Knowing I am Not the Best

Long ago, when I was a young boy, I was afflicted with the dread three Ss. That is, I was Small, Smart and (worst of all) Sensitive. As a good father, my dad endeavored to see to it that I developed the proper virtues of a young man. Fortunately, his efforts were ultimately successful although the path was, I am sure, not quite what he expected. Mainly because the path was mostly track, road and trail rather than field, court and gridiron.

As part of this process, I was sent to basketball camp to develop my skills in this reputable game. I was a terrible player with no real skill and I had no real interest in the sport. I much preferred reading over shooting hoops. However, I went to the camp and tried to do the best I could within the limits of my abilities.

During one drill, the coach yelled out for the best player to run to the center of the court. Immediately all the other boys rushed to the center of the court. Being honest in my assessment of my abilities I did not move. While I might not have been the worst player present, I was clearly not the best. I was not even within free throw distance of the best. For some reason, the coach made all the boys do pushups. He also made me do pushups, albeit double the number done by the other boys.

I thought this was very odd since this sort of thing seemed to encourage self-deception and that seemed, even to the young me, wrong. I recall quite well getting considerable abuse for my actions, which made me think even more about the matter. I did know better than to discuss this with anyone at the time, but I have thought about it over the years.

In recent years, I have run into something similar. I am always asked before I go to race if I will win. I always give an honest answer, which is usually “no.” This always results in an expression of dismay. While I have won races, I am now 46 years old and folks with far fewer years and miles show up to take their rightful place ahead of me, earning this because they are better than I am. My pride and arrogance, of course, compel me to say that when I was the age of many of my competitors, I was faster than they are now. But, as the saying goes, that was then and this is now. Barring a TARDIS picking up my twenty-something self to go to the races of now (to save the galaxy, of course—racing is very important) I am forced to content myself with a folly of age: looking back on how good I was and comparing the younger me with my current competition.

One the one hand, I do get the point of self-deception in regards to one’s abilities. After all, it could be argued, that a person thinking incorrectly that he is the best would help him do better. That is, thinking he is the best will push him in the direction of being the best. I do, in fact, know people who are like this and they often push very hard in competition because they believe they are better than they actually are and are thus driven to contend against people who are, in fact, better than them. On the downside, when such people are defeated by those who are better, they sometimes grow angry and concoct excuses for their defeat to maintain the illusion of their superiority.

On the other hand, such self-deception could be problematic. After all, a person who wrongly thinks he is the best and operates on this assumption will not be acting rationally. There are, in fact, two well-known cognitive biases that involve a person thinking he is better than he is.

One is known as the “overconfidence effect.” This bias causes a person to believe that she has done better than she has in fact done. As a professor, I commonly see this bias when students get their grades. For example, I have lost track of the times a student has said “my paper felt like an A” when it was a D (or worse) or has said “I think I did great on the test” when it turns out that they did not do so great.

A closely related bias is the “better-than-average Illusion.” A person falls victim to this when she overestimates her abilities relative to others, usually those she is engaged in competition with. Since people often think very highly of themselves, people commonly fall into this trap.

While confidence can be a good thing (and thinking that one is going to do poorly is a way of contributing to making that a reality), this bias obviously has negative consequences. One rather serious problem is that it can lead people to actually do worse. After all, a person who overestimates her performance or abilities might not try as hard as she should—after all, she will think she is already doing much better than she is, thus overestimating her performance and coming to a false conclusion about, for example, her grade. This is most likely to occur when the person does not have immediate feedback, such as on a test or paper.

