I’ve been a competitive jerkwad for as long as I can remember. Though I may seem like a people person, I’m actually a froth-mouthed bundle of neuroses wrapped up in an extroverted demeanor and an American Apparel hoodie. I’ve basically trotted through the last few decades and change waiting for someone to present me with the #1 You Won the Universe Prize.
Needless to say, when that doesn’t happen, I tend to get tangled up in a nice, comfy blanket of downward ennui-spiral. I can’t face things I used to enjoy or talk about topics I’m interested in, because everything only serves to remind me of my own largely imagined failures.
Most of this results in me acting like a giant weirdo who can’t handle even the slightest hint that someone is more successful than she is. I will own this. It’s just hard for me to appreciate others’ successes when I myself am experiencing some shakiness.
It’s sort of the life-wide extension of the “Always a bridesmaid” trope: You’re obligated to raise a glass for the happy couple, but some days it’s hard not to Kristen Wiig the whole thing and dolphin-scream through the vows.
At the same time, I do think that competitive women are often unfairly lambasted as lacking empathy, particularly in the professional sphere. In the workplace, women are generally expected to put others before themselves in the name of solidarity. Ambitious women in high-pressure corporate environments report being called “unfeminine” or “macho.” Women are socialized to value relationships over accomplishments, so anyone deviating from the norm is met with suspicion and mockery. Hillary Clinton 2008, anyone?
Don’t get me wrong: I think that the whole “sisterhood standing together” thing is great to a point. If someone is genuinely having trouble, it’s generally considered better for the whole team if you take the time to correct their mistakes. No worries there. But sometimes you gotta step it up and outperform a colleague, even if it means refusing to slow yourself down to help them out every time they need it. I don’t think this makes me unfeminist; I think it just makes me goal-oriented and kind of obnoxious.
If women are rude to a subordinate, they’re catty and probably threatened by the underling’s youthful spirit. If men are rude to a subordinate, they’re just assholes. And as long as we keep unilaterally valuing the welfare of “womanhood” over our singular achievements, that’s not going to change.
That said, if I got full-throttle competitive every time I saw that one of my classmates changed their jobs on LinkedIn, I would never get any sleep. To that end, the next time you get yourself all good and revved up for a severe bout of competitive insomnia, I recommend you ask yourself these questions first:
How much of this is coming from your own insecurity?
This is an easy one. But I think it’s also one of the sneakiest. When you’re a competitive jerkwad, you’re usually working toward a vague idea of what constitutes “success.” You also know, with a grim certainty, that you are not the only one working toward “success.” And at certain points, the others are in the lead.
For me, at this point, “success” would be finishing and publishing my sci-fi novel. Of course, because I have a lot of hobbies and girlfriends, my project often gets put on the back burner. This doesn’t stop me, however, from bursting into proverbial, wretched Heathcliff-tears every time someone mentions their own books-in-progress.
I have a lovely co-worker, for example, who’s working on a script with a friend. Lana’s the kind of person who likes to talk about her process, and, for the most part, so am I. But I’ve also been facing a rut in my own creative work lately, and so I’m a little—er—sensitive.
The last time Lana met me in the company kitchen, she began, “So I made progress on the script last night!”
“Oh, yeah?” I said, stabbing a knife rhythmically into the vegan butter. “Tell! Me! More!”
“The main character discovers that her best friend is actually a robot, and the robot—um.” Lana stopped. “Are you okay?”
I glanced down at the toast that I had forcibly thrown to the floor. “My hand slipped.” I then stared at her, triumphant and unblinking, as she backed out of the kitchen. Winner.
Yes, this is absolutely stupid. But stopping the behavior is nowhere near as easily accomplished as declaring its uselessness. When I’m feeling edgy about my own writing, I have a hell of a time being gracious about others’ progress on theirs.
The key here, I think, is to draw a clear dividing line between Your Own Head and the person’s accomplishments. Your Own Head is clearly full of screaming, green-eyed monster-dragons who want to set fire to anyone else who ever put a pen to paper / picked up a pair of toe shoes / decided that they, too, wanted to race camels for a living.
Your “rival”’s accomplishments, meanwhile, neither detracts nor contribute to your own. It’s possible to be genuine ly happy for them and their accomplishments, all while feeling your own internal organs slowly burst into rage-flames.
This also figures heavily into resisting the specific kind of competition that dudes often classify as “cattiness.” If you’re trying to lose weight, it is so important to remember that your friend’s thinness is not a personal insult. If you want to put out a record, do it -- but don’t sneak hot sauce into your singer colleague’s cup of tea. That is straight-up unproductive for everyone. And also kind of nuts.
Work toward your goal. Don’t waste your energy trying to sabotage, subtly or otherwise, the people you meet along the way.
Your peers are not sneaking into your house every night and siphoning off your work ethic, no matter how much it occasionally might feel like that. Promise.
