What is the definition of "You're so far behind, you think you're first"? Should a dictionary entry of this expression be "One is so far behind, one thinks he is first"?

  • 2
    I don't think this is a common enough expression to warrant a dictionary entry.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 27, 2011 at 17:01
  • Yes, certainly not common enough for that. This is figurative language: the speaker will be understood not because people have heard it before but because they figure it out. (I hadn't heard it before but, as a native speaker, the meaning is clear.)
    – Charles
    Apr 27, 2011 at 17:32

4 Answers 4


The expression beings to mind a distance runner who cannot see any of her competitors. She thinks she has left her competitors a long way behind, but really she herself is the one left behind. It's about the comedy of her impending disappointment.

Does that answer your question?

  • +1; the extended application of this phrase could include business. Someone could be "all alone" in their field or market simply because their competitors have moved on to bigger and better things.
    – MrHen
    Apr 27, 2011 at 15:51

Instead of a distance runner, it could be a person on a race track where the race consists of multiple laps. Though you might not start at the same spot on the track, being far enough behind would look like being in front.

  • +1, I see this rather often in racing games. Apr 27, 2011 at 18:36

A very good example of what Ed Guiness mentioned is Ryan Hall running a 2:04:58 in the last Boston Marathon and still finishing FOURTH. Here's his interview:

It was very exciting to see our splits. That helped me maintain my momentum, and keep the excitement building. I could see that some very special things were happening in this race.I could barely believe that I was running 2:04 pace and I couldn’t even see the leaders. I thought, ‘Man I’m going to run something quick out here today.’ It’s amazing that Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot who set the course record here last year would have been fifth today. (emphases are mine)

If Ryan Hall wasn't tracking where the other runners were, he could have mistakenly thought that they lost their way (stranger things have happened in major races) and he could have thought that he was first. He actually barely missed a podium finish (3rd place!):

One of my visions for the Boston Marathon was to enjoy the final run down Boylston. In my minds eye I had always pictured myself winning the marathon but as I prepared my heart before the race I had decided I would celebrate my run and the fact that God is good all the time in both victory and defeat so when I hit Boylston street I let my joy out and started airplaning through the street. It wasn’t until a fan on the side of the road pointed up the street to a faint yellow jersey still 100 meters down the road that I had mistaken for one of the women elite runners and yelled “Go get Merga” that I realized I had a chance to get on the podium. I put my head down and drove with my arms as hard as I could. I felt like I was in one of my many bad dreams where I am trying to sprint and moving in slow motion. With 100 meters to go it was becoming apparent that I was going to run out of real estate.

and of course, this says it all:

I felt much more comfortable today. I was especially more comfortable than my first year here where being out front kind of rattled me. Today when I was out front I felt so comfortable it was almost like I was the only guy in the race.


Although I'm late to the party, I thought I'd chime in because I think the responses to date may be mischaracterising the meaning of this expression.

What is the definition of "You're so far behind, you think you're first"? Should a dictionary entry of this expression be "One is so far behind, one thinks he is first"?

There's a few variants of this expression, one I like in particular being you're like the horse that's so far behind that it thinks it's coming first. Regarding its meaning: I think that it refers to the peculiar tendency of those who are lacking in some type form ability, not necessarily athletic ability, to think that in fact, they have exceptional ability. For example, a complete moron thinking that they're a genius.

This phenomenon is known as the Dunning–Kruger effect and was characterised in their well-cited 1999 study.

Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

Reference: Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1121-1134. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121

Thus, the expression "you are so far behind you think you are first" can be understood as a two-fold insult:

  1. You're incompetent (ability)
  2. You're lacking the self-awareness to appreciate your own incompetence (meta-cognition)

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