Byron's Babbles

Tending To Your Experience

On Kentucky Lake

Yesterday my son and I spent the day on Kentucky Lake fishing. It was incredible to be on the lake together enjoying this beautiful part of the world. We were very successful catching 16 Crappie, a Blue Gill, and a Yellow Bass. I was then multi-species angler of the team. Besides the multitude of subjects we discussed on this brisk and sunny day, it was when we were cleaning the fish that we got into a deep philosophical discussion. We were watching a little girl throw bread crumbs to the seagulls. The birds were so busy competing and paying attention to what each other was getting, that they were missing bread. Sound familiar?

Heath and I discussed how we can get so caught up in paying attention to what others have, the contracts others are getting, or what others are doing that we miss out on great opportunities (bread crumbs) right in front of us. Hopefully you caught the metaphor thing I did right there. William James argued, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” He wrote this in 1890 in The Principles of Psychology, Vol.1. Think about it: what we pay attention to determines the experiences we have, and those experiences determine the success and significance in the life we live.

Now I am not suggesting that we bury our head in the sand. I am a huge believer in having a competitive advantage, but we must stay focused on our own experience. What are the bread crumbs available others are missing? Where are the bread crumbs we want? We need to beware of going after the bread crumbs others already have. Don’t worry about what brand of vehicle someone else drives, or what label is sewn on their purse (you ever thought about how stupid that is?), or the billion other things we use to compete. Those are all vanity.

So, remember it’s about substance over form. In our society today it is very easy to become focused on appearances both physical and attitudinal, because we are constantly subjected to the temptation of developing a public persona stoked by vanity. Remember, to have a competitive advantage we need to be aware of the competition, but not obsessed. I compare all the people on social media like a flock of seagulls all so focused on the bread crumb that the other seagull has they miss the one right in front of them. Find your bread crumb and go after it; don’t let anyone else distract you from getting it. It is your experience, no one else’s.

Great Collaboration or Great Competition

I am reading the great book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis right now and he spoke of the “odd couple” of the revolution being Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Both were very different in their tactics and personalities, and were unlikely friends. Before Washington’s presidency, they collaborated to solve multiple political issues. Then, as Ellis put it, the “great collaboration” turned into the “great competition” because the two intimate friends soon found themselves running for the presidency against each other. Probably no relationship in this country’s history carries as much baggage as that of John Adams of Massachusetts and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia.

This got me to thinking about the age old topic of how much competition is healthy. Pursuing individual goals alongside others can, at times, lead to counterproductive behaviors that can be harmful to both sides. This sense of competition can shift teammates (let’s consider Jefferson and Adams teammates of our democracy) focus from improving themselves or the vision of the organization to defeating a pseudo-opponent, which can lead to sabotaging behaviors. We saw these sabotaging behaviors in the case of Adams an Jefferson and I’ll bet you have seen this happen to others or yourself.

In a work setting, having read extensively about this topic, I believe in providing individualized performance statistics can help reduce competitiveness as well as its negative consequences. Competition at its best helps us to be better. At its worst, it can create unhealthy self-comparison or judgment. I am not advocating for doing away with competition. I am, however, advocating for us to not let collaborators becoming competitors stifle progress, both for the individual and the organization. Competition can actually change our world view. Never forget, everybody in an organization has something to say and undoubtedly has some value to contribute. Do we see the world as a place to grow and collaborate with others?