How will your performance be improved?
This goes hand-in-hand with the above question, because performance improvement can act as a great alternative to sitting alone in your room with your crippling insecurities. If you know that your response to giving in to competitiveness is to loll about in a puddle of lukewarm sadness, it might be good to steer clear of it altogether.
But if talking to your friend with similar interests is enough to kick your ass out of a creative funk, maybe it’s worth it to indulge yourself a little. If, say, running is your thing, grabbing a running buddy who’s just a little better than you could improve your mile time overall.
If you’re anything like me, your inner monologue will go something like this: “See? Watch Eleanor run. Isn’t she great? Don’t you want to be like her? Listen, I know your legs are hurting, but you know what? Eleanor’s legs are hurting, and she’s not a useless whiny flop-headed nitwit! Eleanor is beating you in every single way, you useless fuck! You can’t give up now! Then you’ll never be better than her!”
You get the gist. If you do decide to go this route, it’s usually common courtesy to let your race-partner (or whomever) know beforehand. That they won’t be alarmed if you suddenly start crying and punching them in a fit of self-doubt at Mile 7.
What are you willing to sacrifice?
Sometimes, being a competitive jerkwad means taking a hard look at your life and knowing when to dial it back -- and when to just burn your bridges. There’s no judgment at work here but your own: moving forward with your personal and professional life can mean giving up some friends. And that’s OK.
If you work in an office, for example, you might be put in a position where your colleague’s mistake puts you both on the hook. Whistle-blowing on him probably won’t get an invitation to his wedding, but it might save your ass from getting the pink slip. I think that’s worth it.
Same thing goes for big promotions or high-level deals: If working harder means showing up a peer, eventually, you’re going to have to make that call or find a different job.
At the same time, if you’re reveling in a co-worker’s errors instead of being a team player and helping her fix them, that’s not going to improve anyone’s performance, let alone your own. If anything, it might just make you look like an evil-minded saboteur. And you’ll probably lose yourself a work-friend, which is never fun.
This goes for relationships outside of the workplace, too. Do you want to give up your date on Thursday for a hot, sweet session with the second draft of your screenplay? Is it worth it to flake on a friend in order to get to the next level in Warcraft? Spoiler: Only you can answer this.
What are you fighting for? (Sub-question: Is it a limited commodity?)
In high school, I had a beautiful friend whom I’ll call Lorelai. Lorelai was tall, rail-thin and pout-lipped, with beguiling blue eyes and a kind of baby-deer “Who, me?” expression that had gotten her out of countless late English assignments and out-of-uniform detentions. She and I were never blood-oath best friends, but we got along great one-on-one and in our roles as Student Body Officers. All bets were off, though, when we had to lead pep rallies together.
I took great pride in being the responsible one and therefore felt that I should have the privilege of leading our class in cheers. Lorelai, beautiful and wreathed in school spirit, wanted to do it. We’d passive-aggressively pick at each other for hours about the minutiae of the chants and the timing of the musical cues. It was both horrifically petty and deeply, deeply stupid.
When she did win the coveted spotlight of our gym-church-teria, I would retreat to sulk by the bleachers. As she minced and cooed at her captive audience, I’d content myself with the knowledge that I was going places. I was smart, dammit, and I was going to write books that changed the world. Lorelai could keep her dumbass pep rallies.
Now, of COURSE, Lorelai is semi-famous. Have you ever had to look at a picture of your high school frenemy’s half-naked body in "Maxim?" Or read her Facebook messages about “running into” her “bro” Ryan Gosling at the Whole Foods? It is THE WORST.
(I recognize that no one was forcing me to do these things, but as a masochist and an Internet addict, I think I might have been under contractual obligation.)
For a while last summer, a tiny part of my soul would die every time I’d see billboards for her movie along Highway 101. I’d force my friends to watch it with me and make little disgusted/longing “Ughs” every time she came on screen.
Eventually, though, I realized that I was letting my competitive streak take the wheel, and it was driving me right off the good person road straight into a crazy-tree. Not only do I actually genuinely like Lorelai as a person and as a performer, I also do not gain one single thing from gloating over the few negative reviews about her.
Also, most importantly, I don’t want to be an actress. Like, at all. That’s never been in my career path. The only reason I have a problem with Lorelai’s success is that it’s symbolic that her allure to the human race is greater than mine.
As if the human race has been secretly voting on whom they like better for the last nine years, because they only have enough affection for one person from St. Catherine’s High School. Everybody else just has to go home and stew in their mediocrity.
So the next time you burst into tears on the train home because an intern got praise and you didn’t, ask yourself, “What am I competing for?”
Promotion? Go ahead and raise that battle-flag.
The vague approval of a supervisor? C’mon, man. Get yourself some hobbies, already.