It can also have the impact of causing a person to “burn out” by trying to hard it based on a false assessment of his abilities. For example, a common sight at road races is inexperienced runners sprinting out ahead of the experienced (and better runners) only to quickly discover that they are not as a capable as they had believed. It can even happen to people who should know better. For example, some years ago I went to the USA 15K championship race as part of a team. Our supposed best runner was bragging about running with the Kenyans. Unfortunately, he got passed by some female runners (as did I—the race attracts top talent) and this apparently broke him to the point where he gave up. I knew my capabilities and was honest about them, so when the fast ladies surged past me I just stuck to my plan. I knew what I could do and what I could not do—and I knew I had a lot of race left and no reason to burn myself out due to a false belief in my abilities. Fortunately, the rest of the team delivered solid races and we took an honorable third place. My experience has been that I do better when I have an accurate assessment of my abilities relative to my competition, most especially in running. Naturally, I do my best—but to do this, I must have a reasonable gauge of what this is to avoid being overconfident and to resist being defeated by my own foolish and unfounded pride.

It might be objected that my rational assessment of my abilities robs me of the critical passion that one must have to be a true competitor. This is, however, not the case. As my friends will attest, while I am gracious in defeat I also hate to lose. In fact, honesty compels me to say that I hate losing slightly more than I love winning. And I really love to win. As such, when I get to the starting line, start presenting a philosophical paper to people looking to score philosophical pissing points, or join a competitive video game I am there to win and to make others lose. But, victory often rests on knowing what I and my competitors can and cannot do. I gain no advantage by deluding myself into thinking I am better than I am or they are worse than they are. True, I am not free of self-deception. But I do not willfully add to it.

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17 Comments.

  1. Mens sans in sano corpore, if I recall my Latin correctly.

    Perhaps the issue is not to lose at all, and winning is not always the laurel wreath.

    Since physical accomplishments are out of the question any more, I often prepare for reflection on specific issues of concern by spending several days with little external stimuli, and after spending time in reflection, meditation, prayer etc., etc., I go to the places that express the questions I have, and I mostly just get a cup or 10 of over-priced coffee, and watch the behaviors of those in question. If you understand the questions, the answers generally follow.

    The richest of lives are those which are contemplative.

    It is always wise to train and prepare….methinks…..

    I am ok with strange

  2. In the circumstances described would not taking part ‘for the love of it’ fit in with obtaining benefit from the journey?

  3. As a child, I was disastrous at all competitive sports and in general, I disliked competing, possibly because I was not good at anything, not even at getting good grades.

    When I was a teenager, I tried to opt out of the system, imagining that not competing at conventional things, I was above competition.

    At about age 45, my whole self-image broke down, mostly as the result of an unhappy love affair in which the woman in question constantly reproached me for my loser status.

    I realized that while I refused to compete, I was very sensitive to the fact that others saw my refusal to compete not as a principled stance as I imagined it was, but as failure or weakness or cowardice.

    I had about a year of psychotherapy, in which I somehow learned to accept myself and to depend much less on how others saw me, to see some of my virtues, which are not necessarily the virtues that make most people compete.

    In general, since then, I neither try to compete nor imagine that I am somehow “above” the system and its games, above competing.

    I feel more at peace with myself. I spend more time with myself.

    I feel that I know myself better (which may be a form of competition).

  4. I have always considered that knowledge of self is of three levels.

    The first is how others know you.

    The second is how you know yourself.

    The last is how you really are.

    These can be expressed in different ways, of course, but it is my experience that the majority of men and women are of the first group, that is important to them, and they never consider anything else.

    The philosopher, the contemplative begin the journey of awareness and wisdom as they start by realizing who and what they are in the cosmos. It seems to me to be the first step to humility.

    I also think life is about the journey, that journey is the determinant of the goal.

    Aristotle has defined three groupings of people, the vulgar (those to who sensual pleasure is of paramount importance), the political (they identify happiness with honor), and lastly the speculative (those who reflect on life and meaning).

    While philosophers generally fall into the third grouping, not all philosopher do, or they may have moved to another grouping.

    Since philosophy is a journey, the philosopher must always be in training or preparation. “Staying the course” will lead to the Aristotelian goal of happiness (at least in my view).

  5. Swallerstein,

    If you have found a greater peace, then you have done very well indeed.

    I’ve found that I love competition, finding (almost paradoxically) an inner peace while competing. This was not always the case. Well, to be honest, it is still not always the case.

