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  • Sarah Merrell

Why I Don't 100% Agree With "You Should Only Compete with Yourself"

In first grade, my teacher hung a sheet of poster board on the wall with each of our names and told us that for every book report we completed we would receive a gold star next to our name. At the end of the year, the student with the most gold stars would win. I don't remember what the prize was, but I do remember this: A boy named Chris and I were neck-and-neck for gold stars and there was no way I was going to let him win. I churned out book reports and watched the board like a hawk and upped my game when I saw him inching closer. In the end, I did win. But I reflect on this sometimes: If I had merely been seeking to improve my own numbers alone, and paid Chris’ numbers no mind, would I have achieved as many book reports as I did? I doubt it. My competitiveness with Chris pushed me to try harder.

"Your only competition should be yourself" is a mantra that we hear so frequently these days. It's been quoted, with different phrasing, in probably millions of Instagram posts. I have a love/hate relationship with this concept. What I love about it is that I think we, as humans, tend to be consumed with comparison--and that isn't healthy. In the age of social media, we see other people's highlight reels and this can cause harmful feelings like jealousy towards that person, or it can leave people feeling lacking, discouraged or even intimidated. Thus, it negatively impacts self-confidence, and this hit to one’s self-worth can often lead to people being unkind with one another. But here's the thing: This comparison-driven form of competition is different than healthy competition. So what makes competition healthy?

In my opinion, healthy competition is when it creates motivation and pushes you to reach your full potential. When competition is healthy, it boosts self-confidence instead of destroying it. And with healthy competition, competitors have a level of respect--not contempt--for each other. Also, it doesn't eat you alive, which is what comparison-driven competition, in the form of envy, can so often do.

When I look back on my life, I'm thankful for the people that provided a healthy dose of competition. Early on in my modeling career, one of my good friends was not only my friend, but a competitor--we auditioned and were considered for many of the same projects. She was a very good model with an impressive portfolio. Seeing her book gigs inspired me to work harder, and vice versa. Through our personal achievements, we motivated each other. I attribute her friendship--and our competition--to my success in a very difficult industry like modeling.

The same is true for motorcycling. The pit bike racing series that I do (Fiddies 4 Life) used to have a women's class. For a while, I easily won every race. But then suddenly I had competition in the form of another female racer. She was surprisingly tenacious and the competition was fierce. I won a season, but then the next season she came out and beat me. Having her out there prevented me from being lackadaisical with my riding. It made me a better, faster rider.

What healthy competition comes down to is admiration, inspiration and motivation. Seeing another person's achievements can light a fire--a fire that burns so fiercely that it drives you to become the best you can be. It makes you say, "If she can do it, I can too."

The line between healthy and unhealthy competition is thin though and it can easily be crossed. One of the "tests" that I use to determine it, in my own life, is to ask myself if the sense of competition 1) Makes me happy, 2) Makes me respect and admire the other person, and 3) Has a positive result. If I answer “no“ to any of those questions, then it’s a sign I’m steering towards an unhealthy comparison and that I need to let it go and focus on myself. And that right there is what I think is spot-on about the quote and what I do love about it. It addresses the fact that sometimes we can become so fixated on someone else’s wins that we forget our own goals and our own dreams. We stop pursuing what makes us unique and different.

My point is this: We absolutely need to compete against ourselves and push towards our own goals and vision for our lives. But don’t throw competition with others out the window. We can all benefit from a healthy dose of competitive spirit to help us exceed the limitations we may be placing on ourselves and reach potential we may otherwise not have thought possible.

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