Are You Settling, Or Doing Your Best?
Scott D. Clary | Mental Models, Performance, Business & Entrepreneurship
Here is my weekly email with some insights and ideas pulled from conversations I had on my podcast.
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Are You Settling, Or Doing Your Best?
“The tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability, but rather in our living below our capacities.” – Benjamin E. May
Do you ever get the feeling that you're settling for a mediocre life? Maybe you're doing the bare minimum at work, or spending quality time with your family has gone down the drain. It's something I feel we've become quite prone to as a society (although I'm not certain as to why).
Maybe I'm wrong; it could just be that we're settling for stability, since we no longer live in an age where we're constantly being threatened by war or famine. But there has to be more to life than just getting by. Personally, I know that the biggest rush of energy and self-esteem I ever get comes from trying new things. Going above and beyond my limits is what makes me thrive.
I spoke to a guy recently who made me ponder this whole idea of putting in maximum effort, and of becoming the best at what you do. Carlos Rodriguez is the founder of G2, the 'greatest esports company in the world'; he's spent the majority of his career becoming the best at each game he touches. He's also the person inspiring today's newsletter.
I'll be touching on some of Carlos' story – you can listen to the full thing here – but on top of that, I want to delve deeper into what it takes to be the best. How can you make incremental changes in your life so that you're constantly progressing and reaching new levels?
Let's take a look.
Why Do We Settle For Less?
This is the first thing I typed into Google when exploring this topic. We all choose to be mediocre at times; it's the path of least resistance, and it's also the best way to remain 'safe'.
The interesting part, however, is that we have much more to gain from putting in maximal effort. Showing initiative at work is more likely to lead to a pay rise. Spending time with your spouse and kids leads to stronger relationships. Learning a new skill can lead to an entirely new career.
In other words, it's not easy – but it's worth it. So why do we still settle for less?
We Have an Intense Fear of Failure
Humans fear failure; it's a fact of life. Some of us more, some of us less – but all of us have some fear of failure. It's something that stems from pain avoidance – if we do something and it doesn't work out, we're likely to feel regret or disappointment.
A psychologist by the name of Guy Winch explained fear of failure in a way that really interested me. He reframed it as not a phobia, but an act of self-sabotage; our pain-averse mindset causes us to deprive ourselves of opportunities, and ultimately, happiness.
It's Easy To Settle
While I was down the research rabbit hole, another contributing factor kept popping up: the idea that life is becoming increasingly easy to enjoy in the short-term. Almost everything we interact with now is designed to deliver little hits of dopamine.
Perhaps we're so doped up on the stuff that we don't need the endorphins from exercise, the satisfaction from a job well done, or the sense of accomplishment that comes with learning something new.
If you've ever listened to Tristan Harris, a design ethicist and former Google employee, you'll know the scary parallels he draws between technology and slot machines. Both are built to give us the same short-term hit that keeps us in a self-sabotaging state of mind.
Effort Takes... Well... Effort
Stating the obvious here, but it's relevant. A key reason we don't push ourselves to be the best is that it takes a heck of a lot of effort. I mean real, physical energy – whether it's brain power, time, or bodily resources. It's tiring to be constantly learning and growing, especially if we're not used to it.
I found a great study on this called "The Effort Paradox: Effort Is Both Costly and Valued". As to be expected, it highlights the fact that effort takes a mental and physical toll. What it asserts, however, is that the value we gain from effort far outweighs the cost.
"Mountaineers value mountain climbing precisely because it is so arduous and effortful; through a process of learned industriousness, effort itself can become a secondary reinforcer and be rewarding by itself; and objects that one effortfully crafts and assembles oneself (e.g., IKEA furniture) are valued more than the same objects that come preassembled."
You can read the study here – it's super interesting, and it makes a lot of sense to me.
Why Mediocre Hurts Us
There's part of all of us that wants to be better. It's evolutionary; in the past, when being better meant survival of the fittest, it was key. But it's a lot easier to silence that instinct now that we don't need it to survive.
Here's the kicker, though. While choosing to give a half-assed effort feels easier and better in the short-term, there are studies to prove the way it hurts us in the long-term.
