Competition

It is fair to say I enjoy competition.

I knew I liked competing from a young age, but in many ways I internalized competition. As a child athlete, of course, I wanted to win games, but overall I think I was more interested in morphing myself into the best athlete I could.

That meant hours in the weight room in high school, even though the guys in there spread rumours that I was a lesbian and said horrible things to my face involving four-letter words, I kept going because I had weight-lifting goals that I knew would translate to better performance on the field. Apparently, varsity baseball players find it intimidating when a girl can bench press more than they can.

It also meant Saturdays in a freezing gymnasium in Wisconsin working on catching skills. Setting up a couple feet from the wall on the hard gym floor, while softball and baseball pitchers twice my age hurled fastballs and changeups in my direction. I hated the noise my shin guards made when sliding across the wood floor, just as much as the time I had to spend after practice scrubbing the area behind the plastic home plate to remove all of the scuff marks I had created diving for pitches. If I couldn’t stop the ball with my glove, it would bounce off the wall and come back and hit me. After several fastballs to the back of the head, I became very good at catching things.

And though I am intelligent, all of the academic competitions of my childhood came with keeping my grades above average and staying engaged in the classroom, instead of reading Johnny Bench biographies and issues of Sports Illustrated. My fear for crowds made me an early departure from the spelling bee. I knew how to spell the words, but I was more interested in sitting down in the auditorium than standing on stage.

I never really cared for trophies, nor did I rush home to put every A I got on the refrigerator. I suppose that humble attitude followed me to adulthood, where I am finding there are really two ways to categorize people and their love of competition: the ones who internalize their successes, and those who make everyone around them miserable with their boastful attitude for every achievement.

As an awkward and shy child, who bloomed into an even more awkward and shy adult, I’m a master of internalizing competition.

I put myself through graduate school as some sort of self-competition. The challenge? Finish two degrees in fields that I found interesting, but were extremely challenging beyond my entering skill-set. As someone who was never quite sure that going to college, in general, was a good idea, it was a bit of a stretch, not to mention I decided to study Finance–which began as another competition: could a severe dyslexic become the master of all things numerical? I’m not sure what happened along the way, but fortunately for my wallet and self-esteem, I found that I do love numbers and spreadsheets. And while I can analyze data with the best of them, if you give me your telephone number orally, I will struggle to write down the numbers in the correct order.

I did finish those degrees–and since I am seemingly finished collecting college degrees like trading cards, I found a job post-graduation. But the job never became an opportunity to beg for congratulations and attaboys. Sure, I mentioned it on Facebook and Twitter. I told some close friends I would be leaving Chicago–but beyond that, I don’t think anyone really knows what I do for a living… not because they are not interested, but because I become a bumbling mess when someone asks me to describe what I do for a living. Not because my work isn’t challenging and interesting, but I got the job and the education for myself–not to impress someone else.

I use my business card holders for baseball cards. I wish I were joking, but when someone asked me for a business card the other day at a coffee shop, upon seeing my work ID, I reached in my bag, fumbling for the new business card holder that I received as a gift recently, I pulled it out to find it full of 2011 Topps Heritage Cards. I suppose in some situations it’s best to be confident in ones’ abilities and titles–because I don’t think he would believe that I was actually Jon Lester, from Tacoma, Washington with a 3.53 career ERA. Resourcefully I wrote my work email address on his coffee-sleeve. A memorable and awkward experience, which seems to categorize most of my interactions, really.

And for those who know me well, they know that being overweight has always been a struggle. And though I have always been active and focused on being healthy, it wasn’t until last October that I had the support I needed medically to focus on that. And that meant running daily, at least five miles, even on days when I felt my legs would fall off and I felt like puking. And it meant no longer drinking beer, partaking in Chicago’s deep dish traditions, and no more late night runs to Margie’s for ice cream. And fifty pounds lighter, I feel good about all of the hard work I put in to improve my health. And while I’m slowly working back into a work-out routine after an unexpected back surgery, only a few close friends realize I have been so fixated on improving my well-being…. because sometimes the only person we are competing against is ourselves, Orville Redenbacher, and his friends, Ben and Jerry.

For me, in most situations, it’s enough to be proud of myself.

Sometimes there is a propensity, on my lowest and most insecure days, to reach out and seek validation that my decisions are on the right track, but I am struggling in a world where I am surrounded by people who must continually assert how fabulous and wonderful they are.

Have you ever met someone who went to Harvard? While I have a small sample size and as an aspiring statistician I should be warned of making conclusions for such, but it seems that within the first five minutes of conversation, somehow, it’s going to come out that they went to Harvard. Perhaps I mention I like the Red Sox, and they mention that they used to go to games when they could sneak away from their demanding class schedule at Harvard. Or perhaps we are having a conversation about the weather, in which they pipe up about how cold winters can be in Cambridge, on the campus of the university they attended (which by the way is called Harvard). Or even still, maybe it’s in the signature line of the emails they send. Which seems absurd, but I have seen it happen.

What came first? The education or the attitude of competition that they were somehow better than everyone else? (and I’m sure someone reading this is an incredibly humble ivy-league graduate…who wants to leave a comment telling me that not everyone from those schools would respond this way, but then you’d have to mention you went to Harvard, thus furthering my point).

But the art of competitively throwing every achievement in someone’s face can start on any level.

Perhaps you are a really good cook and insist on sharing your recipes even though no one is listening.

Or maybe you too have lost weight and feel the need to shove your new workout routine and diet down everyone’s throat, when weight-loss is really just as simple as burning more calories than you eat.

And I am sure your toddler is incredibly advanced for his/her age, which is exhibited by the fact that they do something that is so ridiculously cute that you must alert anyone who will listen because it is important that toddlers are good at things.

And yes… your blog has a lot of unique hits a day, the shampoo you use really does smell better than anyone else’s, and the guys that pass on the streets really are smiling at you because you are the prettiest girl that has walked by all day (not because you have something stuck in your teeth).

It is human nature to want to be good at things. I’d also submit that it is probably human nature to want to share your victories with others, especially when your victories can be weighed against your peers and you can rightfully claim yourself as the most spectacular person to ever be spectacular… but what is it all for?

And in the age of humblebrags, blatant brags, and arm sprains for perpetually patting oneself on the back, it is important to remember that the best source of competition comes from within: in those events where the victories are for no one other than yourself.

The next time you get a promotion, your toddler makes exceptional macaroni art, or you finish a marathon you’ve been training months to finish…. do us all a favor: pop the cork on a bottle of champagne, pour yourself a victory glass, and think about what the accomplishment means to you personally, rather than demanding everyone around you to partake in the celebration…. because the person whose life is affected by your wonderfulness is your own, not those around you.