I’m polite. I know I’m polite because growing up, my mom emphasized manners. She engrained in me the importance of please and thank you and speaking in turn. I learned social cues from a very early age. I learned to be easygoing and kind and a wide array of other qualities that people value.
I excelled in creative fields -- art, writing, drama. I was never good at sports. I had short stints in baseball and basketball, but, to put it mildly, it didn’t go well. I wasn’t passionate about athletics, and as a result, didn’t succeed. It was because I didn’t care about excelling in these competitive arenas that I started using the phrase, “I’m not a competitive person.”
It made sense to me. I was good at writing, singing and drawing. You don’t have to “win” at those things. On the contrary, the arts often emphasize the idea that they are, by nature, subjective, and that beauty can be found in a multitude of forms.
So my polite self settled on the idea that I wasn’t a competitive person. After all, competition is disruptive, and I was extremely socially adjusted and laid back.
Each time I would lose at something -- a race, a study game, a student election -- I would simply justify it by repeating that I was not, by any means, a competitive person.
I have a friend from high school who is, for all intents and purposes, the very opposite of myself. An immensely talented athlete, she knew how to win. She excelled, and continues to do so in so many areas of her life. She proudly announces that she is a competitive person. One year in French class, we entered ourselves into the “bouche de Noel” (a log cake) baking contest for extra credit. Though she wasn’t the slightest bit interested in French, she reminded me that we had to win.
I would laugh. Who cares if we didn’t win the bouche competition? I, too, had no plans to pursue French or bouche baking as a career. It wouldn’t change the outcome of my life. And besides, I wasn’t a competitive person. I was polite, laid-back and easygoing, and being competitive was aggressive and disruptive. Not at all how I wanted to brand myself.
And yet, in college, when I didn’t get the role I wanted or didn’t land internships, I would feel a strange twinge of jealousy towards those who had. I would quickly remind myself not to compare -- it wasn’t a competition.
Until one day I realized I had everything wrong.
Being competitive doesn’t mean you’re not laid back or polite or too aggressive. Being competitive doesn’t insinuate that you are self-obsessed. And having a competitive nature doesn’t mean that you have the extreme desire to out-do everyone -- as long as you are in competition with yourself.
By saying that I wasn’t a competitive person, I was giving myself an “out.” I was justifying my shortcomings by rationalizing that they weren’t important to me -- that I hadn’t put in my all, so the outcome didn’t truly matter. I had convinced myself it was OK not to give my all. I had given myself permission not to rise to new challenges.
Ruthless competition and excessive comparison to the progress of others is debilitating. A healthy competition with yourself is not.
I am a competitive person. I want to be better than I was yesterday and the day before. I want to accept new challenges and rise to them -- and that means competing with my past self. It means striving to surpass the bars I’ve set in order to set new ones. It means trying things I haven’t tried before and giving it my all when I do. It doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to make mistakes or fail or not excel in certain areas, it simply means that I won’t provide a lazy justification for not doing my best.
I want disruption in my life. I want things to give me pause, make me work and think and see things differently. I want to be challenged to excel, and so I will own my competition with myself -- all the while remembering my please and thank you’s.