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Your Real Competition is with Yourself

June 2, 2019 | by Emuna Braverman

Our challenge is to do the most with the hand we were dealt. How others play their cards is of no relevance to us.

Competition in our country seems to have reached a fevered pitch (and it’s not limited to the college admissions scandal). The famous Scripps Spelling Bee now allows kids who lost at regionals but whose parents agree to pay an entry fee along with their own food and lodging to compete. As Shalini Shankar wrote recently (WSJ 5/26/19) “It’s not just spelling bees where youth competition has ramped up its intensity, what kids now call a ‘spelling career’ is analogous to their peers’ approach to chess meets, dance competitions, gourmet cooking or other passions that their predecessors cultivated somewhat later in life.”

Shankar is focused on how early the competition starts, how ingrained it has become. I’m just disturbed by the phenomenon no matter the age. And that it seems to be getting worse and more intense.

And this year's 8-way tie, while historic and unprecedented, in no way alters the premise of this article. It may however draw more attention to both the spelling bee and perhaps even highlight the intensely competitive nature of these... well they are named appropriatly, aren't they?.... competitions!

My teacher always warned us that competition is a destructive quality, that the goal is never to beat anyone else. I think he would have been heartened by Peggy Noonan’s Memorial Day reflections, “I lean toward the idea a lot of us are running our own races, trying to rise to the occasion and beat some past and limited conception of ourselves by doing something great.”

I heartily concur. Our Torah sages repeatedly admonish us not to pay attention to the accomplishments or possessions of others. We need to focus on our own potential, our own growth and take pleasure in our own particular set of circumstances. The battle for life is not against anyone else but against the darkness inside that tries to bring us down (that ironically encourages competition because it will discourage and destroy us). The challenge is to do the most with the hand we were dealt. How others play their cards is of no relevance to us.

This isn’t always easy to remember. It’s certainly difficult to internalize. But like most change, it begins with awareness and self-reflection. It starts with the understanding that I am not running a race against you – or anyone else. I wish you only well. Your good doesn’t detract from mine. Your bad gives me no pleasure.

Ms. Noonan goes on to suggest that “The paradox is that you’re running your own race alongside others running theirs, and in the same direction. You’re doing something great together.” If we stop worrying about what our neighbor is earning or driving, the size of his house, the success of his marriage, the accomplishments of his children, we can sit back and enjoy our own lives. And if we all focus on what we each can achieve, regardless of anyone else, we have a chance of working as one, of actually being united.

Competition divides us. There are winners and losers. But that is a very limited picture of reality. It may apply to spelling bees and soccer matches and even in some college classes. But life is not about triumphing over someone else. It’s about triumphing over ourselves. The only acceptable competition is one where we egg each other on to be the best human being possible. And that’s the only game where, as the old carnival barker always said, “Everyone’s a winner here.”

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