How I’m Learning To Channel My Competitive Energy
The Benefits Of Being Competitive
When I was nine, I loved racing the neighborhood boys on my bike, the competitive energy palpable in our swarm of spindles. This early exposure to competition helped me establish myself as a strong and capable girl and also as someone who refused to play into gender stereotypes.
Many years later, while in college, I discovered my best writing came out of workshops. Knowing that my essays were being graded and measured against the work of others impelled me to dig deeper. I wanted a good grade and praise from others, sure, but mostly I wanted to prove to myself that I could write and exceed my own expectations.
Competition brings out the best in me. It’s a hunger that stirs inside and propels me forward when I don’t think I have anything left to give. When competing, I become acutely aware of the limitations I’ve set for myself. Do I want to win? Of course. But I’m competing against myself first and foremost. And that competitive energy becomes a source I can return to again and again—to grow, to get inspired, and to find motivation when I need it most.
As a woman, I’ve learned some risks come with being perceived as competitive, risks that are very different than the occasional bike crash or skinned knee. It felt natural to be a competitive girl—when I was a girl. And it felt appropriate to be competitive in college when we were meant to be pushing ourselves and one another. But outside of these settings, I sometimes notice my competitive energy—and the idea of competitive women at all—is conflated with cattiness, inflexibility, or not being a team player.
Play nice. Be fair. Don’t be too aggressive. How often have I heard and internalized these words, this cautionary phrase spoken as both advice and warning? It can feel easier to not compete, to tame one’s competitive nature altogether.
It’s a double standard, says Leah Sheppard on an episode of Harvard Business Review’s podcast, Women At Work. Sheppard, an assistant professor at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business, studies gender inequality and stereotyping.
“We see men and we expect them to be competing with one another. And so we normalize that,” she explains. But instead of being invited to compete, women are held responsible for ensuring other women can climb the ladder, too. “If they’re not actively doing that, then [they are] somehow responsible for any inequality that we see,” says Sheppard.
But studies show that—when positive consequences are at stake—competition can boost creativity and encourage people to dream, reimagine systems, and feel inspired. The rewards of competition transcend gender. Most importantly, being a team player and a competitive person are not mutually exclusive. You can want to win while also wanting others to succeed.
Of course, it’s a balancing act, just like anything else. Too much competitive energy can point to unhealthy motivations, like jealousy, envy, or insecurities. When my competitiveness feels rooted in lack rather than inspiration, I know it’s time to pause and examine what I’m really searching for. Am I trying to be the best version of myself? Or am I simply compensating because my ego is hurt?
I also have to ask myself what winning means. Do I win when I finish first? When I’m the fastest? When I get the job or promotion? For me, it’s always come back to how I ultimately feel when competing. Healthy competition highlights an inner strength and resilience that so often gets buried by my insecurities. To find that strength again, to feel it after I’ve pushed myself in a challenging workout or after I’ve poured new words onto the page when I swore there was nothing left in the tank, that is winning for me.
And while I don’t think there should be any shame in wanting to win simply to win, we can reframe it and consider what it is we’re truly after. Because the benefits of competitive energy are much greater than momentary applause or one of those plastic soccer trophies. When handled well, competition can help us to bring our very best selves forward.
So how am I channeling my competitive energy? Simple. By allowing myself to be competitive. By remembering how the wind felt on my face as I pedaled my purple Walmart bike down mountain roads, lungs burning, temples sweating, pushing myself to outride the boys. But mostly pushing myself to outride me. To leave my doubts, to find my strength, and to exceed what I believed was possible.
Are you a competitive person? I’d love to hear how you channel your competitive energy. Feel free to share in the comments below.
Kayti Christian (she/her) is a Senior Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for enneagram 4s and other sensitive-identifying people. Outside of writing, she loves hiking, reading memoir, and the Oxford comma.