Can a non-competitive person find success in a competitive world?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 19:00

With school graduation season, I was thinking about young people and how they are preparing for the future in an increasingly competitive world. I was reminded of a very short conversation I had many years ago when I was student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

I had just finished a routine workout in the weight room and taken a seat inside the sauna bath. That afternoon the locker room was bustling with members of the varsity basketball team, hockey team, wrestling team and a few track and field athletes getting a jump on the upcoming spring season.

I moved over on the sauna’s bench as a tall guy took a seat alongside of me. Because of his height, I ventured a guess: “Basketball team?”

“Yeah. What are you?”

The question amused me, and I responded wryly: “Human being,” with tongue deeply embedded in cheek.

He didn’t seem to appreciate my acerbic remark. Maybe he didn’t even hear me over the steam hissing from the sauna’s rocks.

I participated in some team sports on my way through school, but it was never anything I felt passionate about. I could appreciate the sense of team camaraderie in junior and high school basketball, but I knew early on that I didn’t have the competitive spirit necessary to excel in organized sports. It just wasn’t in me.

But while deficient in competing with others, I became driven to compete with myself. I directed that passion inward-- toward my college studies, writing endeavors, job skills, and eventually took it with me into the mountains and back country trails.

For most of my life, no doubt, I’ve been my own fiercest critic, and I bet I’m not alone. As long as I can remember, I’ve expected more of myself than I can deliver. I have many personal Mt. Everests that I know will remain unclimbed. But I consider that attitude a gift--a positive thing. My dad and mom always taught me to aim high. Consequently, for most of my life I’ve looked up and far, rather than down and close.

I know there are young people in school who believe that if they’re not involved in team sports or members of some organization, they’re missing out and not going anywhere. Being on a team certainly teaches cooperation, sharing and responsibility. But I’m certain those values can be developed outside of team activities.

If we’re receptive to them, parents, teachers, friends and employers can all serve as mentors who play an invaluable role in motivating us and helping us strive to achieve at our highest level--in whatever we choose to do. In my experience, it seems the high expectations of mentors can shift and evolve into a person’s own expectations. And then with the right encouragement and support, as well as effort on the part of the individual--those expectations continue with the person beyond school and farther into life.

That fire of hope and determination that is kindled in a person at an early age can continue burning for years to come, even by a team of one.

Following school graduations, many lives are about to change. It will be a time of choices, with different roads taken. For many, destinations are uncertain. But I believe journeys are oftentimes more important than destinations.

It doesn’t matter if you’re making the journey as part of a team or as an individual. The discoveries will be yours. Those discoveries will become destinations in themselves. And even if you’re not good at competing with others, if you learn how to compete against yourself, do your very best and nurture the skills that you have, you’ll fare well in the world that awaits you.

You can be “competitive” in the world, work collaboratively with others and find success, even if you aren’t inherently competitive.


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. To contact him: [email protected].

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