Some people simply love to compete. Madeleine Chapman writes in defence of competitiveness.
“Oh my god you’re so competitive.”
Said by my friend in primary school after a particularly intense game of lunchtime rugby. Said by multiple girls at different college athletics days after I actually tried hard to throw the javelin properly. Said by colleagues when they heard my weekend plans. And as I shuffled up the Harbour Bridge on a Sunday morning, 15km into my second half marathon in as many weeks – all because I wanted to beat my little sister’s time – I conceded that maybe they had a point.
Everyone – the dozens and dozens of people who’ve said this to me – were and are correct. I’m very competitive. I have to be or I’d just be lazy. But it’s never said as a compliment. It’s either accusing or said with pity, as if they’re glad they don’t have to live with such a debilitating condition as competitiveness.
There are certain fields where competitiveness is allowed, meaning it’s not called competitiveness. No one would call a student competitive for studying through the night in order to ace a test. Someone campaigning to win an Oscar isn’t competitive. Networking to boost your career isn’t competitive. Except they all are.
An Auckland primary school has cancelled their prizegiving because “schools are not about ranking and sorting”. I don’t remember getting a ranking at my school prizegivings but I do remember not winning anything, along with 99% of the school. Cancelling prizegiving is not a big deal. But I hope it doesn’t signal a discouraging of competition because embracing competition as a kid feels important in a world where everyone is always competing for everything; jobs, homes, Instagram likes. And as in most competitions, almost everyone loses. Learning how to lose comes for everyone at some point in their life. For me, I learned early.
Growing up, everything at 45 Beauchamp St, Karori was a competition. Things that should never be contested were strategised and fought over. My sister – four years older and having to share a room with me – secretly slept in her school uniform in order to win the getting-ready-for-school competition that had silently developed. My brother – two years older – never lost a game of table tennis or driveway basketball. Being the second youngest of ten kids meant I lost in almost everything. But I definitely tried the hardest.
It’s not cool to try hard. It’s especially not cool to try hard when you’re a girl. Girls are meant to make things look easy and effortless. Girls don’t get caught up in competitions. Girls don’t sweat. The only female character in a kids movie I’ve ever seen sweat is Mulan, and she was winning a war. I never understood when other kids would ask me why I tried so hard at sports. Why wouldn’t you?
At kilometre 18, I decided that maybe I didn’t need to try so hard all the time. I hadn’t told many people I was even running a second race because they’d ask why and I’d be forced to admit I was only doing it to beat my little sister. And that’s kind of embarrassing. But it shouldn’t be. Most people run faster when they’re chasing something. And everyone runs faster when they’re being chased. I was chasing my sister because we’re cut from the same cloth, and I knew that only her slower older sister beating her would make her sign up for another race. At the final drinks station I checked my time, realised I was cutting it close, and sped up.
Two Christmases ago, after dinner and dessert, two of my siblings wanted to see who could hold a plank (the ab exercise, not a piece of wood) the longest. As they cleared space in the lounge, more siblings wanted in until we were all on the floor, quietly confident. In a shocking twist, our 62 year old mum, who had never done a plank before, won with a hold of five minutes and 15 seconds. That’s how my family has fun.
Because competing is fun. People think that competitive people only want to win. Winning is fun but competing is better. Which is how I found myself running long distances this year despite hating running. Being competitive means seeing other people doing something and immediately thinking “if they can do that, so can I”. I saw people posing with their medals after finishing a marathon and I thought “if they can do that, so can I”. Turns out I couldn’t. I went for a run and lasted nine minutes. But the next day I lasted 10, then 11, then 15, 30, 60, 90. Competitiveness has been great for my lungs.
In the final 500m of the Auckland half marathon, I nearly cried. I’d been running with deep regrets for a solid hour and that’s a long time to talk yourself out of stopping. Once again I cursed my own competitive nature and decided that enough was enough. No more dumb ideas. A few minutes later, when I crossed the finish line and saw that I’d beaten my sister’s time, I hoped she wouldn’t run again too soon. Because once she does, she’ll beat me and then I’ll be back to training because I just can’t help it alright.
People conflate competitiveness with being a dick. Competitiveness is wanting to succeed and wanting to be better, maybe even the best. Being a dick is being a dick.
I have always tried my hardest in every physical challenge or sport. I have always tried my hardest at work. I never tried my hardest at school. And that’s the only thing I would do differently. I could’ve done with more competitiveness in the classroom, and I know I’m not alone in that. So next time you see someone, young or old, doing something you think is too competitive or they look like they’re trying too hard, see it for what it really is. They’re just trying to be better.
This essay has been an absolute mess and took me far too long to write when really all I wanted to say was please don’t discourage young girls from being competitive. Competitiveness is ambition, something women are only now getting used to. Encourage that in young girls and see what happens. Perhaps if there was some sort of competition attached to expressing these ideas, I’d have written this better.
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The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.