If You Think Life Is A Competition, You’re Likely Losing

I love competition. I love tennis, basketball, chess, improv tournaments, ping pong, board games and many other forms of it. But life itself cannot be a competition.

You’ve probably seen this type of thing in movies or TV shows before: One character asks another character about their job or where they went to college or something like that not because they’re genuinely interested in the other character’s life, but because they want to use their answer as a measuring stick. “Oh, you went to Michigan State? That’s so quaint. I went to Dartmouth.”

To many people, life is a competition. They want the hottest date, the flashiest car, the biggest house, the more prestigious job title, etc. If they obtain those things then they somehow ‘win.’ And conversely if they don’t obtain those things they ‘lose.’

I must admit that I was very much one of these people. I compared myself to everyone else to see if I was winning or not. When I found out someone had not done as well as I had, then I felt some ridiculous sense of superiority. “You do improv? That’s nice. I teach it.” I don’t know if I was ever that smug about it out loud, but I certainly was in my mind. When I found out someone did better than me at something I would feel a very real sense of inferiority. “You just booked a national commercial? I’ve never been in a commercial.”

What’s worse is that this need to show off my own accolades to others was coupled with the need for constant validation. Even my best accomplishments seemed unimportant if I couldn’t get someone else (preferably multiple someone else) to let me know that they also thought I was awesome. I would humble brag about certain things I did in the hopes that someone would interrupt me to praise me.

“I was just thinking about when I was working for SEcond City…”

“You work for Second City? Wow. That’s a big deal.”

It was exhausting and wholly unsatisfying, but it’s how I lived. Only in the last few years have I been able to let this go. I’m not 100% over it, but I’ve come a long way (insert joke about me wanting to prove to you that I’ve let it go better than you).

One of the many reasons I hated living this way was because I could never be happy for other people without also feeling bad about myself. If someone booked a commercial or got cast in a touring company then no matter how much I wanted to be happy for them, I would necessarily feel bad for not having accomplished that same thing. Or if the person in question had good news about getting something that I had already gotten then I somehow saw that as making my accomplishment less worthwhile. For example, after I had been hired to teach improv at Second City, when I found out others had been hired it seemed like less of an accomplishment.

Now, I’m learning how to not look at life that way anymore (as much) and everything is getting so much better. I’m not sure what ever caused me to think this way in the first place and I’m not totally sure how I was able to shake free of this viewpoint, but I can tell you some things that well meaning people said to me that did not help at all.

1. “You can’t spend your life comparing yourself to others.”

This never helped. I know they meant well, but the phrase is meaningless. One necessarily has to compare him/herself to others. Without comparing myself to others I have no way of knowing anything about how I’m doing in life. Every descriptor is only meaningful when compared to others. For example, I’m ‘tall’ compared to someone who’s 5’1″ but I’m average height when compared to the population of adult males in the US. I’m ‘poor’ when compared to someone who makes six figures. But I’m ‘rich’ when compared to someone who’s homeless.

I think a better way of saying this well meaning platitude is “Comparing yourself to others is necessary, but there is no need to attach any stigma to it.” By this I mean I am definitely ‘poor’ compared to a millionaire. But being a millionaire does not make someone ‘better’ than me. And I am not ‘bad’ or somehow unworthy of love simply because I don’t make a ton of money.

2. “Be happy being yourself”

I wholeheartedly agree with this statement now. But it needs more context for me to understand how to apply it to myself. When I would hear this in the past I would interpret it to mean, “Be happy with yourself. Don’t worry about improving.” But what I now interpret it to mean is, “Be happy with yourself, but don’t allow that to make you lazy or complacent with your desire to be better at certain things.”

Again, I know people meant well when they said this to me, but I never understood it in a way that made it applicable to my life. I would believe it to be a good thing. But also believe it to be unobtainable. How can one be happy with onesself if one wishes to have something that one does not have? I didn’t get it. And I was afraid that if I was somehow to figure out how to do it, that it would strip me of my ambition and desire to improve myself. And the last thing I wanted to be was a happy ‘loser’ like some hippie living in a shitty small apartment who’s happy all the times. That seemed so gross to me. Now, I think of that same image I used to have of a happy hippie and I feel jealous that I can’t be that happy with myself without needing a lot of material things like wealth and property.

Being happy with myself does not mean that I can’t strive to improve my abilities and refine my techniques and learn new things. Being happy simply means that I treat myself well. And it is very possible to treat myself well while also striving to be better

I am not saying competition is bad. I’m a big believer in capitalism. When companies compete, the consumer usually benefits. When the US and Russia competed in the space race, we went to the moon. When people compete for the X Prize, we all get some new amazing technology. Competition has it’s place.And maybe some people even get joy from living their lives in competition with others. I’m not trying to judge. If you feel happy doing that, then by all means keep it up.

