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?