I am competitive. It shows up in my day-to-day choices for entertainment, like being an NFL fan and a devotee of the British Baking Championship. I play word games every day, competing against myself or the anonymous online masses. I also sometimes (well, often times) compete on my drive to work, traveling well above the speed limit in order to be the first one to the next red light.
Why do you suppose some of us are competitive and others are laid-back?
Psychologists point to various studies to determine the answer. Most notably (at least to me) was that the size of the group competing has a direct correlation to the degree we’re competitive. When I was a student at UCLA taking an Introduction to Psychology class with literally hundreds of other freshmen, I was completely unmotivated to excel. In my junior year, I took a take class on Charles Dickens. There were only 15 of us, and it was imperative that I get an A. (Which I did.)
According to various psychological studies, people who have greater self-esteem tend to be less obsessively competitive than those who feel the need to prove themselves. In other words, the need to win might be motivated by and/or connected to the need to validate oneself. (I’m no psychologist, but that theory makes sense to me.)
Our culture breeds competition. In sports, in litigation, in politics, and even in the sale of Girl Scout cookies, we acknowledge the winners and the losers. There’s such a thing as healthy competition, where it’s okay to lose because we know we can win the next time. There’s also such a thing as unhealthy competition, which psychologists generally agree begins in childhood. When the competition is unbalanced (imagine me playing H-O-R-S-E with my older brother), it may lead to passive-aggressive behavior in adults. Fortunately for me, I somehow always knew better than to compete with my jock-brother in anything athletic.
Naturally, we can choose how to react to any competition. Winning today is obviously just for today. There are no guarantees that we will win again tomorrow. If you disagree, take a look at the NFL (on any given Sunday . . .) or look up the definition of an “upset victory.” How many times have political pundits gotten it wrong?
At the end of the day, I wonder whether we’re hard-wired to compete. If winning is the reward for a job well done, is losing a punishment? Does losing make us more competitive? Does winning motivate us to compete again?
I’m searching for wisdom and understanding here. So far, the best answer I found came from Indira Ghandi. She said, “My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition.”
I kind of like that solution.
Where do you stand on the spectrum of competition? Please comment and enlighten me.