  6. Mike:

    Do you love competition per se or do you love certain activities which are often carried out in a competitive framework?

    Do you run in order to compete or do you just love to run?

    For instance, philosophy can have a definite competitive component, but I imagine that you would do continue doing philosophy even if that component were not present.

    I myself dislike the competitive component in philosophy, but I like philosophy enough to continue at it (in my own way) and to try to avoid unneeded competition, whenever possible.

    I can see that you were pressured to compete as a child (I bring this up because you yourself did it above), as I was too and were not always comfortable with that.

    I’m sure that your father had the best intentions, as did mine, but sometimes parents force children into strait jackets based on their
    own conceptions of how people ought to behave or on what worked for them in their own lives and
    don’t take into account the child’s needs or aptitudes or if they do take them into account, they wage war against them.

    I’ve found that I feel more autonomous, more centered (I’m not sure if I feel more inner peace even though I said that above), since I’ve begun to disentangle some of these issues.

    “Autonomous” is the word. I have certain projects in life, which are undoubtedly the result of my uncomfortably competitive upbringing and my attempts to escape from it.

    However, the projects are mine and they are not in competition with those of anyone else, although incidentally, I may find myself in competition for a few meters of the route with someone else and others, from their own perspective, may imagine that I mean to compete with them.

  7. The thought comes to me that the act of running has a value.

    What gives this value more than other actions?

    Does running for Breast Cancer have more value, than just running for one’s self?

    Is a carefully folded pair of socks by a loving mother for her child, have more value than folding socks as part of a routine?

    Can one give additional value to an action, and how?

  8. Knowing I am Not the Best | Philosophy @ MHS - pingback on December 2, 2012 at 4:17 am
  9. Timrford.
    Can you define exactly what you mean by ‘Value’ here. Preferably a definition, rather than examples

  10. Dennis Sceviour

    The question on the meaning of value is interesting and useful. I am not sure what Timford means by value either.
    A value is a measure used in a theory of evaluation. A theory of evaluation is also called decision theory. Values (in ethics) are the standards or qualities considered worthwhile and desirable.
    Try these references:

    Resnik, Michael D., 1987, Choices: An Introduction to Decision Theory, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, University of Minnesota Press.
    Schroeder, Mark. 2008. Value Theory. Stanford University

  11. I think I was getting at the point that there is more to being than “just a runner.”

    Defining value can take books, but for my purpose, I regard value as a degree of importance, dignity, or worth of an action, or a physical matter.

    Some actions (since I am referring to the action of running), have a greater or lesser value, while some actions have a negative value, such as the rape or murder of a child.

    As far as the material world goes, here in New Mexico, if you offered a man on the corner a glass of diamonds OR a glass of water, they would choose the diamonds, yet in the Sahara, coming across a man dying of thirst, he would surely choose the water.

    Value is determined partially by utility, and the “eye of the beholder,” not by a self defined value.

    In fact, while most of the world would choose a glass of diamonds over a glass of water, you can live without diamonds, but not without water.

    Does the value of an action change because the “doer” has a greater dignity and importance than another?

    What would give the simple action of “running” a greater value? I think, for example, one way would be to do the run for the purpose of raising money for cancer patients. Do you agree?

    If one runs sole for oneself, even if they win the prize, the laurel of victory, the value would seem to be lesser, than if one ran with a noble purpose in mind, yet did not get the laurel of the winner.

    If so, then intent of the “runner” must be taken into consideration.

    Many years ago, while on the River Walk in San Antonio, a large number of people gathered to set boats in the water with candles on them, floating the small boats down the river to stop war.

    As a scientist, at the time, I thought it stupid. Now, twenty plus years later, I now understand the value of those actions, at least minimally.

    Comment?

  12. Dennis Sceviour

    Timrford,
    “Value is determined partially by utility, and the “eye of the beholder,” not by a self defined value.”

