As I recall...competitiveness was looked upon as a positive trait. It seemed that most in authority and advisory positions encouraged it. When I first exhibited a competitive nature, it was reinforced. Consequently, it became part of my personality.
From the ages of 9 through 19, my life was mostly a series of "victories." By the time I was 20, I had accumulated piles of ribbons and certificates and hundreds and hundreds of trophies. It got so there was no place to put it all.
"Blessed" with a quick mind, a bit of coordination and a resilient, tenacious nature, I won everything in sight...despite my diminutive size. The first thing I remember winning was the "Camper of Year" award at the Rye Recreation Summer Camp. After that there were awards for high scholastic rankings in grammar school, punt-pass-and-kick, the President's Physical Fitness Award, and all sorts of sporting achievements recognized at the local YMCA. Oh yeah...and of course the watermelon eating contest. And this was all before I was in high school.
I was exposed to Sunfish sailboat racing when I was 12 or so. It wasn't long before I was having success and bringing home trophies for winning regattas. I won my first regatta when I was 14 against a bunch of adults. Recognition followed. I became more competitive.
Once I reached high school, I took up wrestling. Since I was 4'9", 78lbs...and due to the fact that wrestling is organized by weight classes...this was the only high school sport at which I could realistically participate. I took a minor beating while I grew into the 100lb weight class...but eventually I came into my own. By the time I was a senior, I was an All County wrestler in the 107 lb class. I was voted the school's best athlete. Around the same time I received recognition for my scholastic achievements, I gave my senior class valedictorian speech...even though I was not the actual top ranked student.
I continued to pursue sailing throughout high school. Success came quickly. When I was 19, I won the 1976 World Sunfish Championships in Venezuela. I came home a local hero...or so I thought. I was interviewed for a book. They wrote me up in the newspaper. People sent me cards and letters and banners of congratulations. I was selected to participate in a developmental program for sailors at the Olympic training center in Lake Tahoe. My parents glowed. I brought fame and recognition to myself and my family. It all sounds so perfect doesn't it?
But after I won the Worlds, something changed. I had placed great importance on eventually being a world champion. In my mind...this would make everything OK. I'd garner respect...and girls...and well...girls...and, of course, love...and did I mention girls? It didn't go the way I expected.
I'm not sure when it hit me...a day...a week...a month after the "triumph" in Venezuela. But I can only describe it as an emptiness...a kind of desperate dissatisfaction. The sun came up the day after my victory and it was like nothing had happened. Sure there was an afterglow and I got all the pats on the back and all. But nothing had really changed. I was still me...only now my little ivory tower was not so little. In fact, The electric bill for the tower had gone up dramatically. Now what? That quickly became the pressing question.
I glossed over all those years of winning things. I was competitive alright. I was so competitive, I would do anything to win. Did I mention that I cheated on the President's Physical Fitness test...or that I submitted 49 fake book reports in 4th grade...or that I lied about how many laps I did around the Rye "Y" gym in a running competition...or that I cheated on the French regents in high school? Luckily, I got caught with the fake book reports and the laps around the "Y." Those were precious lessons. They helped me cultivate a bit of honesty. I'd have probably gotten caught with the President's Physical Fitness caper but I'm pretty sure our gym teacher was drunk. It's not like I was the world's biggest cheater. It's just that I valued winning over everything. My identity was built on it.
Once I won the Worlds, there was a pressure...a pressure to sustain what I had built...and to do even more. It had become my way of being. I didn't go to school to learn anything. The point of school was to get grades, get recognition and basically keep everyone off your back. I continued to sail and also took up distance running. I made a half-hearted effort at becoming an Olympic sailor but I didn't have the discipline or the skills or the energy and lost interest. I won a bunch more stuff in sailing but it was hollow. There was no joy...only relief. I was confused.
My lists of things I wanted to accomplish were mostly just a bunch of titles or awards I sought to accrue. Pathetic.
Bit by bit... running replaced sailing. I began competing in running and eventually lost interest in sailing. Running was different because you could compete against yourself. It was satisfying because it was such an honest sport. The watch didn't lie. Hard work was rewarded. I began cultivating some more lasting qualities...like discipline.
But even though running was a somewhat kinder, gentler sport, I had, in fact, created my inner monster. I started to notice my feelings toward others. When I went to a sporting competition, I viewed the other participants as people to be outdone. It was a form of disdain really. They were people that I needed to outperform. I had to to place myself above them.
The thing is...these people that show up for running races or any sporting event...they are...well...people. They have feelings and families and needs and problems. They are human beings. They are not there so I can make myself look better by out-performing them. I feel I can do better than that.
No one explained to me that climbing and climbing and elevating yourself over others carries a great price. It distances you from humanity. You may think people respect you, but they mostly resent you. Eventually you need to come down from your tower. If you don't, life will bring your tower down. Ask Lance Armstrong. You can come down voluntarily or involuntarily. I recommend the former. And by the way...the higher the tower, the bigger the splat when you fall. Better to knock it down before it's too big.
When I was 33, I read "Way of the Peaceful Warrior" by Dan Millman. The day I read that book, I chose to change the trajectory of my life...every so slightly. And just like an alcoholic, I began to rehabilitate myself.
I've stumbled and bumbled along....making many mistakes. I've had to accept the ruthlessly competitive aspect of myself while at the same time disciplining it like a small child. It has not been easy. Luckily, I've had a teacher or two that has bravely shown me the utter folly and ugliness of needing to place yourself over others by winning things.
You may find all this a bit confusing. We are taught to win. Actually, it's more like we are programmed to win. And I'm certainly not here to tell you how to be or what to value. Nor am I suggesting sport is bad or that we shouldn't test ourselves or measure performance or develop excellence. Far from it.
I'm just sharing my story. As I grew more and more competitive...and as I needed to finish "ahead" of others... I grew colder in my feelings. Letting go of outcomes and simply competing for the joy of it all...as opposed to needing to beat anyone...helped me grow warmer in my feelings. It's about feelings. It seems to me that's all that matters.
I like the warmer feelings better.