It’s About Connection, Not Competition
I’m excited about today’s topic because it takes me back to when I was a young girl. I am blessed to say I had a wonderful childhood. It was at that time when I was first introduced to today’s topic – the concept of competition.
Heck, the truth is the concept started way earlier than any of us can remember. None of us would be here if that one sperm didn’t out hustle the others to get to the egg that made each one of us. But, for me, I can remember my understanding of competition coming into play in my life when I was 4 years old in Owensboro, KY. My parents got me started in tap dance classes and I figured out pretty quick that either I pick up these steps or I was going to be called out by the teacher and stared at by all the other kids. Please, let’s not even think about recitals when you had to get up on stage in front of all those people!!
From there, I remember being out in the playgrounds at Longfellow Elementary and we’d have 3-legged races and lots of other fun games we played. You learn quickly that when you compete and do well, you get recognition. Most of us appreciate being praised, so we do what we can to create that experience whenever possible.
Just so we are clear – I’m not suggesting that competition is good or bad here. In fact, competition is neither inherently good nor bad. It is neither productive nor destructive. It is a neutral process. It’s the environment that determines its effects.
The concept that I want you to consider is this – that praise that we seek from succeeding at whatever we were competing for – that is actually connection that we are craving. We associate competition with Charles Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest” when the truth is, he also believed that our natural instinct was to care for other. He wrote in The Descent of Man – “The communities most likely to flourish were ‘those with the most sympathetic members’, an observation backed up by research that we are wired to care about each other.”
Probably one of the most significant moments of competition in my life started when I was in 7th grade. Let me take you back so you can appreciate the full scope of this story.
One of my favorite memories of growing up was the travel that we did as a family. One of those trips was for Spring Break and that’s where this begins. That year, we traveled down through Georgia and ended up in St. Augustine, FL. On our first day at the beach, my sister and I were in the ocean having a great time jumping waves. My parents were relaxing on the beach. As my sister and I were jumping waves, we started to realize that not only had we drifted pretty far away from where we started, but the waves were getting higher and we were not able to jump them anymore.
A bit of panic began to set in and we both decided to high tail it back to the shore. Now, remember, I’m 12 years old and my sister is 10 years old at the time. We’re not even probably 5’ tall, barely hitting the scales at 90 pounds. If you know anything about the ocean, we were no match for its power.
We didn’t know it at the time, but we had been sucked out by the rip tide and coming back to shore was a struggle. In addition to that, because we had been pulled by the tide, we were now looking at a shore full of rocks, not sand. Our only option to get out of the water was to climb the rocks. Those rocks were covered in barnacles. As we climbed, the waves would crash against the rocks pulling us back into the water.
I’ll end this agony here – we did get out. My parents were there freaking out because there was nothing they could do and when we got to the sand, we realized we were covered in blood from the cuts from the barnacles on the rocks. Stubborn little girls that we were, we would not let our parents take us to get stitches. Now, that I’m 50, you can barely see the scars, so it was a good call on our part (laugh).
I tell you that whole adventure because right after that Spring Break was over, when I’m back in Middle School, they had cheerleading tryouts. So, here’s the visual you need – here I am, wearing my absolute favorite Hang Ten matching short outfit, no tan at all because of the cuts on my legs, we never went back to the beach. I have a 6” long scab on my right upper thigh and sprinkled over the rest of my legs were Band-Aids covering up the other cuts and the cherry on top, my beautiful tortoise shell glasses that are monogrammed on the right lens with my initials in gold – L M D. Yes, baby, I was the one to win it!! I was ready!! Oh, wait, the only time in my life my hair was short, yes, it was cut like Janet from Three’s Company, basically the short version of the Farrah Fawcett look – you know, flipped back perfectly on both sides, parted in the middle. Now you have the whole picture.
Now, come on, who wouldn’t vote me a winner?!?! I was clueless and thankful that I was. I did not make the squad that year. But, hey, there’s always next year, right? You’re darn right there is and the next year after that and the next year after that – I tried out for 4 years straight and never got the nod of approval.
But, I’m not a quitter. I like to say, I saved the best for last. My junior year in high school, I was ready. Glasses were gone. I’d been working hard at my gymnastics and had my dad teach me how to project my voice – sista was ready to crush it!! And that I did!! I finally had made it! I made the Varsity squad.
Celebration time – right? I had finally competed and won! So, why wasn’t I celebrating my success? The minute I made the squad, my best friend since 3rd grade, who didn’t make the squad that year, she wouldn’t even speak to me. Now keep in mind, that all of those other 4 years that I didn’t make the cheerleading squad, she DID make it. I never once thought about being upset with her.
My mom took me to Hill’s Drive-In afterwards to celebrate me winning and she still remembers that I didn’t talk about how excited I was. All I talked about was how sad I was that my friend wasn’t there for me anymore.
Shortly after that, our cheerleading sponsor, we called her Ma Bell, pulled me aside. She could tell something was bothering me. I explained what had happened and also said how people that use to never talk to me or even look at me, they were all of a sudden wanting to be my friends. Ma Bell was always so wise and kind – she said, “honey, don’t you worry about them. You got yourself here and you earned it. It’s their loss – you just keep on being you. You know who’s real and who’s not – so just pay attention. You’ll be fine.”
She made the connection for me. She made me realize that it wasn’t about the competition, she showed me with complete certainty that she cared about me and all that other trivial stuff faded away. She pointed me in the right direction.
And, of course, I went on the next year, my Senior year to win my spot on the cheer squad again. Some of my best memories of high school are with that group of girls – summer cheer camps, jumping around in the rain and cold, screaming our lungs out for our team to go to state. It was the community that I cherished more than the accomplishment of my hard work.
My story is a perfect example of the strong cultural narrative of the selfish side of humanity that we just adopt, mostly without question. These systems and behaviors undermine our natural co-operative tendencies. This starts in schools, where the relentless focus on exams and attainment instills in young people the idea that success is about doing better than others. It continues in our marketing culture, which encourages conspicuous displays of consumption and rivalry.
It’s also found at the heart of our workplaces, where employees compete with each other for performance-related rewards. It’s the self-interested behavior that makes it so hard to overcome major societal challenges such as climate change.
This “get ahead or lose out” ethos not only fails to promote the better side of our nature, it’s also deeply flawed. In schools, helping young people to develop social and emotional skills doesn’t just enhance their well-being; it’s also been shown to boost their performance.
In workplaces, research from Adam Grant, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School shows that “givers” – people who help others without seeking anything in return – are more successful in the long term than “takers” – who try to maximize benefits for themselves, rather than others.
There’s a growing body of evidence including a study from the University of Warwick that shows when people feel happier and more connected, they are more productive at work.
So, when it comes to living your excellence, you need to realize, the only competition there is or ever will be is with yourself. Celebrate others successes because they show you what is possible and connect you at a soul level. We are happier when we are connected, we all know this innately. It’s the outside influences that have created this culture of competition. Don’t allow it to alter your course. Stay true to what brings you joy.
I do hope you’ve enjoyed our journey today!! The road to excellence is paved with many stories and it would make my heart sing to know that you spending time with me today has in some way, helped you see the gift that you are to this world.
Thank you for joining me today and until next time, Live Excellence.