    What is the difference between the eye of the beholder and self-defined value? They both appear to be synonyms of intrinsic value. Intrinsic value is one of the difficulties of decision theory as decisions often ultimately depend on a personal choice. It is interesting that you attach value to an action or event rather than a material thing. Calling something an event can give a different point of view to scientific classification. Ultimately the final assessment of value is still intrinsic.

    The other word mentioned is utility. My understanding is that the principle of utility was created by Jeremy Bentham to assist making judgments without interference from intrinsic values – for example, egoism, hedonism. Subsequent writers such as Henry Sidgwick show that it is much more difficult to separate intrinsic properties from the principle of utility.

    In the article, Mike LaBossiere (who is faster than I am :smile: ) suggests that a competitive event, such as running, surpasses the personal value of simple good health and occupation and submersion. Where does value lie in a competitive event? It is temporal, and there may be a plaque or medallion worth nothing at the pawnshop. I do not run anymore, but I remember taking third place in a marathon in my younger days. What value is that today?

  13. Re Timrford Dec. 5th

    “What would give the simple action of “running” a greater value? I think, for example, one way would be to do the run for the purpose of raising money for cancer patients. Do you agree? “

    Thanks for your reply. Yes I do agree, and understand how the word value is being applied on this occasion. Generally I think life would be much easier in the philosophical world at least, if people were more inclined to define their terms. So often I have wanted to ask “Well what do YOU mean by Reality or say, God?”
    Sometimes I have discovered that we are not wholly talking about the same thing. One may not agree with another person’s definition but at least, if one accepts it, a discussion can ensue along the terms of that definition. If one does not agree with the definition, then that is another argument; but at least there is some clarity in what we are talking about.

  14. Just returned from the gym after my “workout” and feeling that mt striving for fitness was not going to achieve any results in the forthcoming season. I wanted to not necessarily set some “realistic” goals but to see how far I could push my self in training and how that would translate into performance on (in this case the road for cycling and the track for running.)I am certainly not young and some would regard me as well past it. I can see the rationale for not expecting to perform as well as one could in the past, and to do so would be some form of self deception. However my question is what if the past motivations for sport were set within a context of – “whats the point, your useless anyway.” This could be conferred, or taken up via one’s parents attitude. If (as a hypothesis) one’s father gave no encouragement, positive dismissal, whereas one’s Mother presented herself as the consoler – “never mind”. There is then a set up for a positive reinforcement to fail. So an athletic performance in the past need not indicate a decline, for no peak was reached. At a later date, these motivations may become transparent and hence the person may well feel motivated to push themselves to a limit which they could not achieve before. There is of course the rider that in terms of simple physiology changes occur and so the possible peaks of youth could not be achieved, but given the motivations these could not become apparent. There is a sort of inverse self deception at work that is being undone.

  15. You would make Socrates proud.

  16. Re Jonathan Smith Dec 5th
    I think that so far as gym work is concerned, and perhaps most other things, is to tell oneself that there is always room for improvement at any age. Yes sure enough your performance will not be so good as it was say twenty or thirty years ago but you can still improve within your present limits provided you are willing to work hard and be content with just inching on, In this connection I am, although “Passed it” so to speak, physically stronger than I was in my late twenties. This by virtue of making sure that what I do is progressive and that I am content to see small improvements over time. It is surprising how small improvements accumulate substantially provided one is diligent. One may not be in some respects as good as one was in early manhood but in other respects one can be much better. If you look at other people in the gym you can get an idea of how you compare within your age limit. Do not get disheartened there is always at least one smart so and so. You will also note that others are obviously underachieving, merely doing the same easy routine week in week out with little thought concerning progression and obviously little knowledge of the mechanics of their bodies they are in effect aiming at nothing.
    I advocate, thinking progressively but realistically and holistically, Strength, Flexibility, Stamina, and informed determination; there is nearly always room for improvement somewhere, and that goes for Philosophy too. Mens sana in corpore sano.

  17. Semper ubi sub ubi!

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