For years, I have been trying to find a way to feel good about competition. Even on the few occasions I have won, be it money or prestige, the high of winning never lasts as long as the low of losing. But beyond that, I have never been able to reconcile the undeniable power that competition has in both the fields that I work in, namely creative writing and non-profit administration. How can the exclusionary nature of competition coexist with the essential point of those fields, namely art and good works? It is not only fear of failure and embarrassment that is the problem. It is the fact that fear itself is the enemy of creativity and risk-taking. Fear stops most of us. And even when we persevere, it usually does not produce our best work. At least, that has been my experience.
But reality can not be ignored. Every year, there seems to be more and more prizes to be won for writing, and more and more people submitting to them. Every year, people lament that the competition for funding or market share is becoming more and more fierce, and yet striving to be the first (as if that equalled being the best) continues unabated. What to do?
For several years now, I have been practicing meditation with the help of the app Headspace, and its founder Andy Puddicombe. I have found it incredibly helpful in many aspects of my life, from my work to the death of my father. Among the many lessons it tries to impart is the one that the reality of the world exists around us and there is little we can do to change the behavior of others. All we can really do is change our reaction to it. No, don’t give up and check out. But recognize that more can be accomplished, and a healthier version of yourself can be lived when you stop resisting. This is a lesson I work on learning every day, but there have been some aspects of my world that I just have not been able to apply it to – like the seemingly endless need not only to compete, but to buy into the notion that those who ‘win’ are also ‘the best’. Everyone loves a winner, right?
But driving through northeastern US the other day to visit family, I was offered a new way of looking at things, and again it was with the help of Headspace. No, I wasn’t meditating while I was driving. Rather, I was listening to podcasts, one of which was NPR’s How I Built This, notably the one in which Andy Puddicombe and his business partner, Rich Pierson, discuss how Andy’s idea of bringing meditation into the ‘normal’ world became a multi-million dollar business. As the founder of the international non-profit, Writing Through, I found it fascinating. But more surprisingly, as a novelist and poet, I found it inspirational.
When asked the big question about how Headspace is dealing with the fact that there are so many more meditation apps available now, and that competition within the meditation market (ugh) is stronger than ever, Andy gave what, to me, is the perfect answer (and I paraphrase): “It is a very strange idea of trying to compete for people’s happiness. It is kind of absurd, in a way. Our mission is to genuinely improve the health and happiness of the world. And so if there are others out there who are also trying to genuinely improve the health and happiness of individuals, then that is something to celebrate and not something to feel bad about from a competitive point of view.”
So now I have a new way of looking at this thorny issue. The world needs more poets, not less. The world needs more people working to improve the health and happiness of us all in whatever way they can best do it. Competition is not the enemy. If contests and awards are ways that make the world respond positively to the challenge of trying to improve ourselves and others, then that is not only something not to be resisted, but it is something to encourage. The field for this race only gets better the larger it is. Perhaps we get better. And that really is something to celebrate.