On being competitive

I just entered a writing competition and am now sitting with the familiar buzz of “maybe”.

I wonder if they’ve started reading the stories? Maybe. I wonder if they’ve read mine? Maybe. I wonder if so-and-so entered? Maybe. I wonder if I’ll be shortlisted? Maybe.

Of course, I want to win. I love the tingly excitement of competition. When the lists come out, I love to scan them. Seeing your own name listed is delicious – a physical rush, and reading the gorgeous email that starts, “Congratulations!” is magic. The joy of claiming first prize is intoxicating and far outweighs any failure (failures happen if you try new things – they can be expected and ignored). Even when I don’t get listed, I enjoy the effort and excitement. I love the hunt.

Still, I’ve learned to be cautious about competitions.

As a young woman, I was fierce and competitive, but then I had kids in this fierce, competitive world, and I started to see how competition could both enable them to work and achieve, but also to judge themselves and others by external measures, which felt like precarious ground.

At the school gate, I saw ringside parents competing vicariously via their children, pushing kids to the next piano grade, the faster run time or to join the football A-team. I stood by rugby pitches with parents screaming abuse at eight-year-old players (this is not rare). I heard comments at parents evenings about children who had “failed” some adult expectation. Once a parent asked a group of children – including one of mine – how they’d fared in an academic exam, and then asked their child why they’d not achieved as much as the friends beside them.

Stop.

There have to be times when we don’t compete.

Effective competitiveness requires mental agility. I drew my children away from the trophies and medals, to look at what we’re trying to achieve.

External validation, by way of certificates, trophies, medals, run times, shortlists, praise, PR, prizes and Twitter boasts can be intoxicating and a valid reward for hard work, but mustn’t be the carrier of self-worth, or control us to the exclusion of intellect, decency or compassion. External validation will always be capricious, skewed by the weather, the day, our genes or health, our privilege (or lack of it), and human subjectivity – to name a few variables. To rely on other people’s “winner” labels seems a likely recipe for fragile self-confidence and fear of failure – not a path to realising dreams.

But how do you teach children in a competitive world to not be over-reliant on “success” or fear failure, yet still value and enjoy success?

Well, mine learned to speak by hearing my voice, over and over, and they learned to walk by standing on my feet, over and over, so it seemed obvious: to learn how to deal with failure, they needed to watch me fail. Over and over. And, possibly, also succeed.

We wrote stories for fun, and enjoyed them. I submitted a few that didn’t win, but we also wrote to grandparents and friends, to say hello, and my children learned that their writing had the power to affect other people. I told them that the reader is more important than the prize.

We walked up mountains, and got sore feet. We didn’t go to the summit if someone was tired, and yet we saw beautiful views and enjoyed happy (and grumpy) times together. When everyone was OK, we made it to some spectacular summits.

We ran Parkrun and got some decent times, but we also ran some very slow runs and I even managed, on a day when my child felt ill, to come last. (Go me.)

Every time we climbed a mountain, they learned a little more about their limits and abilities, and saw some of mine. Every time we ran, I said to them, whichever of you is slowest, I’ll be right behind you. You’ll never come last, or be left behind.

Turning away from a mountain summit in clear view hurts, it’s too tantalising… but I know the mountains; they’re gorgeous but they can be dangerous – and they’ll be here tomorrow. Walking behind a child who’s only one breath from giving up on a run while everyone else gallops past can feel equally counter-intuitive, until you ask if they’re OK and reach out to hold hands, and then the following week hear them asking someone else if they’re all right. I went for a work-related position, but had to withdraw. I cursed and spat and explained to my kids that I was disappointed – but also that I’d get it another time, somewhere else. Then we ate pies.

Before I had children, I’d always made it to the summits, always ran at my own pace (although I’m more of a stayer than a sprinter), and had never been turned down for a job that I wanted. While trying to balance success and failure for my children, I learned that I hate slowing down, but also started noticing the people who couldn’t – people who were so afraid of failing that they’d drive themselves into a state rather than dial it back. Parents hounding their children or trying to beat them (why?) or driving themselves from injury to injury without enjoying the view. Adults so desperate to get their hands on medals that they don’t notice that a child’s hands are trembling, or that another child looks like they’d love to have a go, but daren’t ask because they’ve never been picked.

I wonder whether the children in these adults’ care will become incredible, driven athletes, or entrepreneurs – or whether they’ll hate running and risk? I wonder if they have the right idea, and I’m just growing soft in my old age? Or will my children be better at forming the lasting alliances that are necessary for robust happiness and long-term success? I don’t know. Before my children compete, I want them to know their competitiveness for what it is, and to master it. To consciously choose to push hard and win, or to lean back and relax, to stop if it looks dangerous, or to sacrifice a win to help someone else if that’s the decent thing to do. Life didn’t come with instructions, though, so I might just be messing it up.

Time will tell.

My children are no longer toddlers and I now have occasional moments when I can charge up a hill as fast as I can, or get up at dawn to write. In the background, I’m driving myself harder and harder, building muscle and a body of written work, because some day soon, my children will outgrow me and I’ll want to test myself again. But not yet.

My youngest has asked to run with me tomorrow.

I’ll be there, talking about the trees, spotting birds, and listening to his feet pounding a sweet little steady beat as I lollop along, already feeling like a winner, right behind him.

 

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