What If I’m Just Not That Competitive?
No Thanks, I Don’t Wanna Play
As a child, my parents—likely recognizing a shyness in their youngest of two—placed me in dance classes. It was a discipline I continued through high school where, as every teen movie trope would have you believe, athletes are discovered, their talents developed, their status elevated!
But rather than opting to be at odds with opponents, I continued to gravitate toward the communal activity of dance where, unless you landed a solo, you were rarely on the stage alone. Where the shapes I created with my individual body were part of a larger, shared silhouette.
For me, the thought of being the only person up to bat, with the ball, or passing the baton was terrifying. The idea of being watched and depended on by audience members and teammates alike was anxiety-inducing.
It didn’t energize me; it immobilized me. I’m certain those feelings stemmed from a fear of failure—of both shouldering it alone and of finding relief in being able to share in disappointment, if any.
In getting older, however, my disinterest in competition has begun to feel like a source of shame. Even years after graduating college, for example, I distinctly remember a best friend getting frustrated with me during a two-on-two card game because I didn’t share her, let’s call it, zeal for winning.
Our productivity culture often equates combative energy to success, an aggressive hunger to happiness. But personal motivations are not one-size-fits-all. While workplaces with “cutthroat environment(s)”—defined by Merriam-Webster as “playing independently rather than having a…partner”—can ensure excitement for some time, “the inevitable stress it creates will likely lead to disengagement over the long term.”
There are mixed reviews when it comes to instilling a competitive spirit in kids and teens, too; doing so can teach them to encourage others and develop empathy, but it can also, when not executed healthily, lead to unnecessary feelings of stress and pressure in activities that are already considered low-stakes.
For those of us not naturally driven by a desire to beat, best, or be better than others, we can still assert our worth by remembering two things.
We Can Challenge Ourselves
We are no less ambitious simply because we don’t require an opponent. And as illustrious and impressive as a win may appear, there are alternative schools of thought that consider ourselves our own best competitors.
In sparring with others, our abilities are, by default, presented in direct contrast and comparison to theirs. (And who knows what that person’s resources, support, or motivations are?)
But there’s freedom in removing ourselves from that framework; not only do we get to create our own definition of success, but we get to test and learn our limits. We can set both the timeline to achieve a goal and the reward. Failure might solely belong to us, but so does satisfaction.
More importantly, we can set goals for anything we want, whenever we want. They can be quantitative or qualitative, for our personal health or relationships. We can measure them by S.M.A.R.T. factors or P.A.C.T. ones—popular goal-setting techniques–which I’ve seen defined as both “purposeful, actionable, continuous, and trackable” and “patience, action, consistency, and time.”
We can determine our own values and then seek to be the most disciplined, the most knowledgeable, or simply the most unabashedly joyous in our practice. Any practice.
I recently participated in a Dry January, a personal choice I have no plans to turn into a larger lifestyle. But in doing so, I restored control over my own cravings. I learned about my urges and why and when they emerged: Was I bored, anxious, stressed? When those feelings arose, I discovered what I could do instead to satisfy or settle them. There were no accountability partners or adversaries in this challenge, yet the lessons were just as valuable.
There Are Benefits to Our Being
There’s no denying that being competitive has its advantages; it can boost one’s creativity and inspire innovation, for example. Conversely, however, its inhabitants can also become prone to feelings of self-cynicism and envy.
While we might not be as revered socially, those of us who identify as more passive in the face of competition can still boast benefits of our own. We’re considered less stressed and driven by ego, and more inclusive and approachable. We’re open to collaboration that breeds rapport and to single-handed successes that improve our self-esteem.
This isn’t to say we’re indifferent to winning; it’s to declare that our accomplishments are no less worthy if they aren’t achieved at the expense of another.
In high school, I felt confident in my creative writing classes, where my imagination was encouraged even without a challenger, and as editor of the yearbook, where I worked with my peers. As a professional with a penchant for photography, I love collaborating with colleagues on our quarterly photoshoots as much as I do carrying my own camera around on weekends.
So you don’t have to pick me for your adult kickball league—no, really, I don’t want to join—but there are plenty of things I want to be better at tomorrow than I am today, and that self-imposed pressure is enough to keep me encouraged.
Danielle Cheesman is the Partnerships Lead at The Good Trade. Though born and raised in New Jersey, she’s now based in Los Angeles where you can find her taking pictures, making playlists, or cuddling her pup. Say hi on Instagram!