How to deal with competition

Trial Run by Zara Picken

Personally, I hate competition.

When I was young, I was on the running team. I was also skinny and light on my feet – it seemed destined that my long limbs were pegged to win medals. But it just wasn’t to be. As I saw Azda (my classmate – who also has these long, crazy limbs) overtake me on the field, that was it. I threw in the towel.

I was also took part in rhythmic gymnastics – and enjoyed it (except for the fact there were a few catty girls) and it was competition sport all right. You’d see who could jump faster, higher, twirl better, and handled their gear perfectly; all while looking nonchalantly perfect in their skin-tight leotards.

I also learned to play the piano, week after week, and successfully reaching seventh grade before I stopped for my high school exams, only to never resume it again. I was relieved though. While I love the piano, having to earn those certificates quickly dissolved any interest I had in pursuing it seriously. And not especially when you have a younger sister who could recognize a note just by hearing it by ear, and an affinity for singling out tempo like no other.

The problem with these scenarios was that I thought I was competing with other people, but as a matter of fact, it was an internal battle instead. I had gone into each sport and field, fully intent on wanting to have fun, but had turned it into a competition instead, and every other person was an opponent that I had to best. And once that thought seeped in, there was no turning back.

So yes, I don’t like competition.

Or if you drill it down, actually the fact is – I don’t like to lose.

So throughout my career, I made sure that I was the best at things, and I made a conscious decision to chose not to pursue things where I would come in second best, no matter how hard I tried. I knew that in my heart of hearts that everything was an experiment, and I wasn’t afraid to go out there and give things a go and see if it’s a fit. And if it’s not? Then I’ll try something else until I find something where there was no competition.

But I found out that this thinking wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For one, there isn’t such a field where there isn’t competition. Everything is a competition. And I had to accept that. But I made some internal changes in the way I perceived competition, because other than the fact that being overtaken by someone else is a natural part of life, it doesn’t automatically mean that you’re on the losing end.

Especially when you’re not measuring yourself to other people’s version of what makes one a winner.

Does winning mean getting that dream car? Or that dream house?

Or does it mean getting married at a certain age, or having 2.5 kids?

Or does winning mean ultimately being happy on your own terms, hands caked with paint and smudges of chalk on your face?

For me, it’s about being happy with what I do. Wealth to me isn’t just money, it’s knowledge, experience and passion combined – and I’m lucky to be able to share it with people who care about the same things I do. Now that’s something that can’t be measured against anyone else but myself. And when everyone wins, it’s not a competition. It’s a real fun party.

So here’s my take: not everything is competition sport – especially not life.
Make up your own sport.
And then make up your own rules.
Take whatever nasty (but well-meaning) stuff that bystanders say with a pinch of salt, and let your cheerleaders spur you on.

I guarantee that if you do, you and the people around you will emerge as winners every time.


How do you deal with competition? Do you feel that you’re competing all the time, or do you rock your boat to your own rhythm? What has worked for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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[Illustration by Zara Picken]

10 Replies to “How to deal with competition”

  1. Dana says:

    This reminds me of when Charlie Sheen went nuts and was going around making wild speeches about “winning.” I wondered what he was talking about since everyone thought he had lost his marbles. But winning and success can be a mind set. Charlie Sheen and anyone else can be a winner if they live on their own terms and are happy doing it.

  2. Cindy Tan says:

    Now, this is my kind of post. I used to and still do feel like everything I go into ends up being a competition.

    I love design- graphic design to be specific and I’m going to school for it right now. But I’m starting to notice that instead of feeling ecstatic and overjoyed about the fact that I have the opportunity to learn all about this field, I feel as though I have to beat every classmate with each assignment I get. I was always afraid that if I went into something that I loved and decided to turn it into a career, I would end up hating it. Now I’m starting to feel like that’s happening.

    I’m one of those people who are competitive on the inside- while I’m not showing aggressive qualities or anything like that, I work furiously to produce work that I think will “beat” my classmates.

    Just writing this right now made me think of Jessica Walsh, who is one of my all time heroes right now. I just attended one of her lectures last week and she stressed the idea of WORK and PLAY so much. The best work is produced when play is involved and when you’re actually motivated because you enjoy doing it and when you’re seeing it as more of a hobby. I’m hoping I’ll eventually reach that point where competition won’t be the thing that’s holding me back from enjoying an assignment or project.

  3. Gaia says:

    As a teenager I briefly joined my school’s ski team. I loved skiing, I could be out for hours without feeling tired or bored. I enjoyed the company and fun, for me skiing has always been a group activity, like going on a hike with friends. I was then surprised to find out that being part of a team was not the same…
    Competition, made everything different and took all the fun out of something I loved. Also the “clique” attitude was something I hated. Why can’t I go socialize with the kids in the other team? The instructor said I wasn’t “angry” enough for competitions, despite my good technique. I agreed, not only I wasn’t “angry” enough, I wasn’t interested at all! I was missing the whole point. That’s competition for me, in all its forms, work included.

