Winning the Race

“Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but co-operation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States

A story about nine mentally or physically challenged athletes has been retold on the Internet and other places, including a short film. The story changes slightly with each retelling, but the following is the most commonly shared version.

The athletes start out in a 100-metre race, not exactly in a sprint, but with a desire to run the race, to finish and win. The group runs in threes and, about half-way through the event, one of the male athletes trips, stumbles and falls onto the track. When the other athletes hear him crying, all stop and come back to help. One of the female competitors sits next to the injured boy, hugs him and asks, “Feeling better now?” Then all nine link arms and walk to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium stands and cheers and the cheering last several minutes.

I would like to believe this tale is true, though I can find no source or definitive evidence to support the assumption. It does, however, make for an interesting thought experiment. When we hear the story, we might assume the athletes did not understand the rules of the game. On closer observation, maybe they knew the rules better than most do.

I’m not suggesting that we live in a world free of competition or a competitive atmosphere. However, it seems apparent that some of us may have taken our competitive drive too far, and nowhere is this more evident than in our corporate world. Many of us seem to be engaged in a dog-eat-dog battle with the goal of bettering our peers.

I once worked with a salesperson who was so aggressively competitive that she actually frightened her colleagues. She would stop at nothing to succeed, including angry outbursts, gossiping and outright intimidation. She saw her peers not as fellow human beings or coworkers but as rivals and competitors to be bested or vanquished.

Despite her impressive sales achievements, she was let go because, quite simply, no one could get along with her. I learned later that this was a recurring theme for her. I often wondered if her competitive nature was actually overcompensation for feelings of inadequacy or poor self-esteem. If such was the case, losing her job would certainly have reinforced those deep and self-destructive beliefs by an act of self-sabotage.

In simple terms, possessing a healthy competitive attitude means having a goal and working hard, or being devoted to its achievement. An unhealthy attitude might involve cheating or unethical behaviour. A healthy attitude would certainly be exemplified by perseverance and an “I won’t give up” mentality. An unhealthy attitude might be evident by an individual taking the shortest route possible, regardless of boundaries.

It seems to me that the most successful and happy people are aware of what others are doing but are actually in competition with themselves – overcoming limitations and exceeding expectations. Having established his athletic supremacy, Al Oerter, American athlete and four-time Olympic champion in the discus throw, once stated, “I don’t compete with other discus throwers. I compete with my own history.”

What are you doing to get ahead? What is your motivation? If poor self-esteem is a factor, then you may damage your well-being by feeling worthless if you don’t finish first. You might also begin to resent those whom you see as better performers.

Here are some questions you might consider asking when it comes to competition. By whose rules am I playing? Am I playing to win at all cost? Who benefits the most from my victory? Who gets left behind? Can I still feel great about myself and my efforts even if I don’t finish first?

Someone once told me that life is about the journey, not the destination. Perhaps, in this case, competition is really about the race and not who crosses the finish line first.

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