Hardest isn’t the right word. But one of the most difficult things is to understand that there will always, always be someone or something who is better than you are. And to accept it.
Lately, I’ve been struggling with this blog. I’ve been going back and forth thinking about why I’m even writing – what do I have to say that’s valuable? I’m not the smartest person I know (that would be Nick Pinkston), nor the best writer around my age (Dan Shipper), nor the most insightful (Venkatesh Rao of Ribbonfarm). What do I have to say that’s valuable?
Really, the answer is nothing. But that doesn’t mean I should stop writing.
Ultimately, I’m doing this as a learning process, and because I like to. I’m not competing. I don’t have to “win” at blogging. I’m doing it to improve. But not to win.
This sounds simple, but this was a massive mental shift for me when I came to terms with it. I’ve had some limited success so far in my life, and sometimes the expectation of succeeding flows into other areas. For example, I probably get too competitive in sports. I’ve been teaching myself programming, and gotten frustrated when I don’t immediately understand something. As I’ve come to expect success, I’ve also started to question and rationalize when it doesn’t come immediately.
Expecting success isn’t the worst thing, but it certainly isn’t a trait I want to encourage. Doing so would make me shy from difficult problems (starting a company, learning a language, etc.) and embrace easier ones. That’s not how I want to live.
What’s helped me get away from this personally competitive mental measuring stick is focusing on process. I know my writing has improved (see my first post), though maybe not as much as I’d hope. By paying attention to the act of writing, and trying to use writing as a way to expand and clarify my thinking, I know that I’ve grown. I’ve also realized that everyone experiences the world differently, and maybe it’s not a bad thing that I’m adding my perspective.
A lot of this comes back to philosophy. To stoicism. When you separate results from the process, and work on becoming unattached to outcomes, suddenly writing becomes a lot more enjoyable. As does just about everything else. I can write without worrying if I’m the best. I can start a company without being depressed that I’m not the most successful person I know. I can read without wondering if this book will help me get ahead. Success isn’t a bad thing, but I’m working on being less attached to it.
I came across a fantastic speech by David Foster Wallace earlier this week where he touched on the above ideas that have been bouncing around in my head. He said it better than I ever could:
“Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth… Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”
Working to separate myself from outcomes has been the only thing I’ve found that makes me happy. Anything else, and I get sucked into a world of comparisons and envy. I’m learning and growing, and I’m working to appreciate where I’m at.
Unrelated, but I found this and I really enjoyed it – Louis C.K. on Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.