Who do you think you’re competing with?
Your age group peers? Your coworkers? Your academic cohort?
Are you competing with your parents’ vision of who you were “supposed” to grow up and be?
Are you competing with your own arbitrary ideas of what you “should” have accomplished by whatever age you are?
One of my drawbacks as a therapist is, I have limited patience for self-defeating competitions that people invent and perpetuate in their heads.
We humans are really, really good at imagining competition.
We’re constantly competing against what we imagine to be other peoples’ judgments of us— like it matters.
We’re constantly competing against what we imagine we “should” have accomplished— like it matters.
We’re constantly competing against what we imagine a “good” or “productive” version of us “should” have done with their imaginary lives— like it matters.
Don’t get me wrong— other people might well be judging us. Our parents might well have a very concrete idea of what we “should” do with our lives. And the culture very often does have norms and assumptions about what people “should” have accomplished by arbitrary ages. It’s not that we make those fairy tales up out of whole cloth.
But the fact is, wherever these fairy tales come from…they’re still fairy tales.
And to try to live your life according to the standards set in fairy tales is a lousy idea.
That doesn’t stop us, however, from clinging to these fairy tales in our heads and judging ourselves harshly based on them.
What are we afraid of if we acknowledge that many of the standards we use to mercilessly judge whether our lives are on track or not are really just fairy tales we’ve conjured in our minds?
Why are we so often afraid to admit that these arbitrary standards truly don’t matter?
Sometimes we’re afraid that if we gave up the fairy tales by which we’ve been arbitrarily, harshly judging ourselves and competing against…that we’d suddenly lose all of our drive to improve ourselves or perform well.
Yes, our imagined competitions and standards may be arbitrary, this logic goes, but don’t we need at least SOMETHING to motivate us to achieve and improve?
At the risk of ruining yet another fairy tale for you, allow me to assure you: if you’re just striving to achieve and improve your life because you’re in an imagined competition with someone or something, that source of motivation is eventually going to leave you bitterly unfulfilled.
Because if the competition is imaginary it doesn’t matter if you win.
For example, you may well outperform your parents’ expectations of you. Which might feel good for a minute.
But what about the next minute?
You may well outperform the culture’s expectations of you. Which might feel great for a minute.
But what about the next minute?
You may well outperform your age group, coworkers, academic cohort, whoever you imagine you’re competing against, and it might all feel great for a minute.
But what then? Are you interested in conjuring up yet another imaginary adversary to compete against?
Winning imaginary competitions doesn’t matter. And as a source of motivation, these imaginary competitions are extremely limited.
So you hit your milestone you wanted to hit before age whatever. Congratulations. How long do you think that high will last?
Don’t get me wrong: imaginary competitions can be excellent for short-term motivation and inspiration. I myself love checking in on the page of one of my competitors in the self-help industry, just to gauge the success and usefulness of my product compared to his. There’s nothing wrong with using imaginary competitions to motivate you in the short term.
But I’m under no delusion that “winning” that competition, in the long term, is a particularly meaningful goal.
What IS a particularly meaningful goal, to me, is the impact my work might have on the people who might use it.
That’s not imaginary. That’s real.
Keep it as real as you can.
Don’t invest too heavily in imagined competitions.
And don’t let imaginary competitions get you down— because in the end they truly don’t matter.
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