I started feeling competitive and it wasn’t helping.
Feeling that edge every now and then can be good motivational fuel. But the edge was becoming the whole cloth. The fibers didn’t feel right.
I knew too much about my own traits, motivations, and the science behind them. Twenty-plus years of reliable data that I’m highly agreeable, tend toward collaboration, and have little need for power. Collaboration is intentionally baked into the other work I do. I’m not unselfish. Choosing to work in spaces of shared ideas, recognition and rewards yields the most meaning for me.
So to confess my competitive jealousy here is both a relief and a self-reprimand. To admit imagined rivalries between myself and other Medium writers feels immature. Even ridiculous.
I’ve been a writer here since January. My husband, an avid reader of all things non-fiction, occasionally sends me links on writing by Medium writers. A recent piece by Shaunta Grimes included staggeringly high stats and payouts over three months. Even seeing her first month’s earnings of over $100 evoked a green monster within me. I felt anxious, almost panicky.
Points of comparison poked into me like those plastic T fasteners that hide in the label of your shirt after you’ve cut away the tags. I chafed as I read to find something I was either doing right (confirmation bias) or to reveal holes in the writer’s logic (to reduce cognitive dissonance).
My biggest bias, though, was my illusion of superiority: a tendency to overestimate our positive attributes and underestimate our negative attributes when we compare ourselves with others. Although I didn’t feel superior to Ms. Grimes, I convinced myself that I didn’t have much to learn from her.
Of course I did. My tunnel vision of stats and earnings had trapped me in a fixed mindset, a world of scarcity and competition.
The Thief of Joy
Teddy Roosevelt left us with some killer quotes like “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Comparison is also the foundation of all competition. Especially the disabling kind of competition that makes you doubt the what, why, when, where, and how of your work.
Of course, comparisons are beneficial. Without a system of measuring, how do we know we’re getting closer to what we need or where we’re headed? A good answer is not to stop comparing, but to compare your progress against your former self — yesterday, last week or last year. Benchmark on personal bests. Don’t worry about anyone else’s.
The ancient thief that Roosevelt referenced, the one that can rob us of our serenity and gratitude, is based on anyone else, not ourselves. Comparing to others robs us of honoring what we have achieved and aspects of success that society doesn’t recognize as valuable: self-care, good relationships, and understanding what’s enough.
Enough Versus Scarcity
So as I’m driving back to Athens from an overdue self-care-with-a-friend weekend in Asheville, that Medium article — the reminder of how much money I’m not making, how much time each article has taken me to write and edit, and (as a self-flagellating bonus) fifth-guessing my decision to quit academia — is poking into me. I turn on NPR to distract myself with Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain.
The Scarcity Trap: Why We Keep Digging When We’re Stuck in a Hole could not have been more salient for me.
When you’re desperate for something, you focus on it to the detriment of everything else.
People who lack money to meet basic needs worry constantly about feeding their families today; they can’t worry about rent. The loneliest people who hunger for companionship appear awkward when talking to strangers. If they seem desperate, that’s how they feel. The time-starved (e.g., physicians who work 80 hours a week) overspend their mental energy on juggling time. Scarcity affects more than our bodies: it affects our brains. Detrimentally.
You can become so obsessive about what you lack, you can’t focus on anything else.
We all tunnel in on what’s missing. Inside our own tunnels we are consumed by this lack, leaving us no bandwidth to focus on anything else. Inside the tunnel, there’s no outside, no bigger picture to attend to. Scarcity captures the mind. One out-of-reach goal is all we think about. Not because we don’t want to. But because we can’t think about anything else.
Scarcity as a Mindset
An important point: Lacking money for food and housing is not the same as a doctor being over-worked. Fascinating, though, that a mother who had spent her last $500 on food and diapers while forgetting to save some for gas had made the same decision-making error that a new doctor made after working consistent 18-hour days. They were both making decisions without the ability to think past their immediate lack.
Scarcity tunnels are equal opportunity offenders. Here are some simple strategies based on what I gleaned from The Scarcity Trap. In case you find yourself in a hole:
Stop digging deeper.
Turn around to see that sliver of sunlight above you. Take a break and come to the surface. We’re not built to see much, let alone gain insights, in the same underground dwelling. Scarcity is its own trap.
Balance being in the present and doing for the future.
While out of the tunnel — even momentarily — breathe. Would life crumble if you took 10 minutes to meditate or mindfully breathe? Without fixating on the past, what would it look like to regularly emerge from the hole, to be more present with those you love?
Don’t be fooled (anymore) that more = more.
Shankar’s epilogue revealed how the working mother and doctor had escaped their respective tunnels. The doctor, who’d ignored her own health and had almost forgotten to order insulin for a Type 1 diabetic patient, now makes room for a hobby and a social life. She is able to hold more patient care ideas and data in her head. She’s a better doctor. And she’s happier.
This resonated. Spring semester, sophomore year, I finally got my single dorm room. I cut my credit hours to 14 and worked a lighter work study load. I was determined to pour everything I had into academics. My grades that May constituted my lowest GPA of eight semesters. I was also depressed. All I was doing was doing — and mostly alone.
Let other people help you see the light.
Get out of your head and onto a more work-life-balance path. Schedule down time for yourself and with those you care about. I’d “taken” two full days to meet friend in Asheville, hoping I could catch up to all my real and imagined work (and worries) when I returned.
Instead, I received relaxation, the loving company of a good friend, and a bigger idea of what success looks like. I met Monday with softer edges of a lighter texture. It’s much more me.
I’d love your feedback. As a writer, how you respond to your scarcity traps?