    Later in my life, I dealt with all sorts of competitive people, some very close to me. Now like with the ski team, I leave. It’s something that puts me off and it’s not the fear of losing. I think we all deal with rejection letters and small or big failures, but to me it’s always a very personal thing. I don’t compare my failures with other people’s victories, because they’re very different things. Sometimes I see work in print I don’t like and think I wish I had that opportunity. I think it’s normal… It’s important to find a balance and keep a critical eye on what we do, though. Without it, we just sit on what we are already good at, without ever moving forward.

    I look at those I admire with great respect. Sometimes they remind me why I love doing what I do, rather than feeling the sting of competing with them.
    This is the reason why I often follow others personal projects with more enthusiasm than my own projects. I don’t know how they will develop and I don’t have to do any work, sometimes, I only give opinions. Mostly I enjoy the show and I’m grateful when these people share their work with me. Why should I compete with them? It would only take the fun out of our work and our friendship. I prefer to be surprised by other talented artists, rather than disappointed.

  4. Gaia Bordicchia says:

    The comment above is mine, by the way. I’m a children’s illustrator. Otherwise maybe it doesn’t make much sense! 🙂

  5. Reeta says:

    This is my first time commenting here 🙂

    Competition is a funny thing really! It can bring out the best and the worst in people. It can motivate you to work harder and reach heights that you never thought you could attain. But it can also bring to the fore feelings for resentment, jealousy, bitterness and such.

    Like you very correctly pointed out, it really is an internal battle. The external is but a trigger for what already resides within us. If that sounds a bit too abstract, it’s because it probably is!

    On a more practical note, here’s what I have observed – when I find myself fighting a losing battle, but keep persevering regardless, very miraculously new doors open up that take me into a whole new direction. So I guess in every situation, there isn’t a single finish line!

  6. Meijie says:

    I recognize myself in what you said about the competition being for happiness rather than a final price.

    I can not stand competition… I don’t know where it comes from, but make it a competition and you are sure that I will not take it seriously anymore. How many times have I ruined a game of familly soccer because my uncles took it sooooo seriously.
    My dad is the same actually. He comes from a family of 5 brothers, (my 4 uncles who looove to play soccer), he always was the smallest, the one that ran slowest and the weakest. Today each time he comes on the feild, you can bet that my uncles counts the points right away and call the winner because game is over, we are going to have fun now.

    So maybe it is the father figure that showed that if you can’t win might not make it a competition, might as well have fun. But make sure that what ever you do take seriously, you will enjoy giving your best to it and we will call it a win.

  7. Angela says:

    I really relate to this post! Competition is what held me back about putting myself out there for so many years. But as you explained, it wasn’t about others out there, it was my own inner struggle to find my own self-worth. It took me a very long time to feel good about myself and my life, and through that, I rewrote the rules of my life. Now, I don’t even care or think about competition, because I’m not doing what I do to gain recognition. Rather, I do it because I love to. That is, in itself, its own rewards, and funny enough, NOW people have started noticing me and showing me appreciation (of which I am immensely grateful) 🙂

    Moral of the story: always be true to yourself. I learned you can find your own way to do things in life, more in tune with how you really tick, and that is what will give you the greatest satisfaction, not some giant pot ‘o gold.

  8. Ooooo! Great post! I am quietly, a very competitive person with others but ultimately with myself. I will be looking at the websites of successful graduate illustrators & thinking…’I’m doomed. I’m nearly 30 & nowhere near this good’.

    I’m also a high school art teacher & was very inspired when reading up on the work of Vincent van Gogh. Tomorrow we’ll take a load of kiddos on a trip to look at his work. He only worked for 10 years as an artist, ppl told him he was no good, he wasn’t natural gifted in some areas & he had to really struggle to learn his craft. Yet he was SO GOOD at what HE DID. He kind of ‘invented his own sport’.

    Another inspirational story for me is that of Lisa Congdon. She’s a super-successful illustrator but didn’t start painting until she was 31 & is self-taught. In such a super-competitive industry it’s good to hear that success comes about in many different ways, in the form of many different artistic approaches & creative people! There’s no use-by-date on your potential ;)x

  9. Liza says:

    I’ve actually given up on something because I tried to turn my hobby into a job. It was frustrating and I felt jealous of seemed to easily churn out thousands of words with ease while I struggled with a sentence.

    So what I’ve done now is write down all the reasons I like my new hobby- what’s so cool about it and what actually got me into this field.

    I make it a point to go back to it again and again. Of course it doesn’t always guarantee enthusiasm when I’m down, but it helps if I keep constantly reminding myself. The key is to have fun. There are always new things to learn and that you’re competition is yourself.

  10. Ashley says:

    In my early and mid 20’s seeing other people that were getting farther than me or had better work would discourage me from doing anything. I felt like I could never compete and if I wasnt already on their level then I was never going to make it. Now, in my late 20’s, I’ve realized I’m not on anyones timeline but my own. If it takes me longer to get somewhere thats ok, because the journey is whats important. Also just seeing others that have made it makes me want to work harder.

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