The first time I met one of my colleagues at the regional office, we’d been working together for quite some time but had never had the opportunity to meet face to face.
So she mostly knew me virtually, from the way I handled projects. I was focused, driven. When I was at work, I wanted to work.
She brought up that tendency of mine the day we met and added, “I get that. I’m the same way. I’m competitive, too.”
I laughed. “I’m not competitive at all.”
She looked surprised and almost like I’d insulted myself by denying what to her was an obvious quality of my personality. I suppose, by her values system, I just had, since she was not only a competitive person but proud of it.
“Sure you are,” she said.
“Yeah, no, I’m really not,” I said. “I work hard because I like to.”
“No one likes to work,” she said.
I paused, not sure how I’d convince her, even if I thought it was a good idea to. I was already starting to feel exhausted from the conversation and I’d barely engaged with it.
I knew the truth of my own inner life — the deep anxiety I felt when I was at rest, left alone with my thoughts and nothing to channel them towards. The way that staying busy caused a deep flow state to overtake me, to put me into emotional autopilot. Provide me sweet escapes from an unrelenting inner monologue that was sometimes entertaining but more often agonizing. Especially in those days, before I’d made peace with many demons or done any mindfulness work.
In those days, it was best to stay preoccupied. Productive. And there were other benefits, too: I felt a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day when I was surrounded by tasks actually accomplished and not another day that had gone by with no evidence that it had even happened.
But my coworker knew her own inner life, too, and her observations surrounding me were likely to be grounded in it. All she was likely to learn from continued conversation was that I was a person who was deeply competitive but didn’t want others to think I was competitive, and she’d still nurse the belief (secretly or not) that I was. And any defense I put up would probably cement what she’d already decided, assure her that her intuitions were right.
Besides, I didn’t want her pity — that feeling that would surely come if and when she got an accurate picture of what things were really like inside my head. And how being busy with work was a far better fate than being swept up in my negative self-talk.
So I laughed and changed the subject.
An Overhyped Office Fitness Challenge
Several months later, work gifted everyone Fitbits, electronic activity trackers. The office announced they were going to run a fitness challenge. As I was already known to be fairly active because I often went on walks on my lunch break to think (or when the weather was nasty walked up and down the stairwell), I was one of many people immediately approached by various company teams trying to recruit me.
My response to this was honest, if indelicate: I asked if I had to participate in the challenge at all. I had a lot to do (the sheer scope of it was already overwhelming me and making it difficult to sleep), and while I appreciated the gift of the Fitbit, I would rather just use it personally on my own, to track my own progress. I had enough to do at work without being drawn into the high drama that can accompany team sports, even ones conducted among semi-sedentary office dwellers.
I was told that the activity was mandatory, especially since I had already opened the Fitbit box. That participation in the work challenge had been implied by accepting the gift.
So I did it. I didn’t care which team I was on, so I asked my boss to be randomly assigned to one.
It wasn’t too bad. Not too much of a time commitment, really, at least when it came to following the bare bones minimum requirements of the challenge. The Fitbit took care of the tracking. I just sent my steps once a week to my group’s logger, and they did the rest. It was an honor system for reporting — but if another team questioned anyone’s performance, it was an easy matter to present the Fitbit and have it confirmed by a neutral third party. This did happen a few times, but for the most part, people trusted one another, and the basic time commitment was low.
What was irritating, however, was the relentless extra credit hype that surrounded the challenge. The trash talking. The drama. Yes, all for an office fitness challenge. Especially since I had managed by chance to end up on a team with a few very competitive individuals, including my colleague from the regional office.
Emails about the challenge filled my work inbox. In some, random coworkers smack talked others, mysteriously copying entire departments and then proceeding to reply all, all the while apparently joking, but in a way that wasn’t terribly funny and mostly just came off as spammy. In others, my team worried incessantly about how they’d manage to pull a come from behind victory. We’d had a strong showing for quite some time, but we were in second place, and that just wouldn’t do, my teammates insisted.
They spent hours debating this. I want to say that the prize was $10 Target gift cards for all of us. Nice, but nothing close to what I could get from a work bonus or a raise that would come from reshaping or improving my department. Saving the company money. Or other things that I was focusing on at the time.
Practically speaking, this seemed to be mostly about bragging rights. And perhaps an escape from the rest of our jobs, something I actually wanted to focus on, because I needed to, in order to keep my head above water. I had my hands full with recruiting and hiring new trainers and developing new programs for particular clients.
I had a huge project load at the time. So I flicked my eyes over the step challenge emails, looking for anything I needed to respond to (for example, a call to email our step counts, any questions that were directly asked of me, etc.). And if there was nothing, I moved on.
“It’s Like You Don’t Even Care If We Win”
When I needed to consult with my colleague from the regional office on the phone about a training project we were both involved in, she brought up the step challenge at the end of the call, as I was about to hang up. So focused on what I’d actually called her for, it took me a few seconds to even understand what she was talking about. To orient to what she was saying. And I guess I didn’t sound terribly interested in my response (not surprising because I wasn’t).
Because I’ll never forget what she said in response to my obvious lack of interest. “Geez,” she said. “It’s like you don’t even care if we win.”
