Competitions can be nerve-wracking. The more we live up to the day on which we are supposed to shine, the more anxiety builds up. What if I perform badly? What if something goes wrong?
An Olympic swimmer trains thousands of hours, just to get that medal. A musician practices for days on end, just to perform well those few times on stage. And a student practices a speech in front of the mirror multiple times, just for that moment in front of the audience.
When all their efforts come down to one defining moment, how can they not succumb to the pressure of the need to succeed?
This video expands on a Taoist story that’s concerned with this pressure and the fear that it generates. Is it because we’re trying too hard? If so, how can we win without trying?
Taoist sage Zhuangzi was a keen observer of nature, including human nature. He figured out that the burden of the future often negatively affects our performances in the present moment.
To illustrate this, he tells us a simile about an archer:
When you’re an archer, and you shoot simply for fun, you shoot with skill. But if you shoot for a small prize, you begin to worry about your aim. And if you’re competing for gold, you become a nervous wreck.
Zhuangzi tells us that our skills, thus the competency of doing a certain task, are the same in all three situations. But, somehow, we let different circumstances influence our skills in different ways.
Let’s analyze this story to show how this works.
When we play for fun, winning or losing doesn’t matter. This means that we aren’t burdened by possible consequences. When we shoot some balls simply to have a good time, missing the goal doesn’t mean much, as we’re not competing. And practicing a speech in front of the mirror by ourselves does not come with the risk of damaging our reputation, because there is no audience.
When there’s nothing on the line, there’s nothing to be anxious about, meaning that there’s no fear that sabotages our performance. When burdens like ‘trying to win in a conceptual future’ or ‘trying to prevent repeating a horrible failure from the past’ are absent, we are more immersed in the act itself.
That’s why, in many cases, the best speeches are given in front of the mirror, the best soccer goals are made on the practice field, and the best musical performances are done outside the studio and far away from the stage.
But suddenly, there are consequences tied to your performance. By performing well, you might be able to obtain a medal or even a championship trophy. And within the game of human civilization, these aren’t just meaningless objects. These prizes represent symbols of success that comes with an increase in reputation and, in some cases, an opportunity to monetize our success.
Winning could lead to becoming rich and famous. Losing, however, could result in falling out of people’s favor, shame, guilt, the end of a career, and losing the chance of gaining money. So, there’s a lot at stake. And because of this, a desire for winning arises, along with an aversion to losing, until we conclude: losing in no option.
Feeling the necessity to win has a positive side: it motivates us to practice a lot and make sacrifices. Thus, necessity is a breeding ground for success.
However, necessity can also become a burden that sabotages our performance. In the case of the archer: the prospect of winning and losing made him a nervous wreck. With the possibility of winning gold, also came the possibility of ‘not having it’ or ‘having blown the chance of winning it’. His thoughts about a potential loss produce fear and, thus, ruins his chances.
When we’re too focused on winning and losing, then our worries overshadow our skill. Our skill is still the same, but the mind creates a fog of thoughts that prevent our skill from unfolding. In such situations, we find ourselves not being in ‘the zone’. We might even start to believe that we’ve lost our ‘mojo’.
But this isn’t the case: it’s our mind sabotaging itself!
When our thoughts about the past and future fall away, our skills can manifest optimally, to the point that we become ‘one with the act’.
A great example of this is a dog catching a ball.
When the dog sees you throwing the ball, it jumps towards it with great precision, catches it, without even thinking about landing, as it’s focused purely on catching the ball. It doesn’t act because of a prize. It acts for the sake of acting. Catching a ball is part of the dog’s nature.
However, we are not dogs. We’re humans and our nature is different. We can plan for the future in detail, and our goals are generally much more sophisticated. We’re often expected to perform our best with a future goal in mind.
But even then, we can still influence what we focus on. Do we let the possibility of winning a gold medal dominate our thoughts? Or do we let this desire fade into the background, and focus on what we can do at this very moment? The less we care about the results, the less our minds will be troubled by them.
This applies very much to creative work as well, like making videos like these.
When creating just for fun, it’s an easy process.
But when we’re obsessed with getting views, outperforming other channels, and judging our creations as failures and successes, we’ll feel more pressure. The need for success, the desire for fame, the prospect of getting paid, could overshadow the overall performance of a content creator.
Thus, when there’s something on the line, in some cases one’s livelihood, then what once was a joyful pastime, could become a stressful and anxiety-provoking chore.
Worrying about the results obstructs our ability to focus on the task at hand.
This is detrimental, as our best performances are the ones that we’re immersed in. This immersion is known as the ‘flow state’. In this state a swimmer forgets the water, a soccer player becomes the field and a painter the movement of her brush.
Within that moment, they don’t try to win anything, they don’t act for the sake of obtaining a prize; they have switched off their expectations and desires, and reduced their very ‘being’ to the act.
And that’s key. Just do it.
Thank you for watching.