Last week I got sent on a trip into Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Fred Rogers was a terribly interesting man for the maker of a simple children’s show. For those who have never seen it, the TV show (which began before the moon landing and ended the year the Twin Towers came down) took place in a fictional neighborhood written and created by Mr. Rogers himself.
A good chunk of the action in each episode happens in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, an imaginary world populated by puppets and human characters.
While the show is geared for children, Rogers was a deep and thoughtful man who put serious craft into his creation. The surface-level lessons for the kids, given in simple, soft language, disguise profound insights acted out through the characters he wrote and voiced.
Case in point.
In one episode the King announces a drawing contest, with a surprise prize for the winner, and the Neighborhood gets to work. This exploded into an on-going puppet soap opera serialized through five episodes.
One of the puppets, this scheming old hag named Lady Elaine who runs the museum, is so obsessed with the win that she declares herself the winner on day one.
Mr. Rogers, though not one to judge harshly, shakes his head at this foolishness in his soft-spoken way.
Elaine’s so fixed on the winning that she’s not thinking about the doing. The other characters get to work while this miserly puppet runs her mouth about how she’s going to win at any price.
I hope you can see the lesson in this.
Mr. Rogers doesn’t say that winning is bad or tell children that they shouldn’t compete. No feel-good, participation trophy stuff here.
He’s pointing out a subtle and difficult truth about achieving any tough goal. Obsessing over the outcome, instead of doing the work to get there, is ruinous.
It’s fine and healthy to want to win. Those voices that tell you everything should be easy and simple and you should never have problems or any sort of challenge in your life — this includes certain remarks that Yours Truly once wrote — are mistaken about reality.
Simple fact is, you need a goal and a purpose. Without that, all the Zen-like “detachment from desire” in this world and every other means nothing. Such an existence is point-less.
But you have no control over the outcome you get. Setting your heart and mind on the trophy leads to all manner of spiteful, greedy, envious, two-faced, shameful, not to mention unethical, behaviors.
You’ve probably met that “super competitive” person before. It’s not the competitive nature that makes them so obnoxious and unlikeable. It’s their obsession with getting the prize, being first, getting seen as the best.
Narcissism and vanity, in other words.
Unlike the loud narcissist who needs your validation, the competitor who shuts his mouth and sharpens his axe before the tree-chopping contest has a much better shot of winning. (Not to mention making more pleasant company.)
It’s as simple as this:
If you want to win, place your attention on preparing to win.
Mr. Rogers understood that ruinous psychology of winning better than most.
He was a modern-day promoter of virtue ethics.
How could you put this thought to work for you, whatever you’re doing? That’s worth five minutes thinking about.