Shrinking the “Stuff I Really Care About” Box

My mom tells me, "When you were a kid, you were so laid back and happy that we were worried you might be retarded."

In my tween years, I grew fiercely competitive. I always wanted to win and lead things. Any type of game I played in, I wanted to win. Every conversation, I wanted to be the smartest and funniest. Every group effort, out in front.

Now, in adulthood, I try to stake out middle ground that goes something like "be intense about things that matter, super laid back about everything else." In other words, be more intense about fewer things.

By shrinking the "stuff I really care about" box to just a few areas — off the top of my head: my relationships (friends and family), my work, and my personal development / learning — it allows me to focus intensely on those things and let go and/or be non-competitive on everything else.

A casual game of ping pong? Enjoy it. Political debates? Don't let it get too intense. It's okay not to win. Better, even, to listen and ponder while sipping green tea and staring pensively up and to the right. Non-core professional endeavors? Just suck less than the next guy, or outsource it altogether.

One reason I am less competitive the older I get is I see more situations as non-zero sum. I am more attuned to shared interests. Others don't need to lose for me to win.

Bottom Line: Maybe one part of growing up — oh, to grow up! — is picking your battles, winning the ones that matter, and seeing the others as much as possible as non-zero sum endeavors

Somewhat Related Posts: Is a Killer Instinct Necessary in Business? and The Components of a Killer Instinct.

11 comments on “Shrinking the “Stuff I Really Care About” Box
  • Interesting. I think you can go one step further — only care about specfic things within work, family etc. And maybe the more you can pair it down the better.

    Example: Maybe you care deeply about selling, but couldn’t care less when it comes to crunching numbers.

  • I, too, was a freakishly laidback child (apparently I could be put in the middle of a room for the first three years and left alone because I’d just stare at the walls rather than bothering to move. I was apparently content to think) who eventually ended up competitive/”intense” about most things.

    I’ve also been focusing my energies more recently, but I wouldn’t characterize the change as “calming down”- it’s just a different distribution of energy in the pursuit of the same goal- being exceptional. When we were younger, being ‘exceptional’ was defined by being the good at a wide range of activities- that’s what you had to do to get a good gpa/get into college, so that was the standard. Now that I’m going into my senior year in college, however, everyone has become more specialized- everyone has their major and their few activities, and the overlap is so limited between people that you can’t adequately compare achievement across the board- it’s more useful to consider peoples’ relative strength in their area of expertise. Thus, to be truly competitive, it’s better to be exceptional in a few specific areas. From what I can tell, the same applies in the business world. Except in the world of a start-up, you’re not going to need to be a generalist- in fact, because everyone else is a specialist, you’re probably at a disadvantage if you don’t have an in-depth knowledge of a few specific things. That’s not to discount the importance of having a global view- there’s definitely something to be said for cultivating general knowledge of other topics- it just has to be complemented by something “special.”

    That’s the other reason I find it easier to pare down the number of important things now, actually- the skill level of my peers has increased, meaning that it’s safe (if not preferable) to trust tasks to other people because they’re finally qualified to take them on. Before, I was relatively certain that the time cost of explaining what needed to be done and making sure it happened far outweighed the cost of just doing it myself, and now that’s not even a question.

  • Super topic. Intensity has its own elements.

    a) Exposure to levels of cluelessness
    b) Compelling need for knowledge / urgency in finding a solution.
    c) Recognition of competence to solve the puzzle.

    The otherside of intensity could be disillusionment. You need occasional motivating wins, discoveries of deeper ignorance in some proportional alternation to keep you hooked in.

    When these elements are not present, just take life easy. Mere existence or even randomness will take you places. Not to worry.

  • I have actually calmed down with age but where I’ve noticed this the most is on the baseball field. I’ve played in a city league since after college and I used to throw helmets and bats around, scream at myself, etc.

    Really putting on a tantrum show. Then I realized how bad it looked when others did it and how it got in the way of my next at bat or the rest of the game.

    I still get upset, but I have better control over myself.

  • I’ve also shifted away from must-win-all-arguments mode. I didn’t even stop at simply enjoying debates and not caring about winning; I now seem to believe that I stand to gain nothing from even the most decisive victory in an argument, because I’ll probably just antagonize my interlocutor. “You can’t win an argument” has become an aphorism, but I suppose there’s some truth to it. Rhetorical victories have landed squarely in the Don’t Care box.

  • My husband is like you described. Laid back to the point of concerning as a child, but when it comes to sports and work he reverts to someone else. He and I can play several rounds of cards and he won’t ever let up and give me a chance to win. He won’t even let up for his kids when they play games. Although, when he is not at work or playing a sport, his laid back nature comes back out.

  • Wow. Just making the same experience.
    Used to be quiet laid back.
    But one year ago, I started to push things, and I now have a hard time deciding on what to focus on.
    Do you have some hints for me on that?

  • PO box 87,
    Highgate P.O, St Ary, Jamaica WI.
    Inspiring article. Most wise man never venture to talk spontaneously. They reply when was asked, even then they take time to think to be sure before answer. They focus on thd essential and on sharing of wisdom for bebifit for others rather than on competition. As we grow older, we should be more consolidate. Thanks.

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