The softening of the harsher aspects of my personality has been the on-going battle of my adult life. In high school, I wasn't just the girl who got A's, I was the girl who wanted the highest A in the class and I was ruthless about making sure you knew it. For my entire freshman year at college, I looked for opportunities to insert my GPA, my ACT score or my number of AP credits into any conversation. On the unfortunate occasion that I would meet people who were actually worse about this hyper-competitiveness, they drove me insane. One day I was talking with a neighbor who was going on and on about her copious debate trophies in my same event, and how she was on track to pretty much become queen of the world. She happened to let it drop that the only tournament she'd placed third in was one I had also attended. I saw an opening and said, "Oh, Alta-Tri? I took second at that one." What I said was the truth and I loved the expression on her face; it couldn't have been better if I had punched her.
But it taught me something very valuable: People pretty much HATE this kind of self-aggrandizement, particularly when what you are boosting yourself up about is just so irrelevant.
I was more careful after that instance about making myself seem more than I really was, choosing to focus instead on all that still needs fixing.
The next miracle was a B- in a chem class. Chemistry was pretty much the bane of my college existence. My background in the subject was weak and while I was acing biology and loved my studies there, the chem, for me, was like being dropped into the middle of a third year Latin class. Still, that hard-earned B- was the most liberating thing that ever happened to me. I looked around at all my pre-med buddies busting their chops for grades that I wasn't under the same pressure to obtain, and for the first time in five years I breathed a sigh of relief.
I walked away from that sort of competition. Oh, the red in my personality would not entirely be squelched. I found a love for racquetball, which was a very positive outlet not only for my competitiveness but also my desire to just really smash things sometimes. In areas where I could succeed I did my very best. I joined organizations in part for the fun of it, but also to lead in those organizations and pad my resume. There were times I had intense feelings of jealousy, even when it was people I loved who were on top of the world.
My brother, in his recent comment, seems to be speaking more to the OLD Science Teacher Mommy, however. The sister he grew up with--the one who was a lot more like he is. I'm pretty tough, but I don't think I'm as tough as I once was, if "tough" is equated to competitiveness. Such competitiveness has served by youngest sib very well: you don't get to an internal medicine residency at the U of U without being just about the best. My following remarks are not in any way intended to diminish the great sacrifice and hard work he has put in to be where he is.
What has really gotten me thinking is one of the great enigmas for any person striving to live a life of Christianity. My brother pointed out that we are surrounded by competition in every single aspect of life. It might even be said that competition is the defining characteristic of our society.
A nod here to one of the most difficult conference talks I have ever read for the mirror it held up to my face. President Benson in midst of speaking about pride being the source of contention, enmity and yes, competition quotes CS Lewis, "Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. . . . It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone."
Sean Covey, son of Stephen, wrote a book for teens mirroring his father's "7 Habits." This same quote appears during his discussion of Habit 4: Think Win-Win. He then talks about how in the US, we are raised from infancy with a win-lose attitude--the idea that in order to feel good about ourselves or win or succeed, somebody else must fail. The irony, of course, is that though you have to cut throats and throw people under the bus for years to get into the job that suits you perfectly, your positive performance there is largely dependent on how well you work with others, your ability to get along with co-workers and how your best efforts improve the company's image.
The conclusion about competition that is embedded in the middle of the Win-Win chapter states, "Competition is healthy when you compete against yourself, or when it challenges you to reach and stretch and become your best. Competition becomes dark when you tie your self-worth into winning or when you use it as a way to place yourself above another."
I really love this. Maybe this is why the Michael Phelps phenom is so inspiring--he didn't just beat everyone else, but in nearly every case, he beat his own personal best. He won 8 gold medals two weeks ago because he paid the price to be better every day then he was yesterday. (A brilliant swim by Mr. Lezak and hokey wall-touch I still don't see didn't hurt either.)
In education they often talk about the unspoken and usually offhand messages that are often more powerful than the content a teacher spends hours poring over. It is so easy to send mixed messages to children. We have to be careful that praise of one is not really an attempt to disparage another. We have to set our families up for unity (See President Eyring's September Presidency message), whereas Satan would them compete themselves into discord, jealousy and dissension. As my special-to-me, but averagely talented Scallywag begins full time school next week for the next, at least, 12 years, I want many things. So here is my mother's prayer as I send my strong little boy out into the big world next week:
I hope that he will find his own way independent of what any other thinks is best for him.
I hope that he will learn to have compassion for other kids.
I hope that kids will not be cruel to him or harm him physically, and that he will not act in such a manner.
I hope that he will base his worth on things of the spirit and not on material things.
I hope that he will learn valuable lessons from the setbacks he will undoubtedly have.
I hope he has a desire to continually improve himself, but that he will learn to relax and pat himself on the back from time to time too.
I hope that learning is a joy for him, and that he takes this joy into whatever he becomes.
I hope that he will know that home is more than a place to dump his backpack and get a meal, but that it is a soft place to land at the end of both the great and the difficult days.
I hope that I am strong enough to hang on and let go at the same time.
*Remarks prompted by my brother's late to the party comments from a previous post.