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."