Are You Playing with a Chip on Your Shoulder?

Like many of you, I have been watching a lot of football lately. A large part of the intrigue of football and other sports are the stories surrounding the athletes and the game. We like to know what they have overcome to become successful and to hear about the good things they do away from the sport.

Among the most popular narratives in sports is “he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder.” The proverbial chip on the shoulder is routinely celebrated in sports culture as a powerful source of motivation. He didn’t get recruited by bigger schools. People doubted his abilities. He wasn’t highly ranked coming out of high school or college. Many of these stories are remarkably similar, and they all end with the successful athlete thumbing his nose at the doubters. These stories are appealing, because every one of us has been wronged or doubted at one time or an other, and almost every one of us has at least quietly longed for justice in the form of revenge. Revenge is easy to understand, and its use as motivation is rarely questioned.

I didn’t question it until I heard Zig Ziglar talk about it. Zig, as only Zig could do, said, “If a person has a chip on his shoulder, there’s likely to be a block of wood on top of his neck.” His point was that the chip on your shoulder is an unnecessary and possibly counter-productive vehicle of negativity.

While the negativity associated with carrying a chip on your shoulder might be productive in sports, where controlled anger can be an asset in the heat of competition or in training, it’s rarely helpful for the rest of us. I believe that chip-on-the-shoulder motivation is suspect for three reasons:

It gives others control that we should reserve for ourselves. Strong, successful people typically want to be self-directed and controlled by their own thoughts and actions. Most chips on most shoulders were put there by someone else’s opinion or action against us. If we rely on them for motivation, we’re relying on negative memories placed in our minds by those who doubted us or mistreated us in some way. Why give those people that much power over us?

Negative memories pollute our thinking. Every time we use that chip, we introduce doubt into our minds. We might say and believe that our critic’s doubt was misguided, but if we’re carrying around that chip on our shoulder and dwelling on it, there must be at least a small part of us that believes it. Quit giving credence to doubt.

Positive thinking can take us to higher levels. If the chip on your shoulder is your primary motivator, what happens when it’s gone? When the revenge you sought has been exacted, you might feel momentary satisfaction, but if you want to reach higher, you are going to need to find new motivation. If you have used positive thinking as motivation, and perfected it as you pursued success, you can build upon it to reach the next level.

I understand the value of chip-on-your-shoulder motivation in the heat of battle, but away from that, I think it’s much better to build our self-worth through positive thinking, rather than through fantasizing about waving a middle finger at our doubters.

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