Lessons I Learned from an Angry Ping Pong Man
The importance of diversifying your personal portfolio.
“YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME!” Baz roared, spit flying everywhere.
Not just his face, but his entire body turned red.
He reached for the nearest object, which happened to be the curtain behind him, and ferociously pulled it off its rod.
The curtain fell in a heap in front of him.
On the other side of the ping pong table, I was on the floor gasping for air.
Until that moment, I never understood why people would speak of their ‘sides hurting’.
But Baz, uncharacteristically losing control, was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. In that moment, his primal tendencies took control of him and he became the personification of rage.
And it was all because of a ping pong game.
OK… it was because of five ping pong games. All of which I had comprehensively beaten Baz in.
This wasn’t just an insult to Baz, it made him question his very identity.
See, Baz was defined by his ping pong skills. It was his everything. Sure, we were both undergraduates at the time, but university to Baz, was a side-dish to ping pong. Ping pong was his main event. His love. His muse.
And now he’d just lost to me. To Me. I was a guy who was at best an amateur.
For him, this moment was equivalent to Agassi losing to a ball boy…five matches in a row.
At the time, Baz’s identity looked something like this:
And now, it had become this:
The point is, Baz was defined by his ping pong skills. It was his entire identity.
This can be a great thing — it shows that he’s passionate, focussed and single-minded about becoming the best possible ping pong player.
But, watching Baz convulse with rage, I had another realisation — this could also be a hindrance.
In fact, tantrums aside, Baz’s approach to ping pong is something we could all learn from.
1) Compartmentalizing Failures
Let’s look at a hypothetical person, Sarah, who also takes her ping pong seriously.
Sarah’s identity looks something like this:
Sarah’s identity is far more balanced. She has several interests, and she splits her time between them equally.
Notice what happens when Sarah loses to me in ping pong five games in a row:
Unlike Baz, her identity doesn’t break.
Her failures are compartmentalised — they’re contained.
Sarah doesn’t question her identity when she goes through a failure because it’s contextualised among her other interests.
It’s easier for her to remain positive if she’s had wins in other interests that counteract her failure.
We’ve all been like Baz at some point.
And we’ve all come across people like Baz:
- the graduate at a new business who defines herself by her new job, only to screw up. She becomes so bruised by this experience — her identity seems so irrevocably destroyed, that she can’t get out of bed the next morning, or the morning after that..
- the university student who defines himself by his degree at a good school, only to fail an exam. He becomes so demoralised, he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to make it through the next two years of his degree. He stops showing up for class, because it reminds him of his failures.
When we suffer the inevitable setback or failure, we become paralysed with doubt in ourselves.
We get dragged down by these failures.
But if we have many interests — if we diversify our personal portfolio, it becomes easier to bounce-back.
It makes us more resilient.
If we screw up at work, that’s OK because we’re in the process of writing our first novel.
If we fail an exam, it’s not so bad because our band is playing a huge concert on the weekend.
2) Become a better thinker
The father of modern economics.
What a dude.
He bluntly (and hilariously) stated that any person who spends their life doing one thing
“becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible…for a human being to become”
Smith thought one of the best ways of learning was by doing different activities, or taking on new jobs.
Think about it this way: if we diversify our personal portfolio then we add more tools to our toolbox.
We can analyse a complex problem from a range of different perspectives.
We become more creative.
We can come up with novel business ideas.
Daniel Kahneman combined his two interests of psychology and economics to pioneer the field of behavioural economics.
Umberto Eco combined his love of ancient philosophy, anthropology and literature to write one of the best modern murder mysteries, The Name of the Rose.
Peter Thiel often talks about the next big technological breakthroughs as those that involve the combination of interests — computer science and biology, or computer science and finance.
And do I really need to remind you of Da Vinci? Or Benjamin Franklin? Or Galileo? Or Elon?
3) A richer life
OK, so this one might sound a bit new-agey, but hear me out.
Those who choose to expand their personal portfolio of interests are those who have a richer, more fulfilling engagement with life.
Richard Feynman, famed polymath and Nobel Prize winner, believed that as an artist and a scientist he could appreciate the beauty of a flower on several dimensions.
He could appreciate the aesthetics of the flower, just like an artist could.
But he could also appreciate the scientific beauty of the flower like how the colour of the flower had evolved to attract bees.
These observations, for Feynman, added to the “excitement, the mystery and the awe” of the flower.
Feynman’s diverse interests (physics, art, music, lock-picking, etc.) allowed him to have a richer life.
A life that was full of curiosity, wonder and amazement.
Surely this is something we can all aspire to?
Diversify your personal portfolio
The angry ping pong man taught me a valuable lesson.
Don’t be defined by one thing.
In this world of unlimited information, there really aren’t any excuses.
Diversify your personal portfolio.