June 10, 2023

Compete in the Ocean, not in a Pond (How to deflate your ego & win)

Compete in the Ocean, not in a Pond (How to deflate your ego & win)

I was super competitive growing up.

That annoying cocky 10 year old kid that always had to win.

When I was around the age of 6-8, I began measuring myself against other people. I wanted to be better than them.

So that's what I did. I competed and won (most of the time).

I did this for awhile, beating kids immediately around me. I had to win in everything, no matter how small. I turned everything into a competition.

Looking back, it was how I was measuring my competence. How I measured my worth.

This became a foundational piece of my identity that would create lots of chaos in my life.

As I aged, this trend continued.

I would come across new kids in town.

Sometimes it was a friend group from another neighborhood. Sometimes it was a talented kid I met from the football team...

The new challengers were threatening the image I'd created of my self worth.

I had to beat them too.

My ego inflated.

Ego: "I'm better than everybody. More competent and worthy than everybody."

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Ego definition: the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity.

The Shift to Validation

There comes a point when every kid or young teen wants to be liked — fighting for their position in the social hierarchy of middle school.

This burning need to be the best became bigger than proving it to myself. I needed everybody else to know I was the best.

This is how I measured my self worth so I believed that's how others measured my worth as well.

This is how I would achieve my position in the hierarchy.

My ego was in full control. I was competing and winning, but something was going on. I was not receiving the same level of validation from others that I was receiving from myself.

I needed them to match. Why didn't they match? Did they not think I was worthy?

This is where the insecurity crept in and began to build.

The more time passed without the two matching, the more insecure I got.

My sole focus changed from "I need to be the best" to "I need others to know I'm the best."

I didn't know it at the time, but this would soon lead to "Am I actually the best?"

In hindsight, it's easy to see what was going on, but at the time I had NO clue I was insecure. As far as I could tell, I was the best at everything.

The ways I tried to get that validation were ugly.

Very ugly.

Instead of relying on the actions to speak for themselves (they didn't give me the response I desired), I began to speak for them.

"Hey man wasn't it so cool when I did this?" ... "Bro did you see that? I can't believe I just did that?" ... "Oh he ran a mile in 7:00? Well I did it in 6:30".

We all knew that kid growing up. Nobody could stand him.

Before long, I was talking about myself all the time. Bragging and boasting.

I was desperate.

I was trying to make the view I had of myself and the world's view of me match.
Otherwise, I was not as worthy as I believed. My ego couldn't accept that.


This trend continued and worsened into high school. It got to the point where people were starting to move away from me. I wondered why some didn't like me.

"I need others to know I'm the best" changed to "Am I actually the best?"

When it became clear that people didn't like me, the self reflection period had to begin. I was about 16 years old and had some serious growing/changing to do.

I had to figure out what caused this.

I had to reverse engineer myself.

Reflection

I wondered why I cared so much if people thought I was the best. If I was so certain of it myself, why did I need their validation?

I started researching the difference between cockiness (a word I was often called) and confidence.

I started connecting the dots and realized two things:

  • First, my fundamental definition of self worth was incomplete. Being the best isn't the only thing that matters. Competitive competence isn't the only thing that determines self worth.
  • Second, and far more difficult to tackle at the time, I realized that I was insecure. I was unsure of myself.
  • Third, and most importantly, I noticed that I wasn't even the best. My subconscious was avoiding people that I knew would beat me. (Much more on this later)

The Protection Mechanism (Ego)

At the core of this problem lied the ego.

It was driving all my actions.

Once I established that I was going to measure my self worth purely on being better than people, that was it.

My ego would do whatever it could to protect me from admitting I was less worthy of a human.

To do anything from losing.

The behaviors driven by my ego were:

  • Getting others to agree with my worthiness.
  • Making everything a competition to increase my own worthiness.
  • I was competing in a pond.

Competing in a Pond

There were a lot of lessons learned from my story, but the one I want to focus on was the last one I listed.

Through that entire chapter of my life it was the most sneaky thing my ego did.

Also the most detrimental.

Once I defined how I would measure my self worth, my ego did everything it could to avoid one thing...

Losing.

"You can deal with people not seeing you the same as you see yourself... you can deal with being insecure because of it... you can deal with being annoying..."

Just. Don't. Lose.

If I didn't lose, I was valuable. If I didn't lose, people would (with enough time) see my value.

If that happened, my insecurity would go away and I wouldn't need to look for validation.

That's when I pinpointed what my ego did to protect me.

I competed across and down.

I would beat the people in my immediate circle but not seek out people who were better.

