Friday, December 28, 2012

Dealing With Paradox

This post isn't EXACTLY about competition, today.  It kind of is.  More specifically though, it's about that weird sweetspot where contradictory ideas meet and reconcile.  Paradoxes, Catch-22s, apparent contradiction in terms... that's what we're talking about today.

We have a tendency to label ideas as yes or no, one or the other.  We gravitate to extremes, because extremes are easier to understand, and save us mental energy.  Taking the time to understand what appears to be paradoxical, or to have two opposing desires in your head at the same time without going bananas, is a mark of mental fluidity and flexibility.  But it's tough to do.

One that I've mentioned before is the paradox of effort in competition.  Wanting to win makes you invest effort.  But you can't fully concentrate on the game if you're spending energy worrying about its outcome.  In order to focus fully on winning, you must forget about winning... even though victory is why you tried so hard in the first place.

The thing about paradoxes is they only exist if you are focused in the wrong place.  If your goal is not to win, but to play beautifully, fully explore your competency, and push the limits of the game because you think the game is great... then you will play your heart out without worrying about winning.  At the same time, you will play your best because you can fully devote your attention to the game.

So again, here's the secret: change where your focus lies, and paradoxes tend to resolve themselves.  The puzzle is figuring out what you should focus on.

Here is an interesting one; sometimes people who focus on pleasing others, or doing things for other people, do so because they are self-absorbed.  They are constantly worrying about their behavior and how it makes them look, which is why they try and do what will look good.  So you can have somebody who invests 95% of their efforts in other people and have it come across as disingenuous.  And the kicker is, it can still originate from the desire to be a good person!  Yet nobody ends up happy.  Sad emoticons everywhere.

Hint: I'm speaking from personal experience.  I used to try and be really nice to everybody because of what kind of person I thought it made me.  So while I tried to be good and nice, at best I seemed passive and forgettable, and at worst I seemed self-absorbed and manipulative.  What I wanted to be was the opposite of that!  But the more I tried to fix it, the more attention I gave myself (rather than other people), and the more false it seemed.

Again, the trick here is to change our focus.  Somebody worries about doing things for other people, and they become self-absorbed as a result.  Why?  Because the person is focused on themselves, and they're coming from a position of insecurity.  Insecure actions tend to appear fake, so you get people doing lots of nice things while making poor impressions.  When you legitimately focus on how another person thinks, feels, and perceives the world (and not just how they perceive you), your actions begin to seem more genuine and empathetic.  It ties closely into self-confidence; when you are secure in your identity and don't worry about what other people think, they think more highly of you.

Let's bring this back to competition; if you constantly evaluate and analyze everything you do, it can take away effort from doing it properly.  The question, however, is why you're doing that in the first place.  If you're trying to get something right because you equate your identity to success, then you set yourself up for tremendous insecurity.  A big part of why I have had trouble focusing and staying calm when I make mistakes is because I did precisely that.  If I made an error, I considered it a blemish on who I was.  And since everybody makes mistakes (sometimes lots of tiny ones) my ego was under constant assault.  It's no wonder I used to feel so depressed and angry at myself.

But the harder I tried to be better, the more the mistakes stood out!  How can somebody improve if trying to focus on improvement makes them play worse?  Paradox paradox paradox.

The answer?  Switch focus.  By taking my ego out of the equation, I'm finding that I focus more on the situation.  I focus more on my opponent, on the game, on the execution, and less on how I feel.  By doing that, I feel better, and improve more!  One of my biggest personal triumphs recently started by losing a match by a really large margin to a player I'm better than; not because I wanted to lose, but because I responded by staying emotionally balanced and confident.  I kept having fun, didn't worry about how I looked or what the performance said about me, and ended up making a dominating comeback.  Paradox resolved.  It takes a lot of effort though, and if I'm not paying attention, I fall back into old mental traps.

One of my best tricks for doing that, by the way, was to stop and describe my situations without using "I" or "me."  If I made a mistake, I'd describe the mistake in very technical terms, keeping judgment out of it.  "The timing on this came a little too late because of X," or "paying too much attention to this prevented a good response to that."  Suddenly, I'm not involved, my ego isn't at stake, and I can treat it like a big puzzle waiting to be solved.  Now I can focus more on doing what needs to be done without unfortunate pressure and discomfort.  Still not perfect, but getting there.

Here is another apparent paradox with serious health implications for a lot of people: people with psychological addictions to substances will often use them to cope with stress.  They do this even after the physiological addiction is gone.  Thinking about the addiction and trying to resist it generates stress... which triggers the craving.  So the goal is to beat the addiction, but trying to conquer it makes the craving stronger.  Where do you put your focus then?  Not on fighting the addiction, but on eliminating your stress with something else.  That turns your mental energy to a new direction, which makes you focus less on the craving, which weakens it.  Of course, addictions are kind of hard to beat; the method is simple, but crazily difficult.

Another one: the more you're interested in dating somebody, the more you try to win them over and then keep them.  But that doesn't seem to work, because going to great lengths to generate attraction makes you seem needy and insecure.  Those aren't attractive character traits!  Taking care to hide the neediness and insecurity is even more needy and insecure, and eventually it reveals itself (painfully).  How do you resolve this paradox?  Well, it's kind of like the scenario described above; your efforts to please and attract somebody else are rooted in self-absorption.  Focusing your attention firmly on the other person and who they are, without obsessing over how everything reflects on you, makes you more attentive to the world.  That makes you look more secure and outwardly focused, which is a major plus.

Heck, it's kind of like the paradox of effort and victory; try to win too hard, and your obsession with victory detracts from playing well.  Try too hard to attract somebody, and your efforts detract from actually being an attractive individual.  Always try your hardest, but don't try too hard or you'll fail; it makes you want to chew aspirin like they're tic-tacs.

If there is a paradox, or apparent contradiction, or Catch-22 or whatever somewhere in your life and you can't resolve it, odds are your focus is lying in the wrong spot.  And here's the last puzzle for you to think on:  What if you have trouble concentrating on things?  So you try really hard to focus, and you think you're getting it!  But you want to make sure, so you stop and check to see just how much you're paying attention.  Oh no, you lost it.

Thanks for reading.  See you next week!


  1. I must say, this post was really great! All posts in this blog are!
    It's kinda funny, sometimes things that are so obvious simply go by us without we even noticing, and only after someone else points them out, is that you can really see them.
    Thank you so much for this, it really made me see things in a new light.

  2. Great observation!