To be or not to be the best (and do I care?)

Dec 09 2015 Published by under career trajectory, priorities

I was having Hanukkah dinner – latkes, homemade applesauce, and local salmon – and chatting with an award-winning poet. She was describing her aborted quest to run an approximately 30 mile trail. The trail is locally famous and home to a yearly race. She was not going to do the race, but just run the length of the trail on her own at a non-competitive pace. “But,” she said, “I’m a competitive person.” So she pushed herself too hard and ended up with a series of injuries that led her to give it up.

Competitive people are my people. I am an academic. I am surrounded by competitive people. I have gotten competitive awards, striven for achievements. I have run races and even a marathon. You would think I would be competitive too. In some ways I am, yet competition is something I struggle with.

I don’t want to be a failure and I was raised to try my best. On the other hand I am very aware of the fact that I cannot be the best at everything and that even to be the best at one thing would be such a long shot as to be a miracle. Moreover, being the best takes effort. And time! I like to use my time for things like watching my boys wrestle. And making pancakes. Pancakes that will never be the best pancakes but that will start my Saturday off right. So I need put any sort of effort at “being the best” in context with these other important activities.

Despite that, I still have a competitive spark. I feel the need to compare myself to others. I still can feel small when compared to impressive people in my life. I am not competitive but I am. I do not feel the need to win the race, but when the race winner is sitting next to me I am left feeling lacking. I do not feel the need to be at the top of my field but when a prize-winning poet is sitting across from me I feel that I may not be holding up my end of the table.

None of it matters, really. I am not going to start winning races because I felt inadequate at a dinner party. But at a point when I am deciding how much I want to lean in or lean out from my career and what that career even is the struggle between being competitive and non-competitive carries weight.

In particular, when I do not even have a career path picked out, it is hard to know how successful I am or even what success means. Is a career in outreach that doesn’t rely on my depth of scientific knowledge make me less of winner than being a scientist? What about if I am senior research associate in industry versus academia? These questions feel frivolous and yet I can’t completely ignore them. I can’t imagine that I’m the only one.

Are you competitive? How does your competitive style or lack thereof affect your career?

4 responses so far

  • chall says:

    I'm competitive. And ambitious. I will admit thought that growing up I didn't see my competitiveness as different from the other children around me. It kind of dawned on me in high school, and undergrad that maybe maybe I was taking the competition a little more serious than some other students. Of course, there are aspects of it that mimic what you say "I do not feel the need to win the race, but when the race winner is sitting next to me I am left feeling lacking." you can't win in every area, pick one and shine kinda thinking.

    I've worked actively with myself to weigh my winning/competitive streak within myself - not with others. It goes so so... One of the biggest things with the competitive streak in me is to broaden my horizons and take a look at "who m I comparing myself to"? Compared with the Nobel prize winner, my science career isn't that successful. However, considering that I've published papers, kept working in the field for over 10 years - I feel that it is competitively ok career.

    How it affects my career decisions? I gave up TT partly after deciding I wasn't as good (nor better) at writing grants and selling my research as the people around me. Partly because I wanted to leave the bench and work more with decision making. It affects me more since I look at new jobs and career ladder planning. I don't want to stay in one job for too long, while "climbing". I'm a little ashamed at times for being so ambitious, and I wonder if I wouldn't be happier/easier if I didn't work on the career so much? Although, I think it's pretty hard to change the spots after so long of being competitive and doing my best all along...

  • Renee says:

    I only recently realized how much I can get psyched out by competition, as well as the feelings of impostor syndrome it triggers. Doing a Ph.D. in a smaller, newly established lab at a top university for my field, I felt a bit intimidated by the students in the more famous high-output labs. As a result, I spent a ton of time generating as much data and poring over as many papers as I could, and graduated having published an impressive quantity of incremental, uncreative research. But then I moved to a different university, joined a postdoc lab that was the only one in our field out of a multidisciplinary department, and I became too busy with my kids to work long hours or spend my evenings reading over other people's papers. With other people's research mostly off my mind, it was SO much easier to "swim in my own lane" and ask research questions that I was actually curious about. I ended up establishing a new experimental system and making some interesting discoveries that were totally off the field's radar. I got a R1 university offer, but instead took a job at a small research station where I know I can be more confident and creative.

  • Flip says:

    How could any of this be better stated? It cot'dnlu.

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