In isolation, it’s tempting to think you have it all figured out. That’s right, you’ve got the answers, the philosophy, the explanations, and even the tidy rationalizations to sweep away points of confusion. It’s all quite comfortable. Knowledge of confirmation bias provides nonexistent inoculation against this pathology.
You never have to be isolated, of course – there’s infinite information out there just begging for consumption. But the tricky stuff is not easily changed through dissenting voices and long hours in the library, because the tricky stuff is not a matter of facts per se. Rather, the tricky stuff is another way of saying “life philosophy” which is another way of saying the stuff you really, really want to get right but to which objective answers are fleeting.
And so, you sort through aphorisms and religions (and a whole lot in between) searching for what feels right. Toss in your experiences and the hard-won lessons of youth, and the tricky stuff may not feel that tricky anymore. It’s at this juncture where people trend toward being stuck in their ways, an isolation where new information is easily dismissed.
Easily, though, doesn’t mean completely. A stuck mind still oscillates between first: complete confidence in one’s own life philosophy, and second: declarations that there are many ways to flourish, and then: the realization that the second isn’t really true if the first is true, but if the second is true, the first may not be true.
The more one lingers on the then, the more willing one remains to breaking isolation for upgraded inputs, even in areas long believed not needing improvement. But how? Hint: learning, especially with tricky stuff, is rarely linear. You try and try and try and think and think and think to counteract the first. For a long time there’s seemingly zero dividend (helping cement stuck in their ways). Then, if one doesn’t surrender to isolation, BAM: a monumental leap occurs in an innocent, random instant.
For me, it happened when I heard Michelle Kwan discussing her avoidance of the “silver medal effect,” whereby 2nd place winners are less happy than those finishing in 3rd. The phenomenon is the result of our constant need to compare, and I knew the related literature so well I considered fast-forwarding the podcast. In fact, I thought I was immune to such an effect, at least as the problem is commonly presented: Would you rather have $70k when everyone else has $60k or $100k when everyone else has $125k? I take the latter.
But when it comes to most matters, I am helplessly competitive. Furthermore, I’m convinced that if one wants to increase performance, there is no finer method than a humming competitive drive. I run faster if others are around; I study harder if there is someone to beat; I prepare more diligently if there is a prize, contest, audience, praise, etc. to be had. These assertions seem so ingrained in our humanity that I’d wager a majority would agree.
Yet, these assenters (and dissenters) may opt out of competition for three primary reasons. First, pushing oneself is generally unpleasant in the moment. Yes, you could run faster, but that would lead to heavy breathing, thoughts of dying, and leg pain that are none too fun. Second, the risk of offending others – operating outside of a go along to get along ethos – is simply not worth it. In other words, I’d rather be liked and maintain friendships than inch closer to my max output. And third, the easiest way to avoid defeat is by sitting out.
None of those reasons were ever compelling me. But as Kwan spoke, a different, cogent reason appeared that I had always missed by bucketing it with It’s the journey not the destination exhortations. The default mindset of a competitor, certainly the silver medalist, is to focus upward and ruminate on what could have (should have, damnit!) gone differently to be on the highest podium. This one-way directionality misses so much, like all the plausible alternate realities where worse finishes occurred. It’s not that one should be wholly comforted in defeat; it’s that a wise person spends time appreciating that tiny, negative twists of fate would have left one longing for the outcome that currently seems so unbearable in the self-pity of loss. The bronze medalist is better equipped to ponder multiple directions because being off the podium entirely is extra poignant. Fortunately, there’s no hard limit preventing everyone else from following the same mental rhythms.
The real breakthrough came in appreciating the places I exhibited the “silver medal effect” outside of the competitive realm. Outside of the competitive realm? Ha. I should say, the places I had convincingly fooled myself into believing I wasn’t competing. The fooling was possible because it wasn’t traditional competition, certainly not the dog-eat-dog variety. Nor was self-competition. When it came to failed relationships, I was competing against the ideal, the gold medal if you will, of what could have been. There was happily ever after and abject failure – a needlessly suffocating dichotomy. This false game left no room to consider the real enjoyment that still comes from 2nd, 3rd, 4th, whatever place the relationship ends in. Or that while, yes, it could have been better, it could have been far worse: one pleasant date instead of two, three great years instead of five, no love instead of finite climaxes of love. Reckless disregard for these truths amounts to a wholesale admission that final results are all that matter, which dumbs the human experience down to one where in-the-moment flourishing is irrelevant.
That may sound like the banality of It’s the journey not the destination. And maybe it is. But I’ve now absorbed it in a way that feels anything but banal.