Denise Li was always happy to coast through life … until she realised that she actually enjoyed the feeling of competing.
I’ve never really considered myself a competitive person. While I’d taken part in track competitions when I was in school, I have to say I never particularly enjoyed it: I was a middling athlete and there was just waaaaayyyyy too much stress to handle for knowing that I wasn’t going to bring home a medal at the end of the day.
At work, I’ve never really been particularly ambitious either. I was always focused on the process – I wanted to do the best possible job I could while keeping my participation in workplace politics to a minimum. I focused all my energies in tackling each task and problem as they arose. If I got promoted because the higher-ups thought I was doing well – that was a bonus, but being promoted was never a strong motivating factor for me. And certainly not strong enough to keep me in the job when there were other things I wanted to do with my life, namely, travel.
Recently, however, my dormant competitive side seems to be making a regular appearance, particularly when it comes to fitness and sports. A couple of months ago, I took part in my first boxing competition and am considering doing it again. At my group strength and conditioning classes where the coaches always encourage a little healthy competition, I always aim to finish first or second, and I am disappointed with myself when I fall short. This, despite the fact that I believe that working out should be about fighting against yourself and being better than you were before, than about being better than other people. I still want to be the first to finish a series of 100 squats or kettlebell swings.
I’m not exactly sure what sparked off my innate competitiveness. But I do know that there’s something about it that makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it’s because my chosen sport of choice is a male-dominated one where women’s attempts to compete are usually met with patronisation, cynicism or even outright discrimination, that it’s a sad fact of the world that women who display competitiveness or other male-related traits are viewed in a negative light, or simply because it just goes against the grain of everything I know about myself.
When I was in uni, grades were given on the bell curve. That means, for better or for worse, you were compared against your peers. Fully aware of my average intellectual capabilities, I focused on doing the best I could, while trying to ignore the painful fact that my best would probably never see me make it to the Dean’s List or honours roll. I made peace with it, as I did the second-lower class honours degree I graduated with.
To want to “win” now, even when there is no tangible benefit other than an immense sense of self-satisfaction is a bit of an alien concept to me.
But thinking it through now as I write this, I have to ask myself, “What IS wrong with having a competitive mindset?” Google “being competitive” and the search results on the first page all have to do with reigning in or checking competitive behaviour. The articles caution against being competitive at the expense of your relationships and your own sanity.
If you asked me for my definitive opinion about it, I think being competitive has been overly demonised. Yes, there are certain instances where it’s unhealthy and plain silly to be competitive: Like feeling the pressure to buy a Chanel 2.55 just cos a number of your friends own one.
But at the end of the day, I think a competitive mindset acts as a check and balance against a false sense of entitlement. Being competitive means being acutely aware of where you lie in the food chain, and how much more you have to do to make up for the shortfall. Being competitive means you will probably work harder to secure gains, rather than feeling that you DESERVE something simply because of your position.
The only time when you should feel deserving of anything is if you worked your ass off to get it. That doesn’t mean you need to get competitive in every area of your life. How stressful would THAT be? But it does mean knowing that you have a choice to be the best in whatever area you choose to excel in.
I’ve recently read quite a few articles about people who’ve made good despite the odds against them. Teenagers who grew up in poor families, recalcitrant drug users who later went on to become successful in their chosen careers … I doubt that any one of them would have made it if they were driven not just by a sense of wanting to better their stations in life, but also of a sense of competitiveness – an inner, unshakeable belief that they can catch up with and surpass those who have already achieved certain milestones in life.
We may not start off on an equal footing as others but we certainly have a choice. Do I want to sit here and moan and whine that I haven’t gotten as far ahead in my career as my peers/not making as much money as my friends/am unable to do any pull-upsl? Or do I want to get cracking and start working towards achieving all that, and possibly more?
I know what I’m going to choose. I might not have been the sub-par athlete I thought myself to be had I believed in myself more, and worked harder to become a bona fide athlete. I’m going to make it a point to thrive on – not shy away from – competition.
And I haven’t done too badly in life despite the fact that I never really explicitly set out to be number one in whatever I do. Who knows how far I can go and what I can achieve now that I’m starting to embrace my inner competitive side?
About the Author: Denise Li is a founder of Material World and a freelance writer-editor. Before that, she spent a few years in the Features section of CLEO and Cosmopolitan Singapore. She considers Chiang Mai her spiritual home and makes it a point to head there for a yearly pilgrimage. She’s also a fitness buff and enjoys boxing, running and the occasional yoga session. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLiTweets.