Wednesday 14 June 2023

I Hope We All Make It

I’m not interested in competing with anyone. I hope we all make it.
— Erica Cook

The inspiration for this post was an unattributed quotation I saw on social media: “You can’t compete with me. I want you to win too.” It reminded me of a similar quotation by psychologist and author Erica Cook: “I’m not interested in competing with anyone. I hope we all make it.” Later that day, I saw another meme along similar lines: “It’s OK to clap for your friends if their dream takes off before yours.”

Bowing to coincidence, I thought I’d write about success and competition. It’s not the first time I’ve done so. A few years ago I discussed competition and collaboration in the blogging world. More recently, I explored living second-hand through the experiences of other people. Whether we’re living vicariously or not, it’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to the people around us. For one reason or another, we tend to judge their lives, situations, and successes, as better or more worthy than ours. Having taken that step, envy, jealousy, and resentment are rarely far behind. Why do we do this? Why should the success of other people leave us feeling poorer?

Life Isn’t a Zero-Sum Game

The term zero-sum game derives from game theory. It describes a situation in which the one player’s gain necessarily involves the other player’s loss. While there are real world situations in which this applies, the term is often used out of context. The socio-political dangers of doing so are explored in The Zero-Sum Fallacy at Poverty Cure. I want to focus on some of the personal implications, because in the majority of situations, individual success is not a zero-sum game. You might disagree with that assertion, so let’s look at two seemingly win–lose scenarios: job interviews, and sport.

If you and I apply for the same job and there’s only one position available, your success necessitates my failure, and vice versa. We can’t both win. This seems a clear zero-sum situation, but success and failure are not always so easily distinguished. My first post-graduate interview was for a hospital pharmacist role. I was unsuccessful, but a couple of weeks later they got in touch and offered me the job. Their first choice had dropped out. I’d made other plans in the meantime, but it’s an example of apparent failure turning into success. Three years later I applied for a job with a major pharmaceutical company in the northeast of England. I didn’t even get an interview this time, but was that a failure? They kept my application on file and a while later offered me a research position in Newcastle I was happy to accept. I’ve lived here every since.

Successful or not, preparing for and attending an interview focuses you on your skills and experience, which can improve your chances in the future. It can also help clarify what you’re looking for. One dreadful all-day interview at Oxford University convinced me I never wanted to work in such an environment. It was the only time I’ve left an interview hoping they wouldn’t select me. The successful candidate and I both won that day.

What about sport, though? Surely, that’s one sphere where winning is everything and second-place is nowhere at all. It’s true that certain sports are geared to zero-sum, win–lose outcomes. Golf and tennis spring to mind. Others such as football (soccer) and cricket allow score-draw results in which both teams win (or, to put it another way, neither loses). Other activities eschew zero-sum logic altogether. Roleplay gaming is a great example, focusing as it does on collaborative storytelling, character development, and team work.

No matter the gameplay, sport can bring benefits regardless of whether you win or lose. These include socialising, physical fitness, and improved mental health. For more on this check out the website of Sport in Mind, a charity founded “[to] improve the lives of people experiencing mental health problems through sport and physical activity.”

What Is Success, Anyway?

In the modern world, the prime metrics of success are academic achievement, money, and power or influence. As I explored in Celebrate Your Successes in Your Own Way,

[t]his is fine if it fits with our aspirations, desires, and abilities but what if it doesn’t? If we are not ticking those boxes, by choice or otherwise, we can be left feeling outside the norm. Worse, we can end up feeling a failure for not succeeding in the right ways. [...] Maybe there’s a different way to think about what success means and how we go about celebrating it.

What might such a different way look like? There’s a clue in the famous passage by David W. Orr, often misattributed to the Dalai Lama.

The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.

