Over the winter I heard a couple of podcast episodes that resonated with my own mental approach to self-improvement. I have this ongoing desire to get better at “stuff”, but a low-lying level of fear and anxiety about how others will perceive my performance improvement. This fear can manifest in many ways:

  • Lack of willpower to fully invest my time and energy into effective practice
  • Fear of even talking about my self-improvement plans with others
  • Unwillingness to display my skills in a public way, or in competition

What areas of self-improvement am I talking about? Some that come to mind are golf, guitar playing, sailing, language learning, and Advanced Squad Leader (a wargame that has a similar competitive culture as chess). I want to be better at all of these things, but given my work status (I don’t work much at all) and access to resources I don’t put anywhere near the energy into effectively improving my performance as I could.

This isn’t a black-and-white situation; there’s a spectrum of grey here where I’m closer to doing better in some areas than others. In 2021, for example, I established my yearly theme of Accountable Improvement and sought outside help in a few areas (golf, language). I still mostly lacked the courage to “announce” my goals to acquaintances, and to put those skills to any sort of true test. One big exception last year was entering my golf club’s annual match-play competition, which is a true test of individual skill.

The specific podcast that triggered this self-reflection was season 6, episode 1 of Chasing Scratch, the excellent buddy podcast about two guys in their (now) 40s trying to improve their golf handicap to 0, aka “scratch”. Mike reflected and took a mental trip back to 8th-grade basketball tryouts, had done a lot of work off-season, but didn’t make the team. He seemed to handle it well. Mike played after school at his house almost every day, but a neighborhood verbal bully regular was pushing kids around just a bit much for Mike’s taste. There was a confrontation and Mike told the kid to leave, “nobody wants him there, go home”. The kid turned on him, saying “you know the sad thing Mike? I come here to play basketball, but I don’t try to be a basketball player. I just do it for fun. You actually try. That’s all you do is try to be a basketball player, and you’re not. If you were you’d be on the school team.”

Now that hit me hard: the idea of being judged by others when we are trying hard at something and our performance gains don’t measure up to the effort we are putting in. Mike then went on to share an interview with Kobe Bryant:

The greatest fear you face is yourself, because we all have dreams, and it is very scary sometimes to accept the dream that you have. It is scarier still to say “OK, I want that.” Because you’re afraid that if you put your heart and soul into it and you fail, then how are you gonna feel about yourself? So being fearless means putting yourself out there, and going for it, no matter what. Go for it. Not for anybody else, but for yourself.

That stayed with Mike - he never wanted to be the “try guy” after that; he doesn’t want to be the guy that tries and doesn’t get it done. After that, he stopped going all out in his basketball practice and improvement.

Steve Magness shared that under preparation is a coping strategy for stress; it allows you to protect your ego because you didn’t try. Actually putting forth effort requires being OK with confronting your limits. Is it possible that you can fall back on that as an excuse if you don’t go all in on something?

What do I take from this? I’m allowing my outside environment, which I cannot control, to attenuate the effort I put into the pursuit of my own goals. It is the ultimate cycle of self-defeat and fails to recognize that pretty much nobody else gives a single thought to how I perform. They’re too self-absorbed in their own shortcomings!

So, I will strive to be more transparent about my personal goals, and not be ashamed to say “I worked so hard for this but still didn’t achieve my goal.” I will relish and embrace the process of self-improvement, I will desire good outcomes, but I won’t let those outcomes define me.