November 10, 2018

The Importance of Competing Thoughts


Before I dive into this idea of mine, I want to tell you, I’ve been scared to write it out. It’s been in my head for a few months, but I’m genuinely nervous to share it with others. I don’t know how you’re going to receive it. Hopefully well, because I’m going for it.

Some of you might know, I was a pretty good college golfer. For about 8 years of my life, my only real goal was to be a professional golfer. That didn’t end up working out (I’m honestly kind of glad it didn’t now, but it really hurt at the time.), but it did provide me with a lot of lessons to draw from that are useful in everyday life.

One of those lessons is this: in golf, and sports in general, in order to perform your very best, you have to be able to hold pairs of competing thoughts in your head. You have to completely and sincerely believe both, potentially paradoxical, concepts simultaneously. Here’s an example:

When you are competing and performing, you have to believe fully that if you are on a “hot streak”, that that streak will never end. You also have to believe that when you are having a “cold streak”, that you can turn it completely around on the very next shot.

All hot streaks come to an end. All cold streaks come to an end. Averages exist because, over time, we perform… average. But, if you want to max out a hot streak, get everything you can out of it, the only way to do it is to block out the absolutely logical thing to think, “This could end at any moment.” You must commit yourself to the fact that you cannot miss, that you have the hottest hand, and there is no end in sight. The moment you think about the streak or doubt yourself, it’s likely over.

The same goes for when you’re playing really poorly. If you’re playing badly, it’s likely there are errors upon errors compounding, some mental, some physical, and many of which you don’t even fully understand. But, in order to get out of it, you have to think as positively as humanly possible. You have to block out any thought that says you’re going to continue to screw up as you have. You have to fully believe the fact that you’ll snap out of it, even though there is no evidence at the moment that you will.

I think learning to hold competing concepts in your brain has a lot to do with how you can be successful at any venture, including being a good software engineer.

I have had one of these competing thoughts on repeat in my brain for several months that is helping me keep myself in check. It’s been helping me get refocused and progressing towards my goals. Those thoughts are these:

There are almost 7.8 billion people on the planet, I am completely unique.

There are almost 7.8 billion people on the planet, I am not special.

I am unique. I am the only combination of these genes that exists or will exist in the known universe. I find joy in the qualities and personal philosophies that make me me. Why shouldn’t I? I believe that the value I offer to the world stems from, at least in part, the unique person I am. I bring something to the table no one else. Not sure what that is, but it’s something. That being said, I can’t let my uniqueness lead to a false belief of superiority or entitlement.

With so many people on the planet, it is highly unlikely that I am actually all that unique. Practically, every combination of person and personality exists. I might work hard, but guess what, there are many who also work hard, many who work harder. I might be smart, but guess what, there are many who are smart, and many who are smarter. If I want to achieve some goal in life, I have to be willing to believe that I am not special, that I don’t deserve to achieve those things by merit of simply being who I am, or believing the things I do. This is the nature of entitlement. That we have earned things we haven’t. Deserve things we don’t. No, I have to be willing to put in the work to achieve those things. If I don’t work hard, at least one of the other 7.8 billion people on the planet will work that hard. Probably even harder.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we all become workaholics, that would contradict the opening of this newsletter. I stand behind what I said. We all deserve breaks. But the work that you need to do won’t magically get done either.

You need to hold two competing thoughts. You are special. You have value. You bring something to the table that others don’t. This will help you find that job, get that promotion, foster a new opportunity.

You aren’t special at all. You’re just another human being, trying to make the most out of their time on this planet. If you want something, you have to do the work to get it. You don’t deserve it just because of who you are.

I have been saying these things to myself a lot lately. I have something to offer companies, people, the industry, the community. I have a unique voice to share and it is worth something.

But I’m also just a person. A person who needs to stay focused and decide what I want in life and go after it because a great life isn’t just going to appear.

You might need to tell yourself the same. You are special. You are like everyone else. You’re awesome. You’re ordinary.

There’s nothing wrong with holding two, or even three or more, competing beliefs. The key is knowing what belief applies to what. If I say that I’m special and thus deserve a raise without doing the work, then I’m entitled and just an ass. If I devalue who I am as a person because I don’t believe I have anything special about me, then I hurt myself.

I’m guessing that some of you do the same to yourself, too. Remember, I’m not that special. I’m probably not the only one.

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Kyle Shevlin is the founder & lead software engineer of Agathist, a software development firm with a mission to build good software with good people.

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