I awakened this morning with the word COMPETITION rolling about my head – an odd term for somebody like me whose background and orientation was anathema to the notion.

Competition – 1. A striving or vying with another or others for profit, prize, position or the necessities of life; rivalry. 2. A contest, match or other trial of skill or ability. 3. The rival of two or more businesses striving for the same customer or market.

When people think of competition, they often imagine the sphere of sports, the concept of playing against rivals for a specific title or prize. Yet for me, most childhood friends would recall the uncoordinated and myopic Miss Irrelevant during recess games at the elementary school playground; I was nearly always the last player picked by captains of opposing teams. And if I had to name my best sport during junior high and high school, I’d have to default to square dancing in Phys Ed.

Even later on in my adult working days, when coaxed by an employee to form a company softball team for a local area rec league and asked as his manager to participate, I conveniently slotted myself in the number 9 spot as last batter up and in deep, deep, DEEP right field where the ball and I were least likely to meet.

As recently as last summer, I was caught cheering for both the USA basketball team – and their opponents from the Dominican Republic – during an international masters basketball tournament held in Prague, Czech Republic.

“Nice,” sneered one of the players to my husband who was also on the court. “We work our butts off to compete at this level and Pollyanna’s out there clapping for the other players.”

My husband could only laugh along at the familiar but oddball behavior he’d come to know from a wife who advocates for everyone’s success – each in their own place and time – both on and off the field or court.

* * * * *

Okay, I admit it. I just wasn’t cut out to compete in traditional sports. So how did this crazy notion of “competition” pop into my head, the person least qualified to write? A bit of soul-searching provided the answer to my question. I wasn’t to write about competition the way the world viewed it. I was to write about competition the way I did! Competition with a capital C. The Competition of LIFE – with a longterm eye toward life’s ENCORE performance that others rarely think about or consider.

You see, when it comes to competition I’ve had only one rival in mind – Me. Yes, Me. That of my lower and more common self. As if engaged in some private game of talent, I’ve spent a lifetime finding new ways to exercise and grow against a previous version of myself.

For example, during my 6th grade summer I decided to teach myself to type. I’d clock myself in both speed and efficiency, always trying to better my stats. For another quest, I’d practiced staying under water to see how long I could go without breathing (real smart, I know, in response to which my Nana would bang furiously at the backyard kitchen window yelling as only she could, “What the hell are you doing down there so long? You’re going to drown and I don’t know how to swim!”).

Later on, I took up jogging (I’d advanced from inanimate amoeba to logging up to 11 miles per day, once completing a Gasparilla Race of 9 miles and, on another occasion, a half marathon of 13). I even responded to a biking opportunity, a Saturday morning event where I cycled the 70+ mile trip from Philadelphia to Atlantic City (or was it the other way around?).

I was always seeking to improve upon weakness. I can’t recall who else was participating in any of these treks, nor did I care to repeat them. I was merely intent on achieving the personal satisfaction of having risen to something previously – personally – unknown and unattained. Rising into my better self.

A few years ago, I leapt at the chance to take a 9-day trip to Africa, dwelling on an island so remote the natives were unaware of any society other than their own. The experience helped strengthen me beyond the ease and comforts of my American lifestyle. It was here that I slept on the floor in a self-pitched tent, used open fields as my out house and didn’t get to shower for a week. (Obviously, such “improvements” are clearly a matter of personal taste and one trip to the jungle was quite sufficient to convince me I was capable of hacking a crude environment. Also, as a matter of note, photos capturing the bad hair week remain safely under lock and key to avoid any potential threats of blackmail!)

* * * * *

Now that I’ve offered these rare glimpses into my background, it’s probably time to get back to the common version of competition and tie my commentary into something of import and value. To do so, I’m reminded of three specific instances and my responses to what I considered the world’s rather short-sighted and upside down version of this practice.

To begin with, I must have been a slow learner, like the child who believes in the Tooth Fairy long after her last baby teeth have fallen out. In truth, I’d somehow remained uninitiated to the rules of “competition” until I was almost 15 years old. At that time, I was a lowly freshman attending a prep school for girls somewhere in northern New Jersey.