“I told you I’m not competitive,” I said to her, recognizing the opportunity to pair my present puzzling behavior with what she found to be puzzling past words.
“You know,” she said. “I don’t get that. You’re putting in more steps than anyone else on the team. And you don’t care if we win. How is that even possible?”
“I like to walk,” I told her. “I liked walking even when there wasn’t a challenge. I’m going to walk after it’s over.”
No Thrill From Victory
My team actually did have that come from behind victory — but not for any reasons you’d see in one of those big sports movies. You know, the big rally just when all hope seems to be lost. Nothing like that.
In the eleventh hour, the top performing team lost one of their best steppers, who left to work at another company. Because unlike pro ball (I think, I don’t know much about sports, although I’ve dated a few people who were waaaay into it), there’s plenty of mid-season trading in corporate America.
So we won by default.
I actually forgot to pick up my gift card after the announcement was made that we won. To be fair, I was an hour and a half away at the time the contest ended, talking to employees about fostering self-compassion even in high-compliance cultures at one of our client sites, a fabrication plant.
One of my teammates from the local office sent an email to the entire team teasing me about it, my forgetfulness regarding the contest prize. My colleague at the regional office made a joke in response, something to the effect of “If you don’t pick it up, I’m gonna take it.” It was a silly threat, since she was two hours away, but I replied anyway, “Guess that would serve me right.”
At the holiday party a few weeks later with employees from all branches in attendance, the company announced that they would be starting another walking challenge in a few weeks. It was sandwiched in there between more formal company business announcements, profits and losses, opportunities for growth. You know, the bottom line numbers.
“I know who I’m gonna have on my team in the next challenge,” my colleague at the regional branch said and gestured toward me, as we stood in groups chatting after the main presentation,
“Is this one mandatory?” I turned and asked my boss. My boss shook her head no.
The look on my colleague’s face when I spun back around was incredible. “But you won,” she said.
“Well, yeah,” I said. “But I don’t really enjoy competition.”
I Enjoy Striving, But I Don’t Care for Competition
I’ve found that particular pattern my entire life. I tell people I’m not competitive. And they don’t believe me.
I enjoy striving, applying myself, working towards goals. But I don’t get any particular thrill from knowing that I bested other people. Nor do I experience any sense of shame when I lose, bad vibes for not being the person to “win,” the person to come out ahead.
This is often hard for people to believe because I won a ton of competitions when I was a little kid, in both music and writing. If I didn’t enjoy competition, they ask, how was this even possible? I suppose on the surface it makes sense to conclude that this track record would mean I would enjoy clashing with others and struggling to come out on top.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, I was typically entered into the competitions by well-meaning adults in my life who saw I had ability and essentially acted as my agents. And I’ll be honest; I did enjoy the prizes, especially when I was a kid (for example, I got a killer boombox for writing an essay in middle school about the American flag that I really enjoyed using to blast C&C Music Factory and Bon Jovi).
But I hated the social environment that accompanied competition. Especially when it came to school level contests when all participants knew one another and had to interact after the contest was over. If I didn’t win a competition that others knew I’d entered, my peers would tease the crap out of me (since I became known as a kid who won a lot of things). And if I did win, they’d be similarly salty and give me grief.
I hated having to deal with either: Sore losers and sore winners. And trust me, there were plenty. The competition was rarely worth it.
And gym class and team sports were often even worse, a veritable jungle of braggadocious hierarchies, pissing contests, wars. I much preferred cross country running, where technically I was in competition with other people, but it felt more individual. When I was running, I didn’t think much about other people, even at race time when we were technically competing against one another. I was able to focus on my own performance. I could drift away in my head as I jogged over rural paths, lost in the sound of my own breath.
It’s Not “Healthy Competition,” It’s Social Facilitation
“But wait,” people typically say, when you’ve told them all of the above. “What about healthy competition? You’re not talking about that at all. Healthy competition is a good thing.”
Because people like to draw that distinction between “healthy competition” and “unhealthy competition.”
People are quick to tout the merits of “healthy competition,” but typically what they’re talking about when they talk about “healthy competition” isn’t really competition, as much they like to call it that, to broaden our perception of what competition is and can be (to purify it and make it sound like less of a bummer than it often plays out to be).
Instead, this pattern of behavior that they’re calling “healthy competition” is better described as a phenomenon called social facilitation, the fact that being around others who are high performers and/or in front of an audience makes you perform better (because both are true).
I experienced it a lot as a musician. The better the players I jammed with, the better my own solos became — and not because I was trying to beat them or take away from them. But because skill is contagious, and I rose to their level. I was inspired by them. They made me a better musician.
That’s facilitation, not competition. Competition lives more in the realm of zero sum thinking, the belief that when one person wins, another one loses. While it’s true that this can also motivate you and drive performance, the emotional picture is bleaker. It’s a miserable way to live. It can literally drive you crazy.
Anyway, the same thing I discovered in childhood is equally true in adulthood: It’s really difficult to convince a competitive person you’re not competitive yourself.
But the good news is that you don’t really have to.
You can just keep on striving and pursuing what motivates you. And at the end of the day, people will either understand that or not. But the striving matters more than what any particular competitive-minded person thinks. Especially if you don’t care whether you ultimately win them over or not.