It’s noteworthy that the roles David Orr highlights operate outside the zero-sum “I win, you lose” context. What he proposes, in fact, is a mutually beneficial “we can all win” worldview. This fits well with the alternative successes I suggest are worthy of celebrating in For the Win!. These include asking for help, being there for someone in need, self-care, saying no to something that doesn’t feel right to you, moving forward when you’ve been stuck, or recognising you’re not ready to move forward yet. There’s an echo too in the lyrics of the song “Small Victories” by RØRY.

Some people climbed Mount Everest today, and made history
While I was still asleep
Well, I got myself dressed today

Small or large as the world might judge them, our victories matter, and are not invalidated by other people achieving more.

All the Successful People

I know many people who are more successful or accomplished than me. My friend Aimee Wilson achieves many more pageviews and far greater engagement with her blog I’m NOT Disordered than I do here at Gum on My Shoe. Author and coach Julie. A. Fast is a world-renowned expert in the management of bipolar disorder. Through her coaching, books, speaking engagements, and social media she helps many more people than Fran and I could hope to touch with our books and blog.

At work, I’m learning unix shell scripting and developing routines that simplify our team’s processes. I get a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction from this, but my boss knows far more about it than I’m ever likely to. For the past eighteen months I’ve been teaching myself Teeline shorthand, but I’ll never surpass the proficiency of my friend Robyn who’s used it professionally for many years. I’ve explored various art and craft media in my time, but I’ll never come close to the creativity of friends past and present. These include Canadian artist and illustrator Ted Nasmith, author and artist Yuri Leitch, and Maya Hayward whose craftwork and creativity have delighted and inspired me throughout our friendship.

Surrounded by such excellence and success, it would be easy to become envious or discouraged, but that’s never been an issue for me. On the contrary, I find friendly competition a healthy thing. One of my best friends at school, Saranjit, was the only person who took the same three A-levels as me: pure and applied mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Having previously attended one of the top schools in India, Saranjit was far ahead of me in maths. I was stronger in chemistry. We were about equal in physics. Our rivalry spurred each of us to excel, and I remember him with great affection.

Aimee and I enjoy a similar friendly rivalry with our blogging, which inspires me to keep going and try new things. Blogging — indeed writing of any kind — can be a lonely pursuit. Without Aimee’s support and encouragement I would probably have given it up some time ago. It’s a mutual thing, and means as much to Aimee as it does to me. We’re proud of each other’s successes and are neither embarrassed nor afraid to say so.

You might expect this from a close personal friend like Aimee, but without exception the people I respect for their achievements have been supportive of my endeavours. Julie A. Fast is a generous and steadfast supporter of other writers, including me and Fran. She’s an example to me of how to handle success and engage with people who may be less experienced, proficient, or acclaimed. Author, speaker, and mental health advocate Rachel Kelly was no less generous when Fran and I approached her for advice. She offered valuable suggestions and guidance, and contributed the foreword for our book.

In the workplace, it’s not uncommon to find people who guard their skills and experience jealously. They resist sharing what they know in case it renders them less valuable or important. I’ve known a few such — usually self-professed — “experts” but my boss isn’t among them. He’s immensely supportive of my unix scripting, which encourages me to learn more and do the very best I can.

The World I Want to Live In

This generosity of spirit was expressed perfectly by my friend Paul Saunders-Priem. “I’ve always found I maximise my potential best,” he said, “if I admire, respect, learn from, help and encourage everyone to get ahead. It’s the world I want to live in!” It’s the world I want to live in, too. There will always be people who do it better or achieve more than us. Envy and jealousy can get in the way if we let them, but a difference in success needn’t be an issue. If we approach life in a spirit of openness, colaboration, and cooperation we can all win. I’m with Paul, and Erica Cook on this. I hope we all make it.

Over to You

In this post I’ve explored a few aspects of competition and success. What do those words mean to you? Do you ever feel envious or jealous if friends enjoy greater success than you? How do you handle such feelings if they arise? Is life a zero-sum game, or can we all win? Fran and I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Hudson Hintze at Unsplash.


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