My favorite study on delayed gratification is the infamous Marshmallow Experiment. James Clear wrote an excellent article about it. Kids were offered a choice: one marshmallow now, or two if they could wait 15 minutes. Most kids (unsurprisingly) chose instant gratification and ate the one marshmallow.
The kids who were able to wait for the two marshmallows, though, were followed into adulthood. The study found that the kids who were able to delay gratification had better life outcomes – they did better in school, had healthier relationships, and earned more money.
In other words, choosing the easy path now resulted in a worse life later on. And that's what we get for refusing to better ourselves: a mediocre life.
Choosing To Do Better
The whole reason why I started thinking along these lines was my interview with Carlos Rodriguez. We didn't even talk about instant vs. delayed gratification, or any of that. But I was speaking to a guy who had spent years becoming the best at what he does – and that inspired me.
Let's hear a little from the interview.
Carlos' Story and Rise To Success
As you might know, Carlos is the founder of G2 – one of the world's most successful esports companies. But his story didn't start there. In fact, he began as a competition gamer himself, and he was passionate about it.
"[eSports is] two clicks into direct competition with someone I don't know. I don't know their background, I don't know their race or color or anything. And that, to me felt beautiful."
Carlos got into the world of eSports almost as soon as he heard about it, even though his sporting history consisted of mostly physical team sports like paddle and soccer.
"I never really liked high school; never liked to study too much. But with eSports, there was a way in which I could compete with other people in a game that I would consider myself good at. Then, somebody would give me the truth – after competing against him or her – that I was a bit sh*t. And I appreciated it."
It's rare to hear someone talk about their appreciation for constructive criticism. I think it was a great way to start out his career; he got used to seeing areas that needed improvement and fixing them.
Making A Career From Scratch
Carlos was proactive about becoming the best, because if you were the best, that's how you got into the big leagues. Eventually, he teamed up with other top-ranking World of Warcraft players to form a professional team. Their first comp left him with $2000 to take home to his family – more money than his parents made combined.
"Back then, it was like the world to me. My mom and my dad worked pretty much all day. My mum was a makeup artist, my dad was an electrician. And between them both, they didn't bring home 2000 bucks a month. So I thought I was the richest man on the planet."
Carlos continued studying at this point, but he got better at World of Warcraft in the meantime – so good, in fact, that he won in all of Europe and came third in the World Championships.
Now, imagine becoming the best at something. You're almost guaranteed to win your competitions and bring home the big bucks. Would you give it up and start from scratch? I'm not sure how many of us would give up certainty to challenge ourselves. But Carlos did.
"I said to myself, 'Okay, I want a career out of this. So what games should I play next? What games fit my skill set, and what game is played by a lot of people?' And that's when I consciously decided to go for League of Legends, which is one of the largest games on the planet."
Not only did this guy decide to make eSports his career – a gutsy move to begin with – but he also decided to switch to a new game that was even more competitive, and that would require even more hours of practice. He was playing the long game.
Carlos' Approach To Becoming The Best
You can hear the full story in his interview (and I highly recommend doing so) – but let's switch gears a little. I was interested to find out Carlos' thoughts on how he approaches becoming the best at a new game.
"With video games, I always say: if your mind can take it, you should be training. You're not going to get exhausted...if you just do the ABC of what to do when you play games, like a stretch every now and then, get up from your chair, and stretch."
It was pretty clear to me that Carlos is someone who practices pretty much non-stop, which I admire a lot. And, while some people would argue that playing video games is 'lazy' or 'easy', playing on a professional level is work. It's hard work.
"Mentally it's very taxing. Every game you play, you have to think about 1000 things; you're controlling your character while you're thinking about what your team is doing. What moves should the team do next? What is my opponent thinking of doing? It's just very taxing, and you have to take it seriously so that you can develop good habits."
By good habits, Carlos meant practice – hours and hours of it.
"I think that an average successful career has a player training eight to ten hours a day. And there's players that can take more, there's players that can take less. I think that the rule of thumb is that if you can take it, you should be practicing."
Can You Take It?
I wanted to focus in on that last sentence for a moment, because it's such a succinct way of putting things. If you want to be the best at something, you put in maximum effort – which is whatever you can feasibly take.
