Nov 16, 2020 · 4 min read

How can we compete better?

And why it's important to figure out what you value.

Welcome to the third issue of Great Stuff! In this issue, I discuss and reflect upon Brian Timar’s blog post “Mimetic Traps,” which is about the human tendency to imitate those around us. I follow up with some of my own reflections. This is going to be short—and fairly raw—because the last week has been busier than usual. (An alternate explanation is that I planned poorly, but I’d rather not admit that.)

In his blog post, Timar, a SpaceX engineer, reflects on his time as a physics student at UC Berkeley and then Caltech. He remembers a time when he came across a box containing the previous year’s worth of physics notes, and felt like they meant nothing to him—his time felt wasted. He says it got to this point because he never really questioned why he was studying physics. In a nutshell, once he decided that it was what he was going to major in, he fell into a “mimetic trap” and started inheriting all his desires from those around him. Since he started hanging around the physics department more and more often, his desires were shaped by those in the department. In his own words, he also “swapped an absolute goal (figuring out how bits of nature work) with a relative one (scoring higher on tests than […] classmates).” He and his classmates were competing for the same research positions, which further intensified the competition.

Here’s what I took away from the post:

1. Define what you’re competing for

In my experience, competition can only be healthy when it’s well-defined. My high school had a toxic, competitive environment where a lot of us fell into similar mimetic traps (Ivies, high SAT scores, yadda yadda yadda). A key component of this toxicity was that none of us actually knew what we were competing for or what we wanted, but what we did know was that we wanted to be better than all the others. So people ended up pushing themselves to achieve goals they didn't even know if they cared about.

2. Compete with those you actually admire

If the people you’re competing with don’t make you feel like excited about what you’re doing, then that’s probably a sign you need to be competing with different people. This is fairly straightforward to justify, because the goal is not simply to compete, but to get better at whatever it is you’re competing in. And the best way to get better at something is to be excited about it. (In my experience, being excited about doing something that others have to slog through is almost like cheating at it.)

3. Be skeptical of vague goals

Vague goals are the worst kinds of goals, because they convince you that you’re working towards something. When you get closer to the end of whatever you’re doing, you realize you’ve been working towards a mirage. It’s better to be unsure about your goals, because then you’ll actually put some effort into figuring them out. It’s also perfectly fine to keep changing your goals, since what you value isn’t going to stay fixed. In my experience, the best way to figure out your goals is to spend lots of time with people you admire. “Spending time” is broadly construed—you can spend time with an author by reading their books. This is exactly what Timar suggests in his post.

There’s an easy way to know if your goals are clearly defined: Can they be phrased as simple “yes/no” questions? For instance, one of my more humble goals is to make $100 off the Internet, which is easy enough to determine.

Here are three questions you can ask yourself periodically in order to avoid mimetic traps:

  1. Do me and the people I’m competing with agree on what we’re competing for?

  2. Do the people I’m competing with excite me?

  3. Are my own goals well-defined?

I hope this newsletter issue was interesting to you. If it wasn’t, reply to this email and let me know what I can improve. See you next time!

This is cross-posted from my newsletter, Great Stuff. If you liked it, be sure to subscribe!

Get my writing in your inbox. No spam, just occasional thoughts on design, productivity, programming, and whatever else is on my mind.