Post-dinner at a Catskills resort in the late 1980s, adults danced the night away in the Cousin Brucie Room or watched David Brenner tell jokes in the nightclub. The kids chose from two pastimes: dropping quarters on Tron or Star Wars in the arcade or enjoying group activities facilitated by the earnest hotel staff. One Borscht Belt evening circa 1989, I opted for the scavenger hunt.
The staff rounded us up in an activities room, maybe thirty tweens and teens, and gave us a list of objects to gather from around the hotel: napkins, matchbooks, letterhead. None of us knew each other because we were only there for a week's vacation at most, but once assembled into small groups, we quickly bonded around our hatred of the other groups. (In other words, we replicated the 1950s Robbers Cave experiment.)
We would win this thing, damn it! By moving faster and thinking smarter, we'd crush those losers, returning victorious with every item before the night was through. To this day, I can still remember how vitally important this goal felt. We had to win! Why? Because all the other kids were saying the same thing: talking trash and displaying enormous self-confidence. I didn't feel confident—I barely knew my way around the hotel, and the list had way too many things on it. But they were confident, so I had no choice but to go all out.
I'm forty-five—that night was peak motivation. I've never felt the same drive to win since. So we moved fast and stayed on point. As the hours passed, we knocked one item after another off our bucket list. (We had a bucket.) Every time we passed another group in the hallway, intent on its own quest, I felt a pang. "You're going down!" Watching the other teams move with purpose, I felt even more intimidated, as though everyone knew a secret I didn't.
Near the end of the evening, I couldn't help but notice that the hallways had cleared. A thought occurred to me: Had another team already completed the hunt? Worse, were all the other teams done for the night? My mind ran with this nightmare scenario: Not only had all the other teams already finished playing, but the staff members had forgotten we were still there and returned to their rooms. How embarrassing.
Regardless, we stuck with it. What choice did we have after all the boasting we'd done? Honor demanded we finish the job. So we did. At around eleven p.m., we limped back into the activities room, dragging our heavy bucket. We found a bored staff member sitting at a table, legs up, reading a paperback book. He lit up as we presented our haul for inspection.
"Nice work, guys!" he said. "You actually found everything on the list." He seemed surprised as he handed out gift certificates.
"Where is everybody?"
"The other teams were done like an hour ago."
"So they won?"
"Well, we gave them their certificates, but none of them found everything like you did. They just stopped playing."
This formative experience cast a light on every subsequent competitive situation. In high school, for example, everyone I knew acted like we had no chance of getting into a good college. All we heard about was how so many kids were applying, just this vast wave of kids across the country applying, and they were all amazing and talented with incredible grades, extracurriculars, SAT scores, and school legacies. What chance did any of us have? My guidance counselor told me to pick a city college as my "reach" and work my way down from there. I ignored her, applied to top schools, and got into most of them.
It's easy for others to psych you out, but easier to do the job yourself. Advice on publishing success emphasizes the scale of the competition—this many proposals on every editor's desk, that many books being published every year—as though the size of the entry pool matters. It doesn't. Nearly everyone gives up or does a terrible job at pretty much everything. This happens less because of talent than the crippling, often buried, belief that their book will be lost in the shuffle. A little voice says: Why bother?
The true field of competition will always be small. It's a natural law of the universe, like gravity or thermodynamics. The real contenders, like my scavenger hunt team, are the handful of lunatics who successfully delude themselves into thinking they might win. Not many people can do that! But you should try. Once you believe victory is within reach, you bring it closer.