Once, when I was eight or nine, I had a bff named Ketra.
She was blonde, short-haired and wiry and she liked the same toys that I liked (Fisher Price Precious Places). This is how we bonded.
For weeks we hung out at recess together until one day, Amber showed up.
Amber and Ketra had been friends in second grade and now Amber had switched to our class after her mother had a disagreement with her teacher.
Ketra sat us down and somberly said, “I don’t want to hang out with two people at recess. I want to hang out with one. I have to choose between the two of you and I don’t know which to choose.”
It was clear Ketra wanted us to compete for that special spot as her best friend forever. It was clear she wanted us to argue our case or give her incentives for choosing us.
I stood up and left without saying a word.
For the rest of the year Ketra and Amber hung out together and I found new friends. I don’t remember being sad about this one bit.
I just refused to compete.
In high school I ran for drama club president. Then, after it was too late to bow out, I found out I was running against some of my friends, including my boyfriend. Halfway through the race, I changed my mind and did an anti-campaign: “Don’t vote for me!” I pleaded to all the kids in the drama club, “Vote for someone else!” This wasn’t reverse psychology, this was my interest waning completely in the face of competition.
It wasn’t until some twenty years later that I realized this was an essential aspect of my personality. I disliked most sports, games, or situations where one’s virtues were pitted against another’s. If I liked a guy and there was another woman anywhere near his radar, I was out. If I wanted a job and someone else was gunning for it, I decided I didn’t care to have it. If I was bidding on a rare item on eBay and someone else was incrementally raising the bid by dollars, I’d get annoyed and stop bidding.
I don’t like competition.
Are you like me?
If so, should we fix ourselves?
After all, this world is filled with competition. In business, one has competitors. In relationships, one has competing interests. In hobbies, one has to face the others on the playing field. If we refuse to compete, we will not get the spoils, right?
The trouble with non-competitive personalities is that they don’t particularly want the spoils if they feel they must pay a high price to get them.
Had I competed with Amber, I could have sacrificed my best Lisa Frank stickers, or even my dignity, to win Ketra over and still ended up alone at recess. I wasn’t willing to take that chance.
I wanted someone who wanted to hang around me exactly as I was.
My dominant attitude was: if you don’t want me for exactly what I am, that’s your problem, not mine. Then I would close that door forever on them and walk away, dusting my hands. I refused to be other than what I was.
Competition, I noticed, had a funny way of morphing me into an inauthentic version of myself. I once tried out for a school play and was supposed to play a tart. This was not my personality at the time. I faked it and won the part, which meant I had to be that inauthentic character for many months. Rather than seeing this as fun, this made me feel terrible.
Likewise, my friend Marie recently got promoted in her job at a financial institution. She complains that she has to “play the game” every day, pretending to like people she loathes in order to get that next promotion.
A writer friend of mine once said, “I don’t want to play the New York Game at all. I’m from Utah.” She bemoaned the fact that she had to have New York values and New York sensibilities whenever she talked to editors, who were all from that great city. “I hate having to pretend to be important and posh.”
I believe it is this fear of being inauthentic, aka a “liar to one’s self,” that makes some of us feel uncomfortable within the walls of competitive situations. This was certainly my problem.
It may be true that some of us are hopelessly wrapped up in a quest to “be ourselves, no matter the cost.” I have met more than my fair share of artists and writers who have had this mantra. They have been worn down by the endless requirements from others to: be more religious, be a better student, be a faster worker, be a smarter dresser, get better grades, make more money, be a better husband, do important things. And on and on. They have frequently thrown their hands in the air and shouted (even if symbolically) “Just let me be myself!”
Is this you?
Even a little?
If so, the surprising solution is to compete only against yourself.
If you think about it, it’s the only way.
If you get better at your craft, you will automatically rise over the beginner (a competitive move).
If you get faster at your craft, you will automatically rise over the amateur (a competitive move).
If you get stronger at your craft, you will automatically rise over the expert (a competitive move).
In competing with yourself, you raise your own standards, keep your identity and magically still end up competing with others. The spoils come your way by adding to your identity, not taking away from it.
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