I was recently stuffing envelopes (so glamorous) with a co-worker when I off-handedly commented on her hidden competitive streak. Without missing a beat she replied, “oh no, there’s not a competitive bone in my body, I’m just terrified of being left behind.” Once she realized that the extra bin had been done earlier and we were actually moving at about the same speed, her cutthroat demeanor melted away and I realized that she had exhibited what I read as competitive behavior to mask feelings of inadequacy. And this was stuffing envelopes!

Competitive thinking is a powerful tool; I wonder how often it is misdiagnosed. When I think of competitive individuals I think of confident, self-assured women and men who tend to presuppose their value and success. Is there another group of competitive people? A group filled with those who seek speed and achievement primarily to avoid standing out as slow underachievers? Does it really matter what motivates us? Is there a difference between wanting to stand out as the best and wanting to avoid standing out as the worst?

Trying to Succeed…Or Just Not Fail?

For the “competitive” individual, there is absolutely a difference. Success is a good thing, and seeking it motivates behavior to a positive end. Failure is a bad thing, and seeking to avoid it (rather than seeking to achieve a good thing) motivates behavior for an entirely different reason. Both have their place, but to be primarily motivated to avoid something negative instills a very different understanding of self than choosing to act in order to achieve something positive. The truly confident man says “I can beat him because I am good at my craft. I will beat her because I have put in the time, sweat and tears.” The fearful man says “I had better beat him or I will look ridiculous. I had better beat her or why would they want to keep me on the team?” This self talk is powerful. If not initially, eventually we will believe it.

What does this look like in the spiritual life? I can’t help but think back to the common saying that “doing right for fear of hell is better than doing wrong.” I think we would all agree, especially teachers and parents, that sometimes you’ll take what you can get and any motivation in the right direction is acceptable. And I don’t disagree, but to remain there is not healthy and leaves you impotent to become the best version of yourself. No saints have come about because they feared the wrath of God. Saints are born because they love the love of God. They endure the trials and sufferings of this life with joy because to know God is worth it. He heals their pain, strengthens their resolve and does not disappoint in his promise to love them to new heights.

Realizing My God-Given Potential

The Michael Jordans and Steve Jobs of this world did not get to where they are because they did not want to come in last. They sought the limit of their abilities and sacrificed to discover those limits. The competitive gene doesn’t have to say “I don’t want to be the worst.” It doesn’t even have to stop at “I want to beat my peers.” It can come to rest in “I want to realize my God-given potential.” In this God-and-I relationship, the motivation is internal, and any guru or life-coach will tell you that all the time you focus on other people is time you are taking away from concrete, personal growth.

Competition breaks records, cures disease, and unlocks the astounding beauty in the world around us, but only the confident, brave version. Looking at the guy next to you can only keep you in-pace or a step beyond. Losing track of the guy next to you allows you to run as fast as you are physically able. Comparative competition, believe it or not, inhibits us. Prayerful competition knows no limits.