Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Competitive Spirit.

Sometime within the last several years I gradually came to an informal resolution to minimize competition in my life. Obviously I understand that I live in a society driven by a tradition of competitiveness, and that it's impossible to entirely avoid- but I just wanted to tamp down my natural competitive drive. I don't know whether it's some sort of genetically inherited trait, or whether I picked it up somehow during my upbringing. But the fact is that I always want to win at everything I participate in, and I have a history of getting distraught when I lose. It's a trait that I find fairly unattractive whenever I am objective enough to catch a glimpse of it. On top of that, I realize that I no longer enjoy the stress that comes with wanting so badly to win.

So I quit participating in the activity that carried the most personal baggage for me. When I was a kid, my father and brother played a lot of chess together. They are both highly analytical people, and that trait along with the benefit of age made them virtually unbeatable for me. It bothered me that I couldn't win, so I gave up trying to learn the game. In my thirties I started playing again, and continued to do so for several years. But there came a crucial point when I realized that I couldn't hang with a certain level of player. I had reached a plateau that I couldn't transcend without a significant commitment to studying the game. And I wondered why that bothered me. I couldn't just relax and continue losing.

When I decided to stop playing chess, I extended my resolve to anything with a clearly defined winner and loser. I started thinking about the philosophical ramifications of those terms. I wanted to broaden myself and become more balanced. There were a lot of things that I was decent at that I only really liked participating in if won- Scrabble, darts, pool, team sports, etc. I just refused to engage in any of those contests. I threw my energy into creation and self-expression instead. I even tried to excise any voyeuristic forms of competition. This wasn't much of a sacrifice since I only watched one sport. But I even stopped following hockey for a year (which was easy because the season was canceled due to a player's strike).

For the most part I have been happy with my new focus. I have an improved self-regard, and feel like I've become a more nuanced and patient person. I came to the realization that any satisfaction I ever got from winning only lasted to the next time I lost at something. That's an extremely frustrating way to live. Now I'm more concerned with self-actualization. Yet I still have moments when I realize that my competitive spirit has not entirely disappeared. I throw myself at challenges as if beating them is more important than engaging in the process of confronting them. However, it's becoming more clear to me that life is more about the journey than the attainment of any specific objective.

Once in awhile I give in, and try to have a sense of humor about my attitude. Last night I played soccer, which is a sport for which I lack the necessary experience and ability to excel. Because my expectations are so low, I don't suffer much due to my lackluster performance. It was actually a lot of fun because no one cared who won. I could honestly appreciate the play of my teammates and my "opponents". Still there was a part of me that wanted to keep score, and to root for my side to prevail. Old habits evidently die hard. This point was further advanced when I beat all of my friends at ping-pong at the bar after soccer. I was crowing and strutting like a bantam rooster. It was self-parody, which always seems to contain a seed of inconvenient truth.

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Blogger Dagrims said...

Either you got a lot better at ping-pong or your friends are terrible.

This was an interesting post to read. As you well know, I'm a very competitive person when it comes to games and sports, but I like that fact. I've been able to temper my disappointment at losing against superior opponents, which took a lot of practice (and years).

3:40 PM  

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