I’ve never been a very competitive person. Growing up with an older sibling, you quickly realize that you’re more than likely always going to lose anything that isn’t purely chance. My odds were only slightly better even in those scenarios as I never seemed to be lucky either. I have always blamed this dynamic in my childhood for creating the largely apathetic attitude I have regarding any type of competition. I expect to lose. I don’t care much if I win. So what’s the point? I’ve always preferred to avoid any chance of failure.
Recently I’ve realized that my lack of a competitive drive has also bled into my relationship with my own personal challenges. I’m a huge quitter. I’ve never had any problem backing out or giving up if I believe I am going to finish short of my goal. In addition to that, academics have always come easily to me. I never had to struggle to understand or accomplish anything as far as my school work went. I got pretty used to being ahead of my peers. It felt good to always be the smartest person in class, even if intellectually I knew I didn’t attend a very good school. When I got to college and found myself actually having to study for my chemistry and biology classes, I was quick to change my major rather than put in the extra effort. Psychology came much more naturally to me than science, so I finished out my formal education at the top of my class, no studying required.
I still think back on those college science classes every now and then though. I take pride in the fact I still managed to get A’s even though it was hard. Whereas I don’t really care about the grades I got in my psychology courses, because in my mind, they were easy. I was more shocked that anyone managed to do badly. I’ve started to recognize this recurring theme in my life though. I’m so afraid of failure that I only allow myself to do things I know I’ll excel in. Yet, whenever it does happen that I find myself in a challenging situation, it seems I enjoy it more in some ways. I definitely take more pride in accomplishments that were difficult for me. Sadly, despite my many accomplishments, I only have a few that fall into this category.
I think in a certain way, society encourages this type of behavior. “Do what you’re good at” seems to be the message. There is this idea that we have natural gifts. Once we find out what those are, that is where we should focus our energy rather than wasting our time improving at something we may only ever be mediocre at. Only after learning about the 10,000 hour rule, did I really begin to question that idea. While it is still widely believed some people are simply born with special talents, the 10,000 hour rule explains that if someone devotes enough time to a certain art or discipline, they will surely master it, regardless of innate ability. This idea puts the locus of control back on the individual.
After spending the last few weeks absolutely obsessed and in love with my new electronic drawing tablet, I started to view this whole issue from a different perspective. At first, I was terribly intimidated by this new software I had no idea how to use. A large part of me wanted to quit and just go back to pen and paper which I already knew I was good at. However, knowing how much money I spent on this tablet, I pushed through the discomfort of being an amateur. In doing so, I ended up having so much fun learning something brand new.
Through this experience, I’ve begun to realize that I actually enjoy being challenged. Once I get past my initial fear of failure, once I overcome my massive ego telling me it will be the end of the world if I’m not the best at something, no matter how frivolous, I inevitably start to have fun. Sure there is frustration along the way as I struggle to do something new, but that makes it all the more satisfying when progress is made. Ultimately I don’t even care if I can eventually master whatever it is I’m doing. The enjoyment itself is all I’m after.
I remember hearing about how highly intelligent students may do poorly if their lessons don’t keep up with their ability. The smart kids get bored and lose interest while waiting for the rest of the class to catch up, causing them to lose focus and motivation, or even start to act out. This never made much sense to me growing up. I liked that school was easy. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want their lessons to be harder, even if they found them laughably easy. Now I think I’m finally starting to get it.
A happy mind is a busy mind. A bored mind will tear itself apart. In my opinion this is why we often see the most intelligent people also suffering with the most extreme mental illness. Being intelligent is simultaneously a gift and a curse. High intelligence demands high levels of intellectual stimulation. The brain was made to create, to investigate, to learn, and to solve problems. Without these healthy outlets for mental energy, the brain begins to make problems for itself.
When all I do is things that only require half-assed effort, my brain has plenty of extra energy to run amuck. Boredom breeds rumination. With nothing to occupy my mind, it begins to pick apart little details of the past or fret over the future. To me, this is the opposite of the “flow state.” When we are in that coveted flow state, our brains are fully engaged in what we are doing. The rest of the world falls away, and we are able to exist in the present moment. When nothing in the present requires our full attention, the mind is free to wander. With enough wandering, it’s only a matter of time until we find ourselves in the uncharted territory of our own mental illness.
The ego looms large over the mind with mental illness. The ego tries to keep us in our comfort zone, tells us challenge is too hard, that failure is painful. But if we can push past this flawed perception, if we can overcome our ego, we actually find that it’s fun to be challenged! Challenges are what help us to learn, to grow, to stay interested in our day to day lives. It’s new. It’s novel. It’s engaging. Challenges are true workouts for the brain. And just like physical exercise, it makes us happier.
Now my problem has become coming up with ways to challenge myself. My brain is quick to catch on to anything new I try. Therefore I’m constantly required to switch it up and try new things if I want to keep my mind engaged. However, just like with my workouts, it’s always hard to motivate myself to take things to the next level. It’s called a comfort zone for a reason. It feels good to be good at something. I’m going to work harder from now on to remember that it also feels good to be challenged and practice facing difficulties with enthusiasm rather than dread.