between belonging and individuality; the goal is to stand out, but not so much that they lose affiliation in the groups that help to form their identity.

“There’s a need for uniqueness, and I think people cling to that in different ways,” he said. When everyone is searching for their own brand of special, “they might see themselves as being number one in a particular dimension, and they might discount other things.”

Read the full article "Why Break a World Record?" at The Atlantic.