One of the first comments on one of my first blog posts was, “Life is not a contest.” Ironically the comment came from a beautiful girl (now a beautiful woman) I knew in high school – she was someone who was around when I started to become conscious of who was wearing what, who got higher grades, and who scored higher on the SAT. Somehow back then, all of that information seemed to mean something to me and my classmates about how “successful” we would be in the future. It wasn’t just that clothes and grades meant someone might do well – it meant these people would do better than others. It was competition for “success”.
But, the idea of competition didn’t start or stop in high school. I don’t know if it got worse, but it certainly didn’t get better in college. Then there was graduate school. Even while we all slaved away at our internships, one of the most common questions my classmates asked one another was, “How many patients do you have?” As if the number of patients on our caseload was an indicator of how hard we were working or the quality of care we were giving!
It was around that time I realized how icky this competition made me feel. School, internship, coursework, dissertation – they were exhausting enough! We were in training to learn to give the best possible help and care for people, and, for many, it had turned into what it always turned into: a contest. But I never said anything.
I was worried my classmates would think I was being weird or perhaps trying to cover up my ineptitude by questioning what many call “friendly competition”.
Is there truly such thing as friendly competition? I think there is. But, in competition, many people lose sight of the real goal. Is the goal to “win” or is the goal to learn, grow, enjoy and perform to the best of your ability, regardless of the winner? In order to meet your goal, do you have to feel better than others?
I see the danger of unhealthy competition not only in its ability to make us move sideways to our goals, but also as a negative impact on the person feeling competitive – in patients, I see that when we lose sight of our original intentions and focus only on proving our superiority, things inside of us can quickly go awry. I also think it’s very easy to tell ourselves that we are operating from the category of healthy, growth-oriented competition, while unconsciously slipping into the dangerous territory where winning becomes the goal.
How do you tell the difference? Ask yourself a few questions, and please be honest – no one can hear your answers!
1) How do you measure your own worth?
2) Does this measurement really show if you’re moving towards the results you hope for?
3) What does the way you measure your self-worth say about you as a person?
The answers to these questions color the lens through which we see ourselves and make meaning of different situations in our lives. This, in turn, greatly affects our actions. In my opinion, it is important to carefully monitor our own thoughts, feelings, motives and actions, as it is so easy to unconsciously slip into a mode of trying to gain approval and “win” at the expense of our own passion and personal growth.