Playing To Win

Why we compete and what purpose does it serve?

Photo by Japheth Mast on Unsplash

I have always taken an odd amount of pride in the fact that I am not a competitive person, often even a bit smug about how primitive and foreign I find the very concept. I am just not that interested. Nope, not bothered at all.

Until I compete, that is.

Some years ago a dear friend and I started doing the Avon Walk-a-Thon that raised money for breast cancer research. Having lost my own mother to the disease, it was very close to my heart. We trained and prepared for the event that was 39.3 miles over a day and a half. It was challenging and immensely rewarding.

Day one of our innaugural race we set out and on the first check point (which was around mile 7) we were told that our pace was in the top 5% of the 3000 participants. Top 5%? We looked at each other with pride and then at the women who were about to pass us and immediately upped our speed to an almost comical velocity, like middle-aged cartoon characters wearing neon pink spandex. I suddenly cared very much about finishing in the top 5%. Me, who was never competitive.

Even playing games with my children when they were very small became a joke in the family about how it is so funny that Mom doesn’t care if she wins. Fortunately, that was true, as fiercely competing against your 7-year-old in a game of Uno would be a bit embarrassing.

Now into middle-age, my character firmly developed, I still think of myself as not being competitive. Then I realized. It is because I never compete.

I am in month two on Duo, learning French to prepare for an upcoming family trip. I have long wanted to learn the beautiful language and now was the perfect opportunity. 20 minutes a day is very manageable and the program is incredibly effective. My only goal was to learn enough not to be the cliched American who doesn’t know a word of French, a much older and much less stylish Emily in Paris, if you will.

After doing Duo for a month, I suddenly discovered the “leader board”. We were being ranked? Against whom? What are XP points I wondered, and why do some have so many more than others? Then it got serious. I found myself head to head with a mysterious avatar named James. We were neck in neck for days. I knew it was silly, my trepidation before I looked at my ranking each morning. Surely he wasn’t as preoccupied or even aware of our Francophiled Call To Arms as I was.

Until one morning I woke up to an emoji on Duo blowing a raspberry at me. From James. I didn’t know you could even do that, and for a minute I thought I might have imagined it. I am still not totally sure.

He was 2000 points ahead of me.

I truly thought that when I said, “Bite me James” to myself after passing him by 5 or 10 points here and there that he must not be as immature or competitive as I had become. He not only cared, he was rubbing my face in it.

And then it hit me.

He was feeling threatened at some level by how close I was getting to beating him. He needed to win. My teenage daughter found this hilarious and told me he must have stayed up all night to get that many points.

So this got me thinking. Why do we compete?

According to Psychology Today, “…some scholars argue, ‘competitiveness’ is a biological trait that co-evolved with the basic need for (human) survival.”

Right. I get that. Two lions, one deer. It’s a thing. But learning French? Seriously? Or walking faster than someone else who also trying to raise money for breast cancer research? That’s just bonkers.

So what is it all about?

Science Direct has another theory, “…We hypothesized that people who are motivated by competition are motivated for at least three reasons: competition allows them to satisfy the need to win, competition provides the opportunity or reason for improving their performance, and competition motivates them to put forth greater effort that can result in high levels of performance.”

And here is the kicker. I think they might be right. When I was oblivious to the wiley ways of my mysterious nemesis, “James”, I did my 20 minutes each day, progressing slowly but effectively enough to order a bottle of wine instead of a glass (don’t judge). But once he challenged me to le duel, the game was on! I was motivated (some might say obsessed, tomato, tomahto), I was working harder…dare I say, I was competing? It felt good. Stressful. But good. It added a new layer of meaning to my daily practice. This wasn’t just for ordering crepes in Paris and telling the taxi driver how many suitcases we had (or valises, just saying), this was war!

Like adrenaline, which I have written about before, we need competition at some level for survival. For growth. To be challenged. It’s like the guy in the fast lane on the freeway who isn’t going fast until you try to pass him. You know, that guy. Every once in a while we need to be shaken out of our stupor and rise to the occasion.

It makes me feel a bit better, slightly less primitive knowing this human instinct serves a purpose.

And James, I know this isn’t a contest. But if it was, I would be winning.

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