Friday, November 09, 2007

On Competitiveness

My sister Rachel has written a very interesting post about giftedness and competitiveness, which brought up a lot of thoughts. I have written a few things about my struggles with studying after I had been able to coast through school for most of my life, and I've written about overachievement, but I've never talked much about competitiveness.

I wouldn't call myself a particularly competitive person. When I was a 4-year-old, I threw such a fit in Sunday School that they had to call my mother out of the church service to calm me down. I was upset because we were playing musical chairs, and not everybody had a chair, which I didn't think was fair. I wanted everybody to have a chance to sit down when the music stopped!

The times I feel the most competitive are the times when I feel insecure about myself and my abilities. For example, I was pretty jealous of a woman who started karate two years after I did, but we both took the brown belt test at the same time. I felt competitive with her, until I really thought about the situation.

Different people have different talents. She was naturally athletic, whereas I was not. There was bound to be some talent that I had that she lacked. If I compared myself with myself pre-karate, it was easy to see how far I had gotten and how, in a sense, my brown belt was more of an accomplishment than hers. In many ways I am more proud of my brown belt in karate than I am of my doctorate.

If I feel confident in my abilities, I rarely feel competitive. For example, I work with a lot of people who are a lot smarter than me, and who could be considered "better" scientists than I am. Most of these smart people I work with are really nice, and I don't feel competitive with them. That person published ten papers last year? Wow! That's really impressive.

There are a few people who bring out that insecurity in me, though, and it makes me feel like I have to "show them." Many times they are people who are insecure themselves. I've learned from experience that just because somebody tries to make their problem into a problem for you, it doesn't mean that you have to accept it. So usually, I'm able to take a deep breath and unhook myself.

I'm not interested in status symbols or flashiness. That's why I say that my goal is to be the best second-rate mathematician in the world. It is a good description of the degree of my competitiveness and the attitude I have about it. Of course I want to be good at what I do. I'll do my work and my superiors will be pleased by the quality of it. But measures are meaningless, just like the phrase "the best second-rate mathematician in the world."


rachel said...

I'm even less competitive than you! I'm the LEAST competitive person in the whole UNIVERSE!!

rachel said...

But seriously, there are times when competitiveness is useful, in my opinion. When it pushes you to try harder and reach farther than you might have done otherwise. When it spurs you NOT to undersell yourself in a job interview or a query letter. It doesn't have to be cutthroat, and it doesn't necessarily indicate that you're insecure. It can simply mean rising to a challenge, IMO.

Rebecca said...

I guess I wouldn't call that competitiveness. I do try hard and I don't undersell myself in a job interview (and I write a good query letter too! ;) ), but I would call that a product of ambition rather than competitiveness.

Competitiveness involves comparing yourself to someone else, whereas ambition involves doing your personal best, independent of what others are doing.

Maybe ambition is not the best choice of word, either, but what I'm saying is that when you interview, you emphasize how good of a match you are for the job, not how you're better than the other interviewees. When you write your query letter, you detail how great your book is, not how much better it is than other books. The focus is different.

rachel said...

But don't you compete against yourself? Don't you try to do one more push-up than you did last time? And have you never had a friendly rivalry with someone, where you both achieve more than you would have on your own, precisely because you wanted to show them you can do it?

I mean sure, you write a good query letter. But would you ever have bothered to write a query letter at all, if there were no Evil Editor in the world, begging to be stumped? ;)

Flicka Mawa said...

Nice post - yet another way where I'm a lot like you. Wasn't always though, since I used to be an athlete in a very competitive singles sport - but I was all into the "competing against myself" and not so into "oh I have to be better than THAT girl." In that sense I totally understand your comments about ambition vs. competitiveness. I really am extremely non-competitive. But it's also partly a defense mechanism - if I'm not competing, I can't be upset that I lose.