Why Mentality Matters

Gary Waite was world #1 in doubles for 10 years, reached a world high ranking of 11 in singles, and reached rank 1 in hardball singles. I spent 5 years training under Gary, learning the ways of the hardball guru. One thing he always advocated for, but never explained why, was that I shouldn’t have finite goals. Instead, Gary suggested that I simply adopt the process of improvement, and strive to become better.

Gary still plays as much as he can, he plays in the pro-ams around North America, and he still loves to hit the ball. A few weeks ago he told me he hit by himself for the first time in a while, he spent over 3 hours on the court alone, having a ball. When I ask Gary about his squash career, he smiles, he loved it, “it was great”.

Jonathan Power reached world #1 in singles twice in his career, the second time he reached rank 1 he retired the following day. For Jonathan, the singles tour was a chore, a job, a means to an end instead of an end in itself. Jonathan had a finite goal, to become world #1, and when I ask Jonathan about his squash career, he tells me “he hated playing singles, the training was hard, it was just a job”. Jonathan still plays occasionally today, but with a different mentality, he plays for the fun of it, and to stay healthy.

The difference in mentalities between Gary and Jonathan during their time on tour outlines a fundamental problem in the western mentality. The western approach to success and improvement is fundamentally broken. We know that when we take someone who does a task for its own sake, and we give that person an extrinsic motivator, then take it away, the person will lose interest in the task and stop. Only after some time has passed and the person rediscovers the intrinsic enjoyment of the task can they resume without an extrinsic motivation. A good example of this phenomenon is students who love reading but are forced to read for school and marks, and then lose their joy in reading and stop after they’re done school. Students usually only return to reading 2 years after they finish school, if at all. Another good example is Jonathan Power, who did not play singles for a long time after his retirement, and only later rediscovered the joy of playing squash for fun.

There is a problem with having strict finite goals, and sacrificing everything for success, and adopting the typical western mentality of biting your lip and white-knuckling through any problem in front of you. The problem is that there is a nonzero chance that one day you will wake up and think, I don’t like doing this, I’m going to stop. Associating things that are fundamentally negative, such as pain, with success, makes success, in the long run, unappealing.

The contrary mentality, well illustrated by Gary, is that you find enjoyment in the process of becoming better. You enjoy the 3 hours alone on the court, you have fun. When adopting a playful mentality, you make the task intrinsically valuable, and you the chance that you will stop without good reason is zero. When the chance that you will stop a task is zero, there is also a nonzero chance that one day you will succeed.

Success, for the intrinsically motivated, is inevitable. While retirement and retreat, for the extrinsically motivated, is inevitable.

Your internal mentality is by far the most important for long-term success. If you find yourself hating the process, you’re in danger. Look to make things as enjoyable and intrinsically motivating as possible.

Hustle it up!

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