Competitive vs. Comparative

When I worked in Corporate America, the harshest feedback I got was around my competitiveness. All too often people told me that I was “not a team player” and that I was “too competitive”. Along with the feedback came the promise (threat) that I would not be promoted with this approach. So I did what any ambitious person would do: I got very competitive about not being competitive. In my world, competitive became a “bad thing”. The feedback went the other way and I was seen as successful.

Then I became an athlete where competition is the name of the game. Yet I was operating under a that rule called “competition = bad”. Now what? I’ve struggled reconciling this until recently.

My “competitiveness” had an unhealthy facet to it. It was really “comparativeness”. In those days, what I was doing was saying something like “look at me – I’m better than my co-worker, right?” It many ways, it was the oldest game on the planet –  sibling rivalry – in full bloom.

It has taken some deep self-awareness work to understand that my pattern of comparativeness doesn’t serve me in almost any venue. Except maybe in comparing products in the store. Do I want the red shorts or the blue shorts?

To some degree, today’s transparent world of social media helped me see my own tendency to compare. You see it every day, both blatantly and subtly on every outlet from Facebook to Instagram. We compare ourselves to others: Who’s having the best weekend? Who has the coolest pet? Took the most exotic vacation? Has the most likes?

What’s underneath the game is that age old question that every human asks in one form or another: Am I enough? With our personal window into the inner voices, doubts, and failures we carry, it’s easy to look at others and think they might have one over on us. We can’t ever know what it really going on inside someone else. So we compare apples to oranges.

The most put together person you have ever seen might have left a house that is a complete mess or just had the worst fight with a loved one ever. Yet here I am comparing her awesome presentation to my pitiful attempt at graphic design and then linking my ability to make pretty pictures to my value in the world. I leap to these crazy conclusions with the tiniest bit of data.

Comparing confuses my value as a human to my skills. It truly is apples and oranges.

Comparative asks the question: where do I as a human being measure up? Am I enough? Or at least, am I better than you? For many, it comes from that childlike question to mommy – who do you love more? In school, we ask the question of the teacher (sometimes non-verbally – but believe me we ask it): do you like me better than little Johnny over there?
Competitive tests my skills: how do my skills stack up? Am I faster? Or stronger? Or where do my skills fit in whatever the measuring stick of the competition decides?

When we operate from comparatives, it’s not for the win, although it feels like that. It’s actually for validation. Do I belong here? Am I enough? In its most evil form, comparative actions go to great lengths to put others down so that I can fare well in the comparison. “At least I’m not lazy, dumb, late, slow…fill in blank.”

Taking my comparativeness off the table while allowing my competitiveness to flourish is not easy. It will be a struggle for the rest of my life – yet one worth tackling.

Where do you confuse your value as a human to your ability to do something? Where do you put someone’s economic value above their human value? What makes you decide someone is “better than” someone else?

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