Who’s the greatest?
There’s a way to be competitive without hurting others
By Nancy O’Donnell
Walking down the corridor of the business department in the university where I used to teach, I was struck by a poster on the door of one of the professors. It depicted a man climbing a staircase, with others behind him. The caption was something like, “Knowing how to rise above the others.”
For years I passed by that poster without thinking twice. Then one day during the Olympics, I was thinking how sad it was that getting a silver medal meant one wasn’t an “Olympic champion.” I stopped to ask myself if I agreed with the message it was conveying. Initially I thought not, but it got me thinking.
My mother always told me that I was very competitive, always wanting to be first: first in roller skating, first in the class, first to get picked for a team or a group, the highest award. Growing up, I had my fair share of wins and losses, of coming in “second.” That was especially hard to swallow — that fine margin between first and second, the “what ifs.”
At some point along the way, I began to ask myself what was wrong with a silver medal. When not being first means not being good enough, we run into trouble.
Is competition healthy?
Competitiveness is most often associated with economics or sports. We can also think of it as a factor that forms a part of our personality. It is defined as “the possession of a strong desire to be more successful than others.”
Most societies and cultures encourage their members to be as good as they possibly can be, to strive to improve and grow. These are considered admirable traits
The tricky part is the “others.” We could begin by asking ourselves whether or not we can feel accomplished and successful without others around us who are less accomplished and less successful. In reality, the very definition of competition includes the necessary presence of others against whom one is competing. In a market economy healthy competition among companies ensures growth and protects the consumer.
Being competitive is associated with both desirable and undesirable qualities. On one hand, competition motivates people to achieve more, to push past their limits. Competition also inspires innovation and improves quality.
On the other side, there is the so-called “unhealthy competition” that finds its source in fear. This can be something internal, like a general fear of failure or a very real fear of not getting into your college of choice. The need to receive validation and attention from external sources, which is rooted in insecurity and self-doubt, makes losing more devastating and can lead to competitive behavior that eventually has a negative impact on relationships.
A new level of competition
The fact that competition is fundamentally linked to comparison with others means that globalization has added an entirely new dimension to our competitive behavior. Through social media and the internet in general, we often find ourselves faced with a skyrocketing number of ways that we can fail by comparing ourselves with people we have never and will never meet.
One possible reason for unhealthy competitiveness can be found in the fact that we live in a society where individualism has become more pronounced. We’ll leave this trend for another time, but it lies at the heart of both the problem and the solution to finding a way to compete that fosters relationships.
Although competition can put a focus on the individual at times, healthy competitors are less concerned about how they stack up to others, and more interested in stretching into new realms of personal potential.
The truth of the matter is that we all experience competitive feelings. They are natural and unavoidable. But competitive thoughts often make us uncomfortable, partly because they’re associated with greed, envy and narcissism. They can be experienced with close friends and absolute strangers.
Do no harm (to our relationships)
The key to expressing these feelings in a healthy way is to acknowledge them, because they help us understand ourselves. Accepting our competitive feelings allows us to manage them in a manner that our actions reflect our true values and do not inflict harm on our relationships.
For example, in a work situation where the boss tends to praise a colleague and seems oblivious of others’ contributions, resentments can build up. Everyone likes to be acknowledged for a job well done. Accepting these feelings and choosing to act constructively can lead to actions that improve our performance, whether or not they get acknowledged or praised.
On the flip side, there is the risk that our competitive feelings can be transformed into cynicism. We can allow them to well up or fester within us, confusing them with our real point of view or turning against the person we’re competing against. Instead of seeing that we simply want what the person is getting and moving on, we can end up engaging in a destructive thought process that negatively colors the world we live in.
We are not what others think of us
Much depends on how we feel about ourselves. It’s easier to consider our competitiveness in a light-hearted manner when we feel secure of our inherent value as a person, even with our limitations, which can include unpleasant competitive feelings. It’s essential to reach the point where our self-worth is not based on what others think of us.
For believers it can be easier, because we know that God’s love for us is unconditional. We can also become builders of healthy competitiveness by being instruments of this unconditional love in our relationships with others.
The key to healthy competitiveness lies in our capacity to honestly recognize and manage our motivations in our relationships with others. It doesn’t help to deny that we experience these feelings. How we act on them requires mature reflection, and the ability to evaluate and resist influences from external forces like our culture and education.
In the midst of this very serious process, the ability to laugh at ourselves can be a plus!
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