Inbox Who Cares
not everything has to be a competition
Thank you to everyone who donated money to my daughter Em’s nurse after reading my post last week. All told, I was able to send her a whopping $900! She’s feeling better. We’re hoping she’s fully COVID-free and can come back to work on Monday.
Okay, now on to this week’s piece.
I used to be obsessed with inbox zero. I had a rule: if I opened an email, I couldn’t just leave it sitting there in my inbox. Instead, I forced myself to do something actionable with it. If I didn’t need it, I would archive it. If I could respond quickly, I’d do it right then and there. If I needed to handle it later, I would snooze it so it resurfaced at a later time.
My inbox rarely had more than five emails in it at a time. For years, I was weirdly proud of my email prowess—even though nobody but me ever really saw it. Of course, I would talk about it with anybody who would listen to me, like I was bragging about winning a game or something. But who was I competing against? Myself?
Eventually, it started to feel like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.
I’ve since become less diligent about managing my inbox, although I can’t pinpoint when it happened. Right now, I have 18 unaddressed emails sitting in there, three of which I haven’t opened yet, and the oldest of which dates back to November 2nd. That would’ve driven me nuts not too long ago and I would’ve accepted defeat in the unimportant and self-involved game of inbox zero.
Does everything really have to be a competition?
Maybe this is mostly an American thing, but it sure seems like competition and gamification drive too much of our culture. It’s why books on productivity and habits sell so damn well. It’s why companies adopt a grow-at-all-costs mindset so they can stay ahead of their competitors. Everybody’s trying to level up a bit to get ahead of the next person, meanwhile forgetting that we’ll end up suffering the same fate and most of us will fade into obscurity eventually.
Sometime last year, my family and I watched the Netflix show Blown Away. It’s a—you guessed it—reality competition show. Now, normally I’m not into those types of shows. The forced drama, contrived competition, and predictable cliffhanger commercial breaks annoy me. But this show featured glassblowers making art, which I’ve always found fascinating, yet I knew nothing about.
The glassblowers weathered the intense heat of the 2,000º furnaces to create amazing works of art. You could tell it’s a skill that takes years to master, and even when you’re considered a master, you’ll still make tons of mistakes.
Partway through the first episode, the quick edits and cuts to confessional-style interviews about some drama I didn’t care about were already starting to bother me. All I wanted to see was talented people making cool shit. I’m not saying I wouldn’t want to hear them talk at all; I would’ve loved to hear them explain the inspiration behind each piece and the techniques they employed to create them.
Watching the show made me think back fondly to when we watched Repair Shop, an unscripted BBC series that Vulture described as “comfort viewing so cozy, so devoid of stakes and drama, that it makes The Great British Baking Show look like the later seasons of The Sopranos.”
In Repair Shop, people would bring in a family heirloom or a prized possession that had seen better days in the hopes that it could be restored to its original beauty. Then one of the shop’s artisans would work their magic and explain what they were doing each step of the way for us viewers at home. No quick cuts with overly dramatic music. No hosts yelling at the camera. No contestants playing mind games against each other. No countdown clocks. And nobody gets kicked off the show at the end of each episode. It was delightful and refreshing.
Despite my irritation and frequent complaining, we still somehow watched both seasons of Blown Away. It was incredible to watch the glassblowers work the glass with all the various tools and techniques at their disposal. And I learned a lot about a craft I had zero knowledge of beforehand. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder how much better it would’ve been if they had adopted the Repair Shop style.
Remove the winner-take-all, zero-sum competition stuff and just let them create.
Sports might be one of the few exceptions to this. Even then, of the people who become world-class at some sport, almost all of them were obsessed with it for a long time before playing it became about competition. It’s why they can spend ridiculous amounts of hours honing their craft off the field.
I’m a better-than-average golfer. When golfing friends learn this, they often say they don’t want to play golf with me because they’re not any good. The thing is, I don’t care. Because it shouldn’t be a competition. I just want to spend time outside getting some exercise and sharing some laughs in the company of friends. If anything, golf is a competition between myself and the golf course. But even that shouldn’t be a competition.
When it comes to creating, competition shouldn’t even remotely be in the equation. I’m not trying to write a better piece or grow my subscriber count higher than some similar writer or anything like that. Instead, I’m trying to create the best essay I can, given my skills, talent, and mood in this current moment. If I do that over and over, I’ll write better pieces, which more people will share, and I’ll grow my subscriber count over time.
Creating is about the process, not the scoreboard. We should celebrate the craft, not the game. And especially not the mind games.
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