The competitive urge is a curious phenomenon. At a social gathering in India, I recall teaching my neighbor’s eight-year-old son how to play the tabletop “football” game. This involves each player taking turns pushing a coin across the table. Getting the coin to hang over the edge of the table without falling off is a “touchdown.”
The boy was excited to learn the game and he immediately wanted to play against me. I played with restraint and allowed him to win the game. The moment he hit the winning shot, his eyes lit up, he jumped straight into the air and shouted, “I am champion! I am champion!” — to the great amusement of the other kids and adults crowding around us to watch the contest.
We played a second game and this time I was less generous. As I aimed the potential winning shot, I paused to consider the emotional impact on the boy. How would he handle losing his “championship” in front of everyone? I considered intentionally missing the shot, but I didn’t want to lose to him twice, so I went for the win and got it.
To my surprise the boy’s eyes lit up again and he jumped up into the air just as before, this time shouting, “You are second champion! I am first champion!” Our competitive urges, his and mine, were curious indeed.
I came from a family well acquainted with competitive sports. My father and my mother were coaches who believed in the noblest aspects of sports. They made it clear that they wanted me to play for the love of the game and to be a good sportsman: humble in victory and gracious in defeat.
I professed agreement with their ethic, but deep down I didn’t embrace it. In certain ways I was a coach’s dream: a cooperative, hard working player who never gave up. I wanted to win, or so I thought. But winning was not nearly as satisfying as I expected it to be. I discovered I was ambitious for something else.
I didn’t want merely to win; I wanted to feel superior to my opponent. In high school basketball games, I would stare at my adversary with real contempt; I considered him beneath me. Even on my own team it mattered to me, not only that I worked hard, but also that I worked harder than everyone else. I hated to lose to anyone. I hated to lose far more than I valued winning.
Losing represented painful inferiority, and a hate-to-lose approach to achievement used my fear of feeling inferior to motivate higher performances. This seemed to work for me at first, helping me push for the extra effort that sometimes was the difference between victory and defeat.
But a hate-to-lose mentality as a motivator became a problem because it made winning incidental and eventually irrelevant. When not-losing is more important than everything else, then everything else, such giving your best effort or winning, are no longer the point of playing. For me winning became only a postponement of self-doubt that would arise the next time I needed to compete again and defend against a new assault of inferiority.
What was worse, I knew plenty of coaches who actively advocated the hate-to-lose approach. With contorted faces and impassioned voices they’d tell the team that to succeed as an athlete, “You gotta HATE to LOSE!” This mentality is very prevalent on all levels of sport, from pee wees to the pros. It produces fear-driven athletes who have lost their first love of the game.
This perplexed and depressed me. I avoided sports for a while, but something drew me back into the game. Eventually I developed an understanding of athletics that was transformative for me in other areas of life as well.
At the bottom of this issue is the struggle for self-definition, for an answer to the question “Who am I?” An alternative approach to the fear-based comparison game involves abandoning the competitive urge as a primary source of motivation. This means embracing a mindset of self discovery that’s not dependent in any way on one’s relative rank to other human beings. This approach is very hard to do, and is so foreign a way of thinking to most that it is often ridiculed as weak, foolish or unambitious.
Struggle and striving are still necessary – the ranking as a basis for identity is not. It is essential to encounter resistance from forces larger than ourselves that challenge us in ways we can’t fully control or predict. The self-definition born of true knowledge of our absolute limitations is, paradoxically, freeing. Freeing, in part, because it allows us to identify with others instead of comparing with others.
Identification with others based on our common limitations enables us to love them rather than see them as competitors, and therefore threats. The fear of losing vanishes in this approach because in this way resistance and even loss becomes the teachers that propel us far higher than the conventional ideas of competitive success.
Stepping out of this hierarchical way of thinking is frightening, which is why it is far easier to think in a competitive way to justify ourselves. The competitive urge as a basis for our sense of self is a calamity. The day we stop trying to justify ourselves through comparison with others is a great day in our lives.