Friday, December 14, 2012

"I Want To Be The Best" -- More Complicated Than It Sounds

WARNING: this one's a long one.

One of the lessons I've learned in writing is this: telling people you are about to make things complicated is a bad idea.  People come to authorities (however self-declared they may be) to find answers and information.  Not a lot of people like reading a batch of statements that make an issue MORE difficult to sort through.

So, being fully aware of this, I'm going to take something that most competitors find beautiful and romantic--the desire to Be The Best--and complicate it for you.  Sound fun?  I certainly hope so.

Simply put, I don't think having "becoming the best" as your ambition is necessarily healthy or good.  In the game that I've obsessively grinded away at for over eight years, Super Smash Brothers Melee, that has been my overarching goal since as long as I've played competitively.

Having that belief as my guiding light has had its ups and downs.  However, with this blog post, I'm officially renouncing it in favor of a new goal, and I'm also going to explain why.

First off, I don't think it's been a TERRIBLE goal.  Like I said, it has its ups and downs.  So, using my experience as a case study, I'm going to lay out those pros and cons for you.

You may notice that most points beneath is prefaced with "can" or "may."  That's because (complications ahoy!) every person is different.  The problems aren't innate to the endeavor, and probably reflect my personal issues more than anything else.

Oh well!  These are--I feel--the pros and cons of wanting to become the best.

CON: It can turn practicing and play into a very judgmental process

When you have an obsessive goal like "being the best" as your target, if you really believe in it with a belly-burning fire like I did, then it flares up in your mind every time you sit down to play.  You can end up measuring every little thing you do against your definition of "the best."  If there is a best player that you want to surpass, you may ask yourself, "would he have done that there?"

And you're imperfect.  I'm imperfect.  I am pretty sure most people are.  But because you will want to be the best and succeed, your failures will pester you like hangnails.  And that can turn practice and play into very mentally strenuous exercises, especially when you're having a bad day.

This can turn into frustration, anger, and depression.  Frustration, anger, or depression can lead to impaired judgment and brain function, which does absolutely nothing for your improvement, causing the goal to shoot itself in the foot.  However....

PRO: It keeps your practice and play as judgmental processes.

Dear reader, you are very clever.  You noticed that this pro is basically the same as the con.  That's because, as long as you have "you have to be the best" singing like department store Christmas carols in your head, then you don't stop trying to get better.  You question your decisions and refine your thought processes around the only criteria that matters: is this making me the best?  This keeps you focused and constantly improving.

And that has benefits elsewhere.  I'm a huge fan of learning in parallel, which means "taking lessons from one place and using them somewhere else."  So when you develop a hardnosed attitude towards ensuring you're always improving in ONE area, it can transfer to others.  There is a saying that excellence is a habit, and I'm pretty sure it's true.

If you're an ambitious and competitive person, and you hone and reinforce that in one place, you may see it cropping up elsewhere.  Then again, as cool as that sounds, you only have to look at the negatives of this to realize it's a mixed blessing.  That is because...

CON: It can keep you doing things that make you unhappy.

Why do people want to be the best at certain games or practices?  It's usually because they love the thing they're trying to be the best at.  They perceive value and beauty in the endeavor.

So when your neurotic pursuit of that thing starts making you miserable, what do you do?  You may burn out--and risk viewing those years of your life as a failure and wasted investment, which does absolute wonders for your self-esteem--or you may opt to stick it out.  But, as we just said, the game is making you miserable.  So you've got a goal that's keeping you embroiled in a game you aren't enjoying anymore.

In short, the goal runs the risk of making itself pointless.  You want to be the best because you love the game, but trying to become the best can frustrate you and make you jaded with playing.  And when you're constantly measuring your performance against your idealized standard of what it means to be "the best," that's not as unlikely as you may think.

But again, this con has a flipside.

PRO: You may develop a habit of powering through unhappiness and discomfort to reach your goals.

Barring a fortunate surplus of serotonin in your brain, you aren't going to enjoy everything you do.  There are times when, no matter how much you love your job or your game or [thing], you're going to wake up wanting to do ANYTHING BUT THAT.  And if we have a habit of only doing things we enjoy... well, that's about as bad as only doing things that make us miserable.  It encourages you to give up the moment things aren't great.  It leads to shallow pursuits and a lack of fulfillment, and the inability to keep going when things are tough.

Having that overarching goal in your head gives you a mental destination.  It says, "I know what I REALLY WANT."  And knowing what you really want, remembering your overarching goal, is everything when it comes to powering through the unpleasant.  It's an invaluable skill and an invaluable component of willpower.

You will, no matter how wonderful your life is, have days that suck.  Sometimes those days will stretch into weeks or months.  But if you've got a shining beacon in your brain--and sometimes it's the desire to be number one--it can sustain you when everything else makes you want to give up.

Unfortunately, there's a problem with this.

CON: Being the best is something you have limited control over.

You can decide how much you are going to practice.  You can throw yourself heart and soul into your game.  You can come up with all the strategies, find people much smarter than you to coach you, and give 110% with compounded daily interest.

