I almost beat Dave Starcher in the impromptu sand-eating contest during recess in second grade. I choked down handfuls of dirty sand but he finished his pile first, just ahead of me. It was small satisfaction that I did swallow more than another boy. I kept thinking, “If only I had gotten that first mouthful down faster I could have won!”
That sand wasn’t good going down; it was memorably uncomfortable coming out over the next four days. Think “extruding sandpaper.”
How did I get into this ridiculous situation? What possessed us to hold a sand-eating contest? What could we possibly gain?
Certainly, we can easily forgive a seven-year-old boy for not thinking wisely. Their experience is limited, they aren’t mature, they only live in the moment, and they’re foolish.
I ask the same questions about many dumb things I did, some embarrassingly recent. These are hardly my proudest moments. I can laugh about my sand-eating failure, because that was so long ago. I’m not going to tell you the equally dumb thing I did just six weeks ago at age 55!
Let me deconstruct the pattern.
I am competitive. Competition sometimes is a minor factor, but much less than my fears about how I might be perceived by others. More often, I give in to a desire to fit in with a group (even one I didn’t really respect), or not look like I was an outsider. Peer pressure works powerfully on one’s perception of your status in a group.
Leadership requires us to stand apart from our desires to fit in, go along, and win easy approval from “the group.” Going along with the herd is not leadership.
Preaching to myself, and you’re welcome to listen:
- Be competitive with yourself, rather than others. Hold very loosely the victories and failures of the past. What can you do today?
- Listen to and learn from peers but consider their advice before you act upon it. Choose your battles wisely, based on principles and long-term objectives around the most important things. Ask “Will this be important in 5 years, or 20 years?” If it is, you’re touching on a principle, or something deeply true in yourself. Stand firm. If not, then standing apart from the crowd is less critical.
- Remember how as a teenager it was incredibly important to be “your own person” but you also wanted to dress like everyone else, listen to the same music, watch the same TV shows? Now you need to be mature. Prioritize who you want to be impressed with you or pleased with your decisions. My mother used to tell my sister and me, “If Jesus couldn’t make everyone happy, you’re not going to make everyone happy.” Useful fact: few people are thinking about you as much as you assume they’re thinking about you.
One final bit of advice: If someone challenges you to a sand-eating contest, smile and politely say, “Pass.”