Tuesday, November 6

9 Days Left: Competition

9 days left until the merge is complete. Today's glimpse into my life is about competition.

My family and extended family is the most competitive bunch I know. Not kidding. We turn picking weeds into a competition, complete with handicaps for age brackets. Swinging on the playground swing set becomes a "who can jump farthest" set, then "who can do the best backflip out of the swings." We cordon off the pool at reunions to have swimming races, race to the top of mountains, then back to the bottom, try to find the most red shells at the beach, pick up the most dust while cleaning, catch the most candy out of the air at parades, not fall off the monkey bars even after doing them four hundred times, run around the house the most before falling down flat, and all the usual competitive games with an extra ounce of flair. You get the picture.

As the oldest of the oldest, I was heavily indoctrinated and probably a big part of the traditions. And so competition became a big part of my life. I rose in the ranks of family Boggle competitions from winning nothing as a little kid to being able to beat anyone in my teenage years. In sports, I was a competitive swimmer, and somehow rose in the ranks of swimmers in the state until I was among the top. I was so enamored with winning that I kept a soccer trophy (the only thing I kept from my kindergarten soccer years) and draped all my ribbons over the player's neck. Eventually it was just this massive wad of blue fabric, with the occasional medal from junior olympics or a multi-state meet.

Then something happened.

I don't know exactly what it was, or how it happened, but all at once I lost my desire to win. I think it may have been realizing that the guy in my same lane had put in a lot more effort than I did, and never got first place. He never won except on the relay. All I did was swim. Or maybe it was the looming realization that winning would take over my life. Training for the olympics, or staying on a competitive team, had already taken years of my life away and promised to take as much as I would let it. And what did I have to show for all my winning? A mound of blue ribbons. A folder full of clipped newspaper articles. The ability to win every swimming race at family reunions. I felt like I was going through a mid-life crisis as a teenager.

So I quit. I quit everything that year - band and marching band, the swim team, and a host of other aspects of my life. And I tried to rewrite who I was so that I could focus on being places where it was harder and where I would have to struggle and fight to win. Looking back, that was one reason why in the years since I've branched into different experiences in life instead of simply focusing on one.

Today I look at competition with more complex view. As part of my undergraduate studies, I looked at the nature of competition and how different types of competitive environments shape the enculturation aspect of games - who the best players become as they travel deeper and deeper within the game. Games are a cultural experience that, like other environments, incentivize and motivate behavior according to the rules of the game. And the longer that players spend in the game, the more they are forced to adhere to the unique incentives that the game creates. And the more that happens, the easier it becomes for their brains to accurately follow those behaviors... and, by definition, the easier it is that those same behaviors will cross over into life.

Which explains part of why I'm still a deeply competitive person. Why my adrenaline races when I hear or even think the words, "Swimmers, take your mark!" And why I'll still compete against anyone who challenges me from the starting block. And win.


  1. I grew up in a family that wasn't all the competitive. Sure, I competed with my little brother in video games. When it comes to card or board games, my mother was pretty competitive, and it carried over to me. Oddly, I've found that physical sorts of competition (wrestling/sparring) tend to make me feel very uncomfortable. Probably because it always seemed to be more about dominance and less about simply learning my own strength. When it came to competition in jr. high and high school, I usually shied away from being too competitive with other boys in gym class.

    I still feel the same way as an adult.

  2. My Dad was super-competitive and my Mom was super-non-competitive. I took more after Mom.


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