Think about Everest climbers. To train for an Everest climb, they have to do things like hike with heavy packs, sleep in cold conditions, and expose themselves to altitude sickness. They push themselves to the absolute limit. Cave divers have to do something similar.
But our lives don't need to be so drastic, though. To become the best at what you do, you simply find what you're comfortable with and then do more of it.
For example, I want to be an excellent podcast interviewer. I don't interview one person per month, or per year; I do as many interviews as my schedule allows because I want to get better. The people I talk to are also diverse, offering new challenges and opportunities for growth.
(That's not to blast my own horn – there are things I could be more proactive about, of course).
But that's what I've learned from the people I interview, too; the successful entrepreneurs who have achieved a lot in their field. The consistent pattern is that these people never settle for mediocre. Every single person I have the pleasure of interviewing have become successful by their above-and-beyond effort – not by waiting around.
How To Choose Excellent Over Mediocre
To round out today's newsletter, I want to share some of the advice and strategies I found whilst exploring the delayed gratification rabbit hole.
The reality is that most of us are wired to find the path of least resistance. We crave pain reduction, or better still, pain avoidance – so seeking the opposite needs to be an active decision.
Here's what I found.
Reframe the Effort-Performance Relationship
If you're looking to change the way you think about effort and gratification, this article is an awesome read. In it, Fabrice Cavarretta (Ph.D., Associate Professor of Management at ESSEC Business School) talks about effort as a 'feedback loop'.
Usually, we think of effort as a one-time payment for a one-time reward. We study for one exam to get one good result. We work one shift to earn one shift's wages.
But what if we thought of effort as a continuous process? Cavarretta explained that there's another way to think about effort. We can see it as a repeating loop, like this: effort > performance > pleasure > motivation > effort.
Rather than assuming that the loop ends after receiving the pleasure, we can see that the pleasure is actually the beginning of the next loop.
I understand this to mean that putting in effort gives us the motivation to continue putting in effort. If you view it this way, putting in effort begins to have a lot more payoff. You're constantly motivated to improve your performance so that you can experience more pleasure, and more motivation to attain that pleasure. (A pay raise, a new milestone in your startup, a strategic breakthrough, etc.).
Don't Avoid Your Fears
A study recently came out from the University of Texas, demonstrating the way that aggression builds up if the aggressor doesn't deal with it as it builds. The same can be said for other emotions – like fear.
When it comes to fear of failure, the more you ignore it, the bigger it gets. The best way to beat fear of failure and allow yourself to take risks, like putting in more effort or trying something new, is to break it down by degrees.
Acknowledge the root of your fear as it arises. If you notice an area of life where you're settling for mediocre, is there a fear that's holding you back? Are you doing the bare minimum in your role at work because you're afraid of screwing up responsibilities you've never had before?
Acknowledge Your Conditioning
One reason it's so hard to break out of the habit of settling for less is because we've been conditioned to do so from a young age.
In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck discusses the power of a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset. A growth mindset is the belief that you can always improve, while a fixed mindset is the belief that your abilities are static.
If you have a growth mindset, then you're more likely to take on new challenges and put in extra effort, because you know that you can improve with time and practice. If you have a fixed mindset, you're more likely to avoid new challenges, because you're afraid of not being good at them from the start.
Dweck's research has shown that people with a growth mindset are more successful in life than those with a fixed mindset. Why? Because they're constantly challenging themselves and growing.
Seek Out Role Models And Mentors
A sure-fire way to motivate yourself to new heights is seeking out people who excel at what they do. Simply being around their energy and their attitude can help you change your perspective and raise your standards.
For me personally, I get an enormous surge of motivation when I interview people like Carlos on the podcast. It's possibly because I'm consistently faced with proof that hard work and high effort pays off; the entrepreneurial minds I get to interact with on a weekly basis have all put in an incredible amount of work to get where they are.
Wrapping Things Up
It's been a while since I wrote a mammoth deep-dive like this! I hope you've gained something from the newsletter. If nothing else, know this: putting in the work pays off. It pays off psychologically, and it pays off in improvements to your career and life.
Head over to watch the full interview with Carlos Rodriguez if you're interested in hearing more about his unique career. I loved it, and I'm sure you will too.
Thanks for reading!
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