Authenticity, Competition

Don’t Tell Curtis My Secret, Uncle Paul!

I spent Christmas this year with my younger brother and his family. The day after Christmas, my oldest nephew, Victor (age 5), decided it was a good day to show his uncle how to race miniature cars on his brand new electric race track.

We sat down together on the carpet next to the race track, and I listened while he enthusiastically explained everything he’d already learned in one whole day of racing miniature cars.

He went over the track foot by foot, telling me how fast to race my car at each point. He even speculated about what forces were involved in keeping the cars on the track, and although he didn’t quite get the forces right, I found it interesting that he recognized something was at work there and that it demanded an explanation.

What most interested me, however, were his comments on the psychology of competing. “Focus”, he admonished me in his most serious little voice, “on your car to get more better. Don’t focus on what Al (his cousin) is doing. Don’t focus on what I am doing. When you focus on what you are doing, you get more better. That’s a secret, Uncle Paul. Don’t tell Curtis (his younger brother)!”

Of course, his actual speech was a lot longer than that because he repeated himself umpteen times. But you get the idea. One secret of competing well is to focus on your own performance, and what you can do to improve it, rather than to worry too much about what your competition is doing. As my nephew explained to me, he wasn’t getting any “more better” racing against his cousin Al until he quit watching Al’s car, and instead focused on his own car.

I’m not sure how comprehensive his advice is — there’s a lot more to competing than just the bit he now knows at age 5 — but his advice still struck me as at least somewhat useful to anyone of any age.

If you believe the ancient Greeks, the point and purpose of competition is to bring out your excellence. Or, as we moderns would say, the purpose is to inspire you to do your best — regardless of whether you win or loose. Of course, you can’t very well be doing your best if you are focused on imitating the other guy, if you are too narrowly focused on winning, or if you are too afraid of loosing. As the Gold Medalist Andrea Lawrence once said:

Competition can be a very intense experience and a very rewarding one, or it can be enormously destructive. External pressure, whether it’s exerted by a coach, a school, a ski club, or a country, is what can make it a negative thing. When they use you to satisfy their need to succeed, when they impose their value system on you, then competition isn’t personally rewarding anymore…. You’re either a winner or a loser…. There’s no way in my mind that you can divide humanity into those two categories.

The Greeks knew competition should never be used as an excuse to “divide humanity into those two categories.” Their attitude is not entirely understood by many people today, but they were somewhat more inclined to praise excellence — to praise someone doing their personal best — than they were inclined to praise mere winning or loosing.

It seems to me my nephew has perhaps taken a huge step towards learning how to compete in a manner that will long benefit him, provided he stays true to the lesson he’s learned this season and he builds on it.

7 thoughts on “Don’t Tell Curtis My Secret, Uncle Paul!”

  1. I agree with your nephew. Focussing on one’s own work is important. there will always be people who are worse or better, so it’s best to improve and improve and improve!

  2. That’s a very good article, Paul. 🙂

    I hope that you had wonderful moments with your brother and his family. I guess your newphew is as smart as his uncle. 😉

    He indeed put it right and i always tend to learn from everybody, even from kids. I guess it’s all about trying our best to do what we really want without hesitation. As we grow up, we tend to develop strong doubts in our abilitiy to do certain things just because we think we are not good enough or not as good as some other people. This might not be true for everybody but at least, i noticed it in so many people. Those people build restrictions on their true ability and they fight their powerful instinct, but sometimes, it’s because of the society, which explain pretty well why they do so.

    Anyway, i guess i learnt something new today from your nephew, maybe not in the competition field, but maybe in doing all what i have to do to get the job done, instead of thinking whether i can do it or not. 🙂

    P.S. I loved the quote you used for Andrea Lawrence.

  3. Thank you so much, Faisal! I couldn’t agree with you more that so many of us grow up to doubt our genuine abilities. Your comments are excellent!

    As you point out, society is often the culprit in causing us to doubt our abilities. We can do little to change how society views us, but we can do a lot to change how much weight we give to the opinions of society. If we give too much weight to the opinions of society, society will crush us. So it’s best to take society’s opinions of us with a grain of salt — with a lot of salt, actually. And to focus on the value to ourselves of our own talents and abilities, rather than focus too much on what society says are their values.

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