winning doesn’t matter (but it’s nice)

CHICAGO — I don’t always have to win.

I know a handful of people who think the opposite of me. I get it. I’m competitive.

» I once ate an entire bag of bite-size candy bars, because I said I could. (So dumb.)

» I can’t help but glance at the display on the treadmill next to me, to see if I’m going faster than my running neighbor. (Terrible, I know.)

» I took the ACT three times to try and beat my sister’s score. (We tied, because even though my English score kept improving — shocker — my math score consistently dropped. I got the same composite score three times. That’s some sort of statistical anomaly, I’m sure.)

» When we lived in Florida, Matt and I kept a tally of who killed more cockroaches. I once (accidentally) hip-checked him into the bathtub so I could kill the roach we just spotted. When I realized what happened, I let the roach go free, offered to let Matt get the kill, came to terms with how ridiculous this all was, then decided to tone things down. (That’s how exciting our lives were in Florida.)

There’s no doubt competition drives my life, but I’m largely in competition with myself. Sure, I’ve always tried to one-up my siblings, and I like winning arguments (who doesn’t?), but for the most part, competition is my version of productivity. I’m motivated to stay active by putting races on my calendar and shave seconds of my times. I use to-do lists as a challenge, because I’m more likely to go after the tasks if that means I get to check off boxes on a list, feeling victorious when they’re eliminated. No list? Nothing to scratch off? No productivity.

This, of course, brings up the issue of being too hard on myself.

I expect myself to win every day — kick ass at work, have an amazing workout, make delicious meals, enjoy my hobbies and pack in plenty of family time — and I drive myself nuts focusing on it. Think about it: How often does anyone get through Monday thinking, “Yep, I totally nailed that”?

I’m not alone in feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything I want to do. Still, that’s not an excuse for sometimes failing to put into perspective that my busiest days aren’t intrinsically better than my relaxed ones.

As much as I’m hard-wired to look at things as wins and losses, I have to constantly remind myself that success is a spectrum of accomplishment. I’ve hit the wall of competition before. I can specifically think of a few times in the last several years where my attempts to repeatedly beat my own expectations caused me to crash, falling to a point where I had to redefine success as getting out of bed in the morning. We all have breaking points, but hitting those from time to time doesn’t make us failures.

My life as a competitor has taught me the importance of reading the game and evaluating my strategy as appropriate. Today, I might reasonably expect to work a full day, run 6 miles, check in with family and friends, make dinner, walk the dog and write a blog post. Tomorrow, which has as many hours as today, success might be a full day of work, and that’s it. It’s all about being flexible.

Knowing I have to adjust my expectations, that I can’t always win, has made me a happier, more successful person. That, in itself, is a victory.

[think kit. april prompt: What is the role of competition in your life? Did a specific time in your life make you more or less competitive? What drives you crazy when you’re on the losing side?]

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