But if you’re like me then the act of looking at life in that way might leave you sad and in a constant state of disappointment. Even just thinking of yourself as a ‘loser’ is negative. My therapist says that the unconscious mind is always listening and will perpetuate what it hears. So, if you even think that you’re losing then your sub conscious may very well be hearing ‘I’m a loser.’ And that’s no way to talk to yourself. It’s unhealthy and may lead to some real sadness.

Another bad thing about competitions are that they end and even if you feel like you won, the effect of winning wears off. Unless you win all the time, you’re necessarily going to feel like a ‘loser’ at least some of the time if not most of the time. But if I don’t look at life like one big competition then I can’t logically say I’m losing at it. However, if I value myself as an amazing person worthy of love then I’m sort of always in a state of ‘winning’ no matter how little money I make or how few parts I get cast in, etc.

I don’t have a big house or take expensive vacations or pal around with celebrities or appear regularly on television. I have friends who have all that stuff. I can’t compare myself to them. Maybe one day I will have that stuff too. I certainly hope to. Those are goals. But they’re not competitions. I need to treat myself better for having what I have rather than feel like a loser for not having what I don’t have.

I’m not advocating that I celebrate all the time like the proverbial ‘everyone gets a ribbon’ mentality. Competitions have winners and losers. The winners must win something in order for it to mean anything. I must reserve celebrations for times when I’ve done something worth celebrating. However, beating myself up for ‘losing’ does no one any good. In fact, it does a lot of harm. If the desired effect is to motivate me to do better next time, then it misses the mark by a lot. So, now I’m working on doing that way less than I used to with the eventual goal to be not to beat myself up ever. And now I’m discovering much more joy from treating myself like a ‘good person’ rather than a ‘winner’ or a ‘loser.’

Thanks, y’all!

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4 thoughts on “If You Think Life Is A Competition, You’re Likely Losing

  1. Thanks for writing this blog. Ive read it a few times because I can very closely relate to the struggle you describe initially. I especially appreciate (what I think are) your suggestions on how to disassociate competitive outcomes (e.g. losing or winning an audition, a promotion, etc.) from evaluating self-worth. In addition to being happier with ourselves, how does the approach that you describe in this blog also allow you to be happy for others who are competing for the same things you want?

    • Thanks for your response, Jon. I’m not sure this approach directly helps me to be happy for people who get what I want, but it at least allows for the possibility. If you and I are auditioning for the same part we are in competition with each other. If you get it and I don’t then I lost that competition. But if life itself is not about winning and losing then I can still give myself love and know that I’m a great person. That will make me feel not as bad about not getting the part. If I don’t feel bad about myself then I’m a lot more likely to avoid feeling bitter towards the person who got it.

      The other thing is that even though we’re in competition with each other in this hypothetical situation we don’t have to necessarily couple the desire to win with the desire for the other person to lose. When I audition for something I don’t want everyone else who’s auditioning to suffer. I want everyone to be happy with their lives. So, when I think about you beating me out for a part I simply assume that you didn’t try to get it to spite me or to wish me I’ll will, but rather because you wanted it.

      And knowing that my competition is coming from the same place I am (a desire to improve his/her life) helps me identify and connect with them which helps me to avoid bitterness and even be happy for them.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on that if you get a chance.

      Thanks!

      • I think the word “bitter” that you use is exactly the feeling that I want to avoid. I think that envy can sometimes be a healthy motivator, as long as envy doesn’t turn to wishing ill will on others (which may be the essence of bitterness) or declaring oneself a less-better person.

        I’m coming from the perspective of: I found something that I love (improv), and because I want to succeed at improv (i.e. make a house team, get a performance slot at a theater, etc.), at some point I’m going to have to compete against my friends (and others in the improv community) who also want to succeed at improv. In this situation, I want to maintain 1) a positive self-image and 2) positive relationships with my improv friends and other members of the community; I think your blog speaks well to the former and your response to the latter.

        So, here’s additional conclusion that I’m drawing based on your helpful insights: If I believe that others want what I want *not* out of spite but rather because they have the same interest or love that I have, it follows that a healthy approach to competition is the mentality that “I can’t control how good/skilled other people are, and I can’t control how good others’ auditions go – so, I should focus on developing my own skills and giving my best audition.” I hope I’m on the right track with this conclusion.

  2. If that helps you then you’re on the right track. The other thing that helps me is to feel a kinship to those I’m competing against. If we’re both up for the same gig not only can I understand that you want it for yourself and not to hurt me, but I can also identify with where you’re coming from. We’re not the same, but we’re both talented people who love the craft and want to be better at it and get cast in more gigs so we can do it more. Even if I know nothing else about you, I know we have that in common.

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