And it still might not be enough, because you don't really control how good your opponents are.  You don't decide how genetically talented your opponent is.  You don't decide how much hard work they put in.  You don't decide how smart and effective their coaches are.  You don't control the magic-science brain chemicals their country's government secretly put in their Wheaties.

It's a heartwarming notion that if you just put in more work than the other guy, you can overcome talent.  And, to be quite honest, it's not even that inaccurate.  Heavily drilled basics, dedication and persistence (over a long period of time) tend to trump obvious talent.  It's that Tortoise and the Hare fable at work.

Unfortunately, like I said, you don't control how much and how well the other guy trains.  You and he might have the exact same idea: if I just work harder than the other guy, I'll be better.  Except one of you is bound to be more talented than the other.  And when you have lots of hard work, but you're against lots of hard work plus talent, math isn't on your side.

And when you have a large field of dedicated competitors who all want to be the best, all pouring their hearts and souls into the game with the desire to be number one, you end up with a lot of people getting broken hearts.  Only one person gets to be number one, and you don't control the factors that apply to everybody else.

On the other hand...

PRO: All that dedication can create high standards, beautiful play, and a passionate community.

If you consider that there are lots of people out there wanting to be the best, and all these people are pushing one another to improve and get better and better--and your game is robust enough to handle it--then the skill level of players can end up ridiculously high.

Lots of skilled players, if you love and appreciate the game as both spectator and competitor, is a wonderful problem to have.  Tons of people pushing you and your understanding of the game can be rewarding and fulfilling.  When many people are filled with the relentless drive to improve, there is a lot of impetus to get better, a lot of sources to draw inspiration from, and a lot of kindred spirits to form bonds with.

That's assuming they all have healthy attitudes to the game, however.  When you're too focused on the outcome of the game in your desire to win, a new problem gets created.

CON: It can over-emphasize the result rather than the process.

Here is a question for you: would you rather enter a big event, have a great time, play great matches in a game you love, and lose out in quarterfinals?  Or would you rather slug your way through stressful matches, get to the finals, play two games, and then have your opponent disqualified on a technicality?

One yields great memories, but no victory.  One yields a victory, but deprives you of experiences that bring you joy.

I am fully aware these are extremes, but I'm using them to emphasize a principle: people who really love their game would always rather play fun and intense matches with more "pure" outcomes.  These are the kinds of people who will let certain technicalities slide when they don't have anything to do with the heart of the game.  Those kinds of people may fully want to be the best, but they want to do it through actually PLAYING THE GAME.

But there are others for whom "being the best" is equivalent to "getting first place," regardless of the means.  So disqualifying your opponent in the world championships is A-OK, and getting your friends to trash-talk somebody into going on tilt is dandy as well (this is a whole other issue I may talk about some other time).

What comes to mind most readily for me, in this case, are soccer players who fake and over-act for foul calls.  The core of skillful soccer (ball-control, finesse, teamwork, physical fitness, determination, all that good stuff) is what gets people into the game.  The desire to gain advantages that might make a difference can end up detracting from that.  It turns soccer into soap opera and detracts from what makes the game important.

Once again, what we're looking at here is a case of the goal defeating itself.  Loving the game makes you want to become the best; being the best is measured through winning; trying too hard to get a victory can encourage people to AVOID PLAYING THE ACTUAL GAME when doing so benefits them.


There are some things to address.  First is that "wanting to be the best" isn't really a problem if you can keep a healthy perspective on things at all times.  You can risk of developing unhealthy mental habits, but you may also develop very powerful and helpful ones as well.  It's a giant nebulous clusterbomb of maybes and speculative possibilities.

Part of it depends on your definition of "the best."  I don't think it's inherently bad to want to have great skill and insight into the heart of the game, to develop yourself and improve yourself to get as close to perfection as you can.  But over-emphasizing the result has lots of negative possibilities, which is why I've decided to abandon that goal.

My new goal when it comes to SSBM (and, for that matter, everything else I do) is as follows: to always pursue improvement while focusing on my love of the game.  To turn "becoming the best" into a process that exhilarates me, rather than a goal that frustrates and eludes me.  Instead of THE best, it becomes "MY best, over time."

Why make this distinction?  Because goals tend to make people less happy than processes.  Keeping your eye on the prize and remembering what you ultimately want can sustain you when things start to suck.  But it can also blind you when you get what you think you want, but it defeats its own purpose.

On the other hand, if you find a way to love and enjoy the process of reaching that goal, then keeping perspective is infinitely easier.  You find yourself eager to get out and mix things up, to try new stuff.  You find yourself more resilient to failure.  You can even find failure fun, and when things are fun, it's much easier to learn.

I'm hardly perfect when it comes to this.  I have a lifetime of mental habits telling me that I need to always be improving, that I need to constantly push forward, that I must be the best and I must strive for excellence in everything I do.  People who know me are fully aware of how sulky I can get if I'm not being perfectly great all the time.  I'm working on it though.  Which is obviously because when I'm sulking, I'm wasting time not being perfectly great, and that's not okay.

Thanks for reading.