In order to reach true mastery in any discipline, you have to shift your focus away from the thrill of beating “the other person”, the spoils of victory, public acclaim, the cheers and jeers of the audience, and the recognition of your peers.
These things are nice, but if you want to be excellent, they can’t be the reason you do the work.
Anyone who has achieved at the highest level will tell you that it wasn’t possible until they stopped competing with others and started competing with themselves. I first heard Michael Jordan say this when I was a kid and he was unstoppable on the basketball court. I later heard Georges St-Pierre say something similar in the weeks following his title defense over Dan Hardy.
But what does it mean?
First, it means validating yourself. That means that you don’t need approval or permission to be your authentic self.
Not using external factors (fame, fortune, “success”, etc.) to motivate yourself and motivating yourself with the measurable results of your growth instead.
Competing with yourself also means understanding yourself and working with yourself.
For example, both Steven Pressfield and Paulo Coelho confess believing in the divine creative “energy” of the universe (you can call them/it the Muses, the Subconscious, God/Goddess/Gods, Universal Consciousness, the Force, “Magic”, etc.; it doesn’t matter). I’m talking about that magical realm-stuff the pure spark of ego-less creativity flows from (I’ll write a lot more about this in the future); call it whatever you like.
According to his excellent book, The War of Art, Steven’s process of working with it involves sitting and making himself work at the same time and place every day, and the energy flow grows over time and becomes more consistent. Steven prizes inviting the Muses in and inviting the creative magic into his work through invocation and preparing his working space (an approach that legit Shamans also usually stress).
I’ve heard Paulo say (on a podcast) that he prefers to allow whatever distractions that come up to take hold of him and run their course, so that he can get them out of the way before he starts his work. In his excellent book, The Warrior of the Light, Paulo reveals his view on opening himself up to the divine spark of the universe and teaching himself to use it all the time, guiding his path (including his work), and fighting fiercely to be strong enough to use this energy well.
Both of these men are excellent writers who are known for their incredibly prolific output. Both of them have trained themselves to listen to the source of new ideas and invite them to flow in. Both have outlined their systems for dealing with what Steven calls Resistance (that voice in your head that tries to steer you off-course by making lazy, selfish, and/or counterproductive suggestions and trying to sell you on them).
I have studied and learned a lot from both approaches and have adopted methods from each as the first step for developing my own methods, systems, and strategies.
I advise you to start by listening to what has worked for others as an initial starting point and then to EXPERIMENT BOLDLY in order to create your own way in your own unique style, suitable to your own path. Allow your way to evolve and change as you do.
“Competing With Yourself” means examining the work of others and what works for them and then GOING YOUR OWN WAY. It means being courageously authentic, unique, original, and forging your path with your own steps, at your own speed.
When I started taking my painting seriously, I was lousy, despite years of practice. I copied. I worried about criticism, whether it was from an expert I could trust or a random troll.
A friend of mine encouraged me to take my painting seriously because he said that I “had ability”. I hadn’t really thought so up to that moment — but a qualified expert validated me!
What motivated me at first was going to Chelsea galleries looking at other people’s work and, much more often than not, thinking to myself “Ugh. I can do better than that!” With this kind of motivation, I sought to master the techniques I wanted to use to execute my vision, blurry and half-assed as it was. I started to read Steven and Paulo, hoping to learn to be original and to train myself to hear the Muses CLEARLY and interpret this magic with as much authenticity as I could summon.
And as I learned to trust myself and stop judging others, I started to get good.
Here’s a video of Barbara being a badass (this is what courageous authenticity looks like):As I started to get good (when my work could almost stand side-by-side with what I considered to be the best, from amazing painters like Barbara Takenaga, for example), I noticed that I had been grasping for attention (that I wasn’t getting), grasping for sales (that rarely came), and allowing the “hustle” to take precedence over the work.
It was then that I realized that I had to motivate myself with my potential. I had to develop non-painting skills (like the art of conversation) to augment what the Muses were giving me.
I had to validate myself: I wanted to get my painting to be as pure, authentic, and magical as possible; with no concern for what was “popular” or where “I was at” compared to others. I had to do the hard work of competing with myself.
I stopped grasping for external rewards. If people like my work, they’ll want it. If not, what difference does it make to me? I define “winning” and “success” on my terms.
This doesn’t mean that I shun competition with others. I enjoy it! But this kind of competition is a small part of who I am and what I do. If it was gone tomorrow, I wouldn’t miss it. Competing with myself is more important.
I AM RESPONSIBLE.
Painting is one of the funnest things I do. I chose painting in this example, but I take this approach with every form of creative expression that’s important to me. And I’ll definitely write a post about the magic of enjoying yourself.
Next time you get to work on building your dreams into reality, on sharpening your abilities, on flowing with the creative power of the universe, try to shut out the distractions and compete with yourself.
Once you have committed to this mindset, it becomes easier to delegate, build committed teams of (what Alejandro Jodorowsky calls) “Spiritual Warriors” .
If one person’s dream is to be an excellent author and another’s dream is to be an excellent literary agent, and they have compatible tastes and preferences, they might find they share common ground and would get more done by working together.
This goes for everyone on their team, from the editor to the intern. An egotistical show-off would make the team weaker. A team of warriors holding themselves accountable and taking responsibility for their team will be able to do more.
If you’re not competing with yourself, but you’re good with people, you’ll always have teams around you. Learning teamwork and all the skills that come with it is important. But when you’re competing with yourself and you team up heroes, the teams around you tend to achieve more. Their disagreements with each other don’t distract them from the mission.
They don’t hunger for glory. They hunger for something else.
Something deeper, more powerful, and more meaningful.
The ultimate victory isn’t being the champion. It’s getting as close to your full potential as possible before you die. And sharing your magic with your team, who share their magic with you. And courageously sharing your work with the world.