Winning first place without ever being first

Or: what I learned from playing too much DiRT Rally (one of my favourite rally racing games.)

So here’s the context: I’m playing “career mode”, in which I buy a car, hire a couple of engineers, and go out to race. In order to win the championship, I have to have the best time across six “stages” or legs. Each stage is located in a different place so they all have their peculiarities: different areas of easy and difficult sections, some more suitable to the car’s set-up than others.

The thing about the game is that unlike real life, you have an unlimited numbers of do-overs – if you crash your car or get a time you don’t fancy, you can simply restart the stage.

When I first started playing this game that’s what I did. A lot.

I was intent on always finishing first for each stage. If I didn’t manage to finish first I would restart the stage. At times I found myself playing each stage close to 30-50 times; some stages I would spend an hour or two on and still not have the fastest time.

Then one day there was a stage in which I just couldn’t be the first for no matter how many times I tried.

I gave up. For that stage I ended up 5th and I accepted it*. The following stages were not much better either, with me ending up no better than third.

* (Side-note: actually my saying I “accepted it” is not really true. It was more of just getting the championship over, closing this chapter of my life, and uninstalling the game.)

Of all six stages of the championship, I ended up winning none.

And yet *drullroll please* I won the championship.

“But how?” I asked myself. “How??”

I couldn’t quite believe it but the overall time I had was faster than all my competitors. I won by virtue of consistency and not completely fouling up. Those who had won a stage had performed poorly for at least one of the others.

To me this was revolutionary and extremely zen: I won by not winning.

Please let me know if you have any questions

“Please let me know if you have any questions,” wrote I in an email I was drafting.

It has long been my signature email sign-off, but this time I was feeling a little reflective and reconsidered writing that line.

What did it really mean? 

But try as I might I couldn’t quite put my finger on it; it made no sense. So I deleted it.

Then I re-read the e-mail.

Ugh. No, it didn’t seem right.

So I put it back in.

The thing is though, I couldn’t reconcile this fact: if the recipients had any questions I’m pretty sure they would have not hesitated hitting “Reply” and asking me those questions. Would having left that line out stopped the questions from coming?

Surely not.

Still, I added the line back in because it “sounded better”, and from then on just accepted that I’d never know and simply kept that line in without too much thought.

Then just today I came across this passage from the book Simply Said by Jay Sullivan:

When you write at the end of an email “Let me know if you have any questions,” you are writing that line for a certain tone. Clearly, the reader will let you know if she has any questions, regardless of whether you make that offer. You add that line because it seems like a pleasant, conversational way to end the message. You include it to set the right tone, just the way you start the message with some basic pleasantry like, “I hope all is well” or “Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond.” Because email can seem so abrupt, it’s important to make sure we soften the tone of our messages.

I now feel extremely validated.

Turns out I’m just naturally inclined to be a pleasant, courteous person.

On Humility and Learning

I’m currently listening to Tim Ferris’ podcast episode with Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin, one of New York’s top restaurants.

In one part of the episode Ripert talks about what he looks for in his hires (his cooks). Of the various things he mentioned, what he said about humility stood out most for me.

On humility, Ripert said:

Being humble is very important because it allows you to keep yourself curious and motivated. If your ego is in the way it makes you blind and you’re not inclined to learn, because you “already know” or you don’t want to show your weakness.

When I first started my career, I tended to take advice very willingly. I was young and new to this “work” thing.

Then I started getting pretty good at my job and got a little carried away.

Being technically better than most of the people whom I worked for or with, I thought that technical expertise translated into every other aspect of the job and stopped listening to “suggestions for improvement”.

But then something happened: my progress slowed. I stopped learning.

I went back to soliciting for advice from people I respected, people whom I knew were smart and had tons more experience than I had.

To be honest though, despite my inclination to once again seek “advice” I wasn’t truly convinced I needed it. So, being quite the nerd. I started keeping track of how the times I thought the advice would be poor advice (vs. my own judgement) and recorded the outcome, which could be either positive or negative.

If the advice given to me was better than what I would have done without the advice, the advice would be marked as having had a positive impact. If the advice was worse, it would be marked as having had a negative impact.

The result? The solicited advice was overwhelming positive.

I found I was wrong in almost all instances. My judgement was poor as hell, and I didn’t know it!

(Well, my judgement has improved considerably since then. But do still take advice though, especially in areas where I’m no expert.)

The Cloths of Heaven

One of my best friends got married over the weekend. The first of my close friends whose wedding I attended, and it might be a little unmanly to say it but I was actually quite moved by it.

Last night, as I was reading through the compendium of beautiful poems by Garrison Keillor aptly named Good Poems, I came across a poem that I fell in love with back in my University days at UWA (the University of Western Australia): The Cloths of Heaven, by W. B. Yeats:

Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

The poem reminded me of the speeches that the bride and groom gave over the weekend, which to me felt were beautiful not because they were polished, but precisely because they were the opposite of that: raw; slightly apprehensive; and yet absolutely sincere.

Here’s wishing you all the best Mr. & Mrs. Ng. May you both tread carefully on each other’s dreams for a long time to come.


31 Oct Bonus: I was (re)reading one of my favourite books (Words I Wish I Wrote by Robert Fulghum) when I came across this piece that I felt too apt not to share, and which encapsulates so wonderfully how I hope we all treat out significant others and/or close friends:

“Where’s home for you?” a stranger asks a fellow traveler on a plane.

“Wherever she is,” comes the reply, as the man points at his wife.

Be nice

It’s not always easy, being nice.

Especially when we’re feeling anything but nice.

But please, let’s do the right thing and put in a little bit of emotional labour to check ourselves.

Because if we don’t, we may not get a second chance.

(Had read too many badly written, caustic e-mails today. Though I wasn’t on the receiving end of them, I knew the people who were weren’t taking it very well, and I just wished the sender had thought about the consequences on people his words may have.)