How To Compete Against Yourself: Don’t Do Your Best, Do Better Than Your Personal Average

The first step is showing up. But what about after that? Do you do your best?

No.

Doing your best is a really bad idea.

Let’s talk about world records. A world record is just a personal best. It is the best personal best of all recorded and widely recognized personal bests. The best of the bests. There’s a reason we make a big deal out of world record performance — world record times, world record lifts — and that’s because they happen (are set/beaten) relatively rarely. If the same world record were getting broken every two seconds, we probably wouldn’t care so much any more. The only records that can change like that are cumulative ones — sum totals, not discrete performances.

Again, world records are just a subset, a subclass of personal bests 1. And the conditions that create both PBs and WRs — any peak performance, really — are, almost by definition, unique, rare, and not readily amenable to mass production. Does this mean that world records are fun but meaningless? Unrepeatable products of random chance? Miraculous, supernatural events?

No.

Dick Fosbury changed the high jump forever (a lot of track and field examples here today, folks); backwards is now the “correct” way to do the high jump, although it was once, well, backwards. Roger Bannister famously redefined middle distance running. Their outlier performances produced further outliers. And many of what would once have been world record performances are now, literally, child’s play. High schoolers routinely break the four-minute mile. It is said that the majority of intensively musically trained children today (thanks to tools like the Suzuki method and such) are better than Mozart was when he was their age.

Nevertheless, no one has the energy to do their best every day. That’s why it’s your best. It’s a superlative performance. If it weren’t your best, we wouldn’t call it your best, we’d call it your average.

Aha.

And that there is the key. If you want to raise your average (and who doesn’t), which is the “true” baseline measure of your skill, the performance level you can (statistically speaking) consistently put out, then all you want to do, all you need to do, is focus on meeting and beating your average. This is wonderful for at least five reasons:

  • It’s “realistic” enough to not be a mental burden. By definition, your average is well within what you can do. It’s what you do do, typically at least. In that sense, there’s no sense that you’re attempting the impossible; what you’re attempting is, in fact, extremely possible. That fact alone bypasses any fear response.
    • There’s no (subjective) fear of failure
    • There’s no objective risk of failure — it’s your average, after all — and the self-reinforcing spiral of fear, avoidance behavior and failure-feeling that people often put themselves into after a failure.
    • It’s a slight stretch but it’s doable and won’t break you. It’s a pleasant stretching. You won’t tear.
    • I mean, can you imagine if Usain Bolt 2 wouldn’t love himself unless he did his best every day? Since his personal best is also the current world record, that means that he would have to break the 100m world record every single bleeding day, in order to literally “do his best”. Now, he hasn’t done that in about 4 years (again, at this writing). Does that mean that he’s been slackin’? Not doing his best? Not 頑張る 3ing? Should he give up? Should he hate himself? Of far farking course not. And neither should you. Stop trying to do your best. Stop trying to break world records. Break 0. Then break average. Let the records break themselves.
  • It’s “realistic” enough to not to be a physical burden. PB peak performance can be a huge physical strain from which you need to recover.
  • It’s sustainable and can be performed every day
    • It forces you to rest and take care of yourself, since you can’t do a kamikaze 4 and just push your body and mind (body especially) beyond its limits, causing pain, suffering and maybe even metaphorical project death, all in order to break some record. Because, no, in order to put out an above-average performance every day, you need to be rested and healthy. You need to be in fighting condition.
    • Again, doing your best is a really bad idea. And the cool thing about an average, mathematically speaking (especially a median or a mode), is that it can’t be gamed by binging and purging. Only consistently high performance can produce a high average. And consistency is often what you want, especially in long games, games like, oh, the getting used to languages game.
    • So, you’re forced to develop habits — and perhaps even physical attributes — that both create and sustain (consistency, remember) solid performance. This is universes away from the use-and-abuse-your-body-and-mind “kamikaze” school of gittin’ ‘er dun no matter what the cost. You wanna know who else tried to get stuff done “no matter the cost”? Optimus Prime, that’s who. And he died doing it — Megatron killed him like a battered wife. It was all gorgeous and moving and heroic, and Stan Bush was singing an uplifting tune (which is always a good thing), but…yeah. Living’s better.
      • Now that I think about it it gets worse — not only did Prime not kill Megatron, he didn’t even stop him; it was the ultimate Pyrrhic victory. Unicron gives Megatron a new, shiny, purple body and renames him Galvatron and…yeah…don’t try to death. Try easy. Use your brain. Use other people’s brains. Find the easy, 80-20 way that makes you feel guilty for how easy it is.
  • It leads to real, quantifiable improvement — by repeatedly meeting and then beating your average, you are literally, numerically, quantifiably raising your game, just in an easy, sustainable way. As you consistently meet and beat the mean (or median, if that’s how you wanna roll), your average will itself rise — subtly, imperceptibly, inexorably, your midpoint will rise because, well, you’re raising it.
    • Too many people try to raise the top
  • It brings you closer to new, bigger and better personal bests

Too many people try to raise the top — to do better than their best. Invariably, they fail, then hate themselves, then give up altogether. A few clever people focus on raising the bottom — simply showing up. What we’re talking about here is raising the middle. My advice for you is that you focus first on raising the bottom — on simply showing up. Do that first. Afterwards, once you’ve shown up, if you’re bored and rudderless and need a new challenge, something new to aim at, then start focussing on raising the middle.

Raising the top is like trying to lift a balding person by their hair: all it causes is a lot of pain and very little lift. Even if the person in question were Rapunzel herself, it’s easier to lift from lower down — from the middle. 5

So here’s how to successfully, sustainably and continually compete against yourself (the only competition in the world truly worth watching, playing or winning):

  1. Pick or invent a stat — a numerically quantifiable index of progress.
    1. If in doubt pick a stat that’s easy to track, i.e. not necessarily the one that’s the most descriptive, accurate or rich in explanatory power.
    2. Think: standardized tests. Don’t measure what matters most, measure what’s easiest to measure.
      1. There’s nothing inherently wrong with arbitrary criteria. Most criteria are arbitrary anyway. Arguably, all of them are. The problem is in allowing yourself to be oppressed by an otherwise meaningless number that someone who doesn’t even know you came up with one time.
      2. It’s fine to use arbitrary criteria, just as long as you genuinely like them and fully understand their limitations — none of which can be said of most of the criteria that people live by. In fact, the only reliable way to get a criterion that you both like and understand is to invent it on your own.
    3. Your stat only needs to be informative — indicative — not perfect.
    4. Avoid tracking stats you can’t directly control. To put it in hockey and baseball terms, don’t count goals or hits. Count rink visits. Count at-bats. Count shots and swings (assuming they’re easy to count).
    5. Language-specific example: don’t count the number of hours you immerse. That’s a stat that’s easy to control but difficult to track. Instead, count the number of Japanese films you rented or played (not watched, but played) this week, this month, etc.
  2. Track it over time
  3. Compute its average
  4. Show up every day (break zero, do more than zero)
  5. Once you’ve shown up (done more than nothing), now start shooting to meet and then beat the average

Stop trying to do your best. Stop trying to break world records. Break 0. Then break average. Let the records break themselves. Don’t do your best. Don’t aim high. Aim upward. Inch forward. High will take care of itself. He’s a big boy 😉 .

Notes:

  1. So, in a way, there is no 100m world record — to use a track and field example. There’s just (at this writing) Usain Bolt’s personal best.
  2. or, for that matter, any athlete
  3. 頑張る=がんばる=ganbaru
  4. “Let’s kill our best-trained pilots, starting from the top!”. Worst. Strategy. Ever.
  5. It’s easier to get and maintain a grip.

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