Startups, Sweatshirts, and the Art of Zen Ping Pong

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We had a ping pong table at our startup. It was a floor model, but it worked well enough for us. The idea was to have a space to get out of your own head; relax and play.

I had practically never played ping pong in my life. Even watching those that did, I never felt that I could ever achieve the power and speed to beat them. And if I could never be good enough to beat them, why play? What other reason could there be?

Inevitably I began to play. Why not? It was there, these were my friends, and it gave me a break from working. I was awful, but something kept me coming back for more.

As it turned out, I liked ping pong. Even though I lost most of the time, I saw my skills grow with every game – improving on the simple idea of reflecting a tiny ball. It certainly wasn’t easy, but it was simple and I got into it.

I grew more skillful with every game; I could really see the progress. I began changing my stance and switched up my grip. I even bought a new paddle and became particular about which ball we played with. I practiced, began to win, and people noticed.

But the jeans I wore became too restrictive of my movement and my sweatshirt weighed me down and made me cumbersome. Suddenly I needed to play every game in shorts, a tee-shirt, with 3 star balls, best 2 out of 3 games, to 11 points, and with my paddle. I had rivalries and grudge matches with spectacular victories and signature serves. I even trained with a Chinese provincial ping pong champion to work on technique. I cared that I won and I had practically never played ping pong in my life.

Then I noticed something: my best rallies were not intentional and my quickest saves weren’t on purpose. My reflexes and instinct had overcome my thoughts. It became especially clear that when I tried it actually threw me off my game. I had to clear my mind and let my self play instead of my brain.

And beyond playing better, it felt oddly self-satisfying to find myself in that place; in the flow. It’s the same place I can go when I play guitar or meditate. I felt refreshed and confident, focused and energized. I could work more effectively and interacted with my peers more cheerfully.

Clearing my mind became so much better than winning that I stopped trying to win and focused on playing longer more satisfying rounds. It was no longer about defeating my opponent, but about being in that moment together.

I had practically never played ping pong in my life, but it completely changed how I think. So, throw off your sweatshirts, dive into something new, and find zen in the activity instead of the victory.

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