  • I was one of the best players on the lacrosse team in high school. Players from other teams who were WAY better didn't inspire me to improve. I would move on and forget about them because I wasn't surrounded by them.
  • Be the fastest kid in the friend group, but not want to run track.
  • Be the best at video game shooters in the friend group, but stick to competing with them.

Sometimes I would even avoid these people.

  • Once I got to a high enough rank in a video game I would make a second account to play at a lower rank.

I would do what I could to win. Often times that meant beating up on people that I knew I could beat.

The world is an ocean, and my small circle was a pond.

My ego put up a wall in the corner of the ocean to create the pond where I was the largest fish.

If I wasn't the largest fish, my value and self worth went down.

This is what I meant earlier when I said newcomers would threaten my self worth.

I had to beat them. I had to be the biggest fish.

I could only do so much border control. Fish made their way in, and when they did, I had no choice.

This wall & border control idea was the thing that set me free. It was the realization that changed everything.

Time for the Good Stuff


Being the biggest fish may seem desirable. I know I desired it at the time. The reasons seem obvious.

  • Bragging rights.
  • Respect (from the fish in your pond).
  • Joy from winning.

The thing is, they don't make you better. They only protect you.

If your goal is to not lose and be mediocre, then by all means.

I realized my goal was to become truly respectable. To become the best version of myself. To master myself. To compete at the highest level possible.

That's when these things started to make no sense. They no longer helped me get closer to my goal — they only held me back.

Why did I want bragging rights? Why did I desire respect from people I was already better than?

Why was being the best in my neighborhood important? Did it get me anywhere?

The only place it should get you is to the next pond.

Be the Smallest Fish

If you're better than the people around you at the thing you care about, it's time to move on.

I wrote a previous newsletter here about improving 1% more each day. I talked about how that's the only way to introduce change and improvement into your life.
While that's true, there is a hack.

You may have heard the idea that you're the summation of who you surround yourself with.

I'm here to tell you it's true. It's the most true thing I know of.

If you're the biggest fish in your pond, you either stay that size or you shrink.

If you're the smallest fish in your pond, you either stay that size or you grow.

Shed people that pull you down, and find people that lift you up.

Stop playing border control, grab your passport, and head out.

Time to swim to a new pond. One full of fish who are bigger than you. As big as you are willing to handle. Join the sharks and whales.

The further you feel from them, the harder you will work to become like them...

Leverage that competitiveness and let it propel you forward instead of hold you back.

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If they are too big for you, this may lead to discouragement. They may feel like they are unattainably large and that you can not relate. Everybody has a different threshold here. When in doubt, move to a pond with fish only a little bigger than you.

As you can imagine this was difficult for me. I had to make the realization that self worth was not defined by how bad you could beat your friends in games.

That was nothing to be proud of. The pride turned into shame.

At this point, I didn't have my own respect anymore. I didn't consider myself worthy anymore.

To become the man I wanted to be, I needed to keep pushing myself further.

To be the smallest fish, turn into a sponge, and grow. That was the way forward.

To join a new pond.

My ego didn't have to protect me from being around bigger fish anymore. Now that my goal was different, it did the opposite.

I started spending less time with smaller fish from the old pond. My ego was protecting me from them because I didn't want to shrink. I wanted to grow.

The Genius of Humility

It takes a lot of humility to move to a pond where you are the smallest fish.

It takes a lot of humility to become a listener instead of a talker. An absorber instead of a show off.

It takes a lot of humility to admit you're not that great.

It takes a lot of humility to win.

Here is one very important realization I made a few years ago: Nobody is better than anybody else. Some people are just further along in the journey.

One thing decides how far along a person is: how often they realize they know nothing.

How often they realize they aren't that great.

In other words, the person who is more humble.

They continue to join new ponds, turning from a guppy to a swordfish.

A swordfish to an orca.

An orca to a blue whale.

Don't miss out.

Start Now

If you're wondering how you can join new ponds, here is the main way you can do so.

Join an online group. It doesn't matter what the thing is. If you want to get better, you need to find a community of people who are doing it better than you.

The internet has brought everybody together and also put them in public.

I like competitive gaming, so I have looked around and found some good resources:

At places like this, there is always somebody better.

At first, I hated it. I still wanted to be the best and prove my worth. Over time, the negative emotion I had turned positive as I saw so much progress.

I didn't need to beat them yet, I needed to beat myself. To be better than I was yesterday.

It doesn't matter what your interest is, there is a group of experts congregated on the internet. Chances are you can join and engage for free.

Hopefully the resources I provided gave you a general idea of what you should be looking for. Take them and adapt it for your interest. Look for something similar.

Remember, this is your first big pond change. Make sure to never stop switching. It's an endless game.

Safe travels little guppy, the orcas are more friendly than you think!

See you over there ;)

- Jason