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Why Competing With Yourself Is the Best Way To Learn Anything

The society we live in generates a lot of envy but condemns anyone who admits to experiencing it. In this post I look at how we can deal with envy in learning and present some strategies for managing the process of competing with ourselves and others.
Nasos Papadopoulos

“Why them and not me?”

If you’ve ever flicked through the pages of the glossy supplements from the weekend newspapers or spent any time reading blogs, listening to podcasts or watching documentaries I’ll be surprised if you haven’t had this thought before. I definitely have.

We’re constantly exposed to stories of success in business, learning and other arts, which makes them seem so close within our reach.

If you take a look around the internet, you're flooded with stories of people who have made some amazing achievements in their learning – whether it’s the latest polyglot who claims to speak 20 languages or the guy who turned himself into a full stack developer in the space of a few weeks.

Most people’s instant response to these achievements is not one they’d readily admit to others – envy. As noted by Alain de Botton our society generates huge quantities of envy but at the same time seems to condemn anyone who might admit to experiencing the emotion.

In our primal brains, the achievements make other people higher status than us, which makes us crave the same achievement, especially when we believe it’s within our reach. Whether we like it or not, that feeling of envy will always bubble up from time to time – just as it does for the young chimp who envies the dominant male in his group.

How to Use Envy in Learning

However, while the feeling of envy may arise from time to time, we don’t have to respond to it counterproductively or try to repress it.

The difference between us humans and other animals is that we have the capacity for rational thought, perfectly expressed in Aristotle’s definition of man as a rational animal.

Rationality allows us to perceive and reflect on our own thoughts and emotions through metacognition. This means that we can be honest with ourselves when we feel envy and try to understand it and respond to it constructively. Instead of allowing the emotion to linger and derail us, we can try and interpret it as a signal for what it is we actually want to achieve.

Perhaps the desire to learn 20 languages is actually linked to a desire to connect to people and travel the world. Or maybe it is simply a desire to learn as many languages as possible. Either way, we won’t know unless we take the time to look at things with a clear mind.

Once we know what we actually envy, we can focus on taking action.

Our natural instinct is to compete with others and this can be useful in certain contexts – people have often succeeded in giving up smoking by betting with friends and introducing that element of competition can be a powerful driving force when used appropriately.

If you're looking to learn a language, why not join a language learning community along with a couple of friends and start a competition to see who progresses fastest? Or if you're looking to pick up the guitar compete with your friend to see who can be the first to play a song you both enjoy.

As someone who's naturally about as hyper competitive as it gets, this definitely works well for me in the early stages of skill acquisition and if you're wired in a similar way I'll be surprised if it doesn't work for you too.


Compete With Yourself


However, if we choose to, we can also compete with ourselves, which I believe is far more effective in a learning context, especially in the long run.

When you compete with yourself, whether it’s in learning a language or tackling a new sport, you create a new basis of comparison. Instead of feeling envious of the black belt training a few metres away from you, you can focus on the process – showing up everyday and getting a little better each time.

While it may seem simple, this perspective shift allows us to progress faster because we’re not discouraged by the fact there are people who are better than us.

There will always be people who are better than us and we need to accept that. If we can accept this, then we can allow ourselves to celebrate others’ achievements and use them as inspiration for pursuing our own.

So just compete with yourself everyday and you’ll become a far better learner as a result. 

Try This

1) Understand Envy

Accept that your initial response will often be one of envy – this is just an emotional response to stimulus. Don’t identify with it and accept it for what it is. Then ask some questions:

Why do I feel this envy? Do I really want to emulate what this person has done? If so, what steps can I take to move forward in this practice.

2) Use Competition Constructively

Our natural instinct is to compete with others can be a powerful motivator and this can be useful in certain contexts - if you're looking to build momentum for a learning project consider joining a community of other learners and set up a small competition. 

3) Focus on Process and Compete with Yourself

In the long run, it's really about competing with yourself. Just make sure you show up everyday and the rest will take care of yourself. As you stack the days, weeks and months together, you’ll find what you were looking for all along.

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