I’ve often wondered where our urge to win stems from. What prompts us to want to come first? Why is coming second or third not good enough?
As a kid, I was always taught that winning isn’t everything and yet when it came to class tests or sports meets, my parents would set the bar so high that, sometimes, it was almost impossible to reach.
As an abstract concept it worked well, but in reality, not so much.
When the report card came, instead of congratulating me on scoring 92 percent in the finals, my dad would ask, “Who came first?” followed by “How could she score 95 percent and you couldn’t?”
Dejected and teary-eyed I’d head to my room.
Later I would be taken out to dinner as a “treat” and mom and dad would look proudly at me, encouraging me to study harder, nudging me to go that extra mile.
I was a bright kid — they didn’t want to see my talent go waste. And they knew that out in the world, coming first was going to get me places. No one cared if you were one of the top three, let alone the top five, they reasoned.
Some children cheated — took little “chits” to class, had their art projects completed by their moms, indirectly bribed the teachers.
Because winning meant too much.
And since everyone was doing it, it was somehow justified.
So much for the mandatory moral science classes all of us attended.
I was too self-righteous. And my mom was too busy.
Most of all, I couldn’t lie to myself.
Because at the end of the day, all said and done, you might have good grades on paper, but in your heart you know you’re a failure. You may have it but you know you didn’t deserve it.
I didn’t want sleepless nights.
I knew my parents had a lot of expectations from me, but I had decided early on that my best is all I could give it. And if it wasn’t good enough to earn me the best spot then so be it.
Even today I see my friends urge their toddlers to out run each other, to come first, to be better … nay, to be the best.
Because what good is second-best?
And every time someone says, “it’s all about participation,” or “it’s all about having fun” — they’re perceived as talking to the losers’ club.
But isn’t that really the essence of competitions? The ability to show one’s mastery over a subject or a sport with the help of an opponent? About enjoying yourself?
It’s not about showing the world that you’re the best, it’s about being the best you can be. There’s a distinct difference between the two.
That’s not how the world works, though.
Winning and cheating go hand-in-hand. We learn that there are moral, social, economic repercussions for those who cheat; that those people pay somehow, some time, somewhere…but when we look around us we find them getting better grades, more money, more power.
The hunger to win feeds corruption. It brings out not only the best, but also the worst in us.
Think about it the next time you feel dejected about your (or your children’s) less-than-desirable performance report.
If you gave it your best shot, be content.
This is an abstraction that when applied in reality will serve you well.
Read David’s well-written post on the same subject, especially the study [PDF] he refers to about bronze medal winners in the Olympics who were “simply happy to have received any honors at all (instead of no medal for fourth place).”
In the end it’s all about perception — the one you have of your self outweighs what anyone else thinks of you.
Go get ’em, tiger!