This morning I mentioned to a friend that I had increased some of the weights I lift at the gym. She responded by saying “You are SO competitive.”
According to the customary definition of the word “competitive,” I don’t think that’s correct. I’m not concerned with whether I am better or worse than anyone else. Instead, my commitment is to self-improvement. When I set goals for the gym and elsewhere in my life, I have only one opponent: myself.
Perhaps this explains why so few people want to play tennis with me. My own idea of a good game is hitting the ball over the net more than we did the last time. When it comes to playing doubles, well—I don’t understand why I’m expected to hit the ball to an area where the other team doesn’t have someone within easy reach. I suppose I’ve missed the point of the sport, but then, that’s just who I am.
I’m the same way in a learning environment. Last semester I took a university course as a “mature student” and was happy to get a good grade—not because it ranked me as better-than-average compared to anyone else, but rather because I had put strong effort into my assignments. I have no idea what grade other students received, though I do hope it reflects well on their own abilities and effort.
I realize that competition is at the heart of sports, most games and much of human activity. I do understand that measuring one’s progress against the standard of others’ performance can be motivating. But trying to “beat” them just isn’t how my own brain works.
I am often inspired by learning about what others do, even as I hope to be worthy of inspiring others. This quotation from Abdul-Baha resonates with me: “What is inspiration? It is the influx of the human heart.” – Foundations of World Unity, p. 46.
Sincerely admiring others creates a loving, heart-felt response. We see this when spectators applaud the other team or the challenger in appreciation of a great athletic moment, apart from their own affiliation or loyalty. Artists and musicians do this when they are enthused about what others have created.
The Baha’i writings do not prohibit competition within sports, or as a motivator for business and innovation. More relevant for me though, as a Baha’i in today’s complex, messy world, are passages from Abdul-Baha like these:
…the friends should love each other, constantly encourage each other, work together, be as one soul in one body, and in so doing become a true, organic, healthy body animated and illumined by the spirit. In such a body all will receive spiritual health and vitality from the organism itself, and the most perfect flowers and fruits will be brought forth. – Wellspring of Guidance, p. 39.
Today is the day of union and this age is the age of harmony in the world of existence. “Verily, God loveth those who are working in his path in groups, for they are a solid foundation.” Consider ye that he says “in groups”, united and bound together, supporting one another. “To work”, mentioned in this holy verse, does not mean, in this greatest age, to perform it with swords, spears, shafts and arrows, but rather with sincere intentions, good designs, useful advices, divine moralities, beautiful actions, spiritual qualities, educating the public, guiding the souls of mankind, diffusing spiritual fragrances, explaining divine illustrations, showing convincing proofs and doing charitable deeds. – Star of the West, Volume 4, p. 36.
Rather than trying to win, I want to encourage everyone to play. In that context, “play” can mean anything that they endeavor to do, and do well. In honoring the worthiness, dignity and nobility of all people, we can unleash creativity and realize higher potential. We can experience a more supportive environment, since in an overly competitive world only the most talented receive praise. Through encouragement, we can help people with all levels of skill build their capacity to work and to serve.
As I set goals for self-improvement, I realize I have limits. Through practicing the spiritual quality of detachment, I must be willing sometimes to re-define my goals. No matter how hard I try, I’m not going to be a professional ballet dancer, but I can learn to dance. I’m probably not going to be CEO of a Fortune 500 Company, but I can help a local organization find new ways to raise funds. I’m not apt to compete in the Olympics, though I can improve my running speed and endurance—or play a friendly game of tennis.
My goal, in all parts of my life, is to keep improving. With this approach, I can win my own one-person race—and stay ready to cheer on everyone else, too.