My daily schedule included first period Algebra and second period study hall where I’d sit beside a fellow classmate who shared the same early morning math class. As a matter of course, this petite, well-manicured and highly purposed young girl would regularly and repeatedly seek my help figuring out problems to the day’s Algebra homework assignments. And being proficient in the subject, I was more than happy to oblige. Until one day when the tables were reversed.

“Zelda (obviously not her name), I don’t understand what we were taught today. Would you mind helping me out with some of these problems?”

“I can’t help you,” she responded flatly and returned, pencil in hand, to her work.

“You didn’t get it either, huh?” I’d asked rather innocently, looking for her agreement concerning the obscurity of the lesson.

“No,” she responded, “I’m not going to help you.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, still not understanding.

As if to explain the obvious, Zelda huffed just slightly. “I’m not helping you because I’m in competition with you.”

“Competition for what?” I asked, still not comprehending.

In response, this young student explained that she couldn’t help me because it might give me an advantage over her in a future college application process.

College? We’d never even discussed college, I thought. And who said we were even going to apply to the same college? Even if we did, were colleges now accepting only one student per class, as if there weren’t room enough on campus for two?

Still dazed, I realized that in all my previous months of service to this pint-sized pup of prepubescence, she’d regarded me as a mere commodity to be used.

I must admit just how truly shocked I was at how this well-groomed and well-spoken young girl could behave in such low fashion. More than that, I was saddened for her. She’d learned this twisted life lesson on “competition” from her own mother, an insecure woman who’d rather teach her daughter to play dirty than encourage her to do her best.

Unfortunately for this school mate, the free font of mathematical tutorship dried up that day. From now on, Zelda would have to figure out Algebra problems on her own. What a shame she never understood the most basic premises of the subject: reciprocity and equality.

* * * * *

Whew! You’re probably thinking by now, “This woman called Maura4u has an awful lot to say. This is only one recollection; she’s got two more to go!”

Well, I probably do have lots to say but trust me . . .. there’s a bigger picture being developed. A Lifetime is a Long Time and the lessons aren’t acquired overnight. So go take a cup of coffee. A bathroom break. Go to bed. Doesn’t matter to me. I’m more than content writing for an audience of one:)

* * * * *

The next instance involving “competition” arrived around a dozen years later. I was District Manager for a national telecom company and one of my sales reps had just been promoted to the National Accounts division in Chicago.

A few months after his departure, I received a manager’s override check with an additional payment of about $3300. Knowing the check was in error, I quickly identified the source: all the former rep’s sales were being attributed to my account. Since he’d transferred during the middle of a calendar month, the commissions department tallied every order back to me – those made from my district (fine) as well as new ones from national accounts (not fine).

To remedy the error, I immediately placed a phone call to the corporate office. “Yvette, I’m calling regarding a manager’s override error on my commission statement.”

“Oh. Sorry, Maura. Can you give me list of the accounts we missed?”

“It’s not any accounts you missed. You paid me too much.”

“Too much? You’re kidding, right?”

“No,” I explained. “A few months ago, one of my reps was promoted to National Accounts. I’m still getting paid on sales he made here in my district, but there’s also an extra $3300 that’s attributable to his new manager.”

“Maura, I’ve been working in this department for four years. You know how many calls we get here every month with people claiming they’ve been underpaid? Cheated? Never once have I received a call where someone told me they were paid too much. Why would you ever do such a thing?”

“Because the money’s not mine. It belongs to someone else.”

“But . . . technically, this could be argued in your favor, you know. All sales made that final month would be attributable to you.”

“Maybe so, but the guy transferred North in the middle of the sales month and I had nothing to do with that last order. It belongs to National Accounts and the National Accounts Manager should be getting the override instead of me.”

“Maura, this is one for the books. Rip up your check and I’ll send you a smaller one in the overnight mail. This is gonna be the talk of the day around here – maybe the week. Maybe the month. Nobody’s going to believe this! ”

* * * * *

Okay, okay, it’s time for my third and final recollection for this piece. It’s a few years later and I’m still in the telecom industry, just working for a different corporation. Two sales associates in my office, both of them wonderful women, inadvertently worked on the same account through their respective territories. When the order came in, it arrived as an individual order from the client and could only be processed as a single account. My call to the corporate office revealed that, though both reps could get paid their fair share for the business, the actual order could be credited to just a single person and a decision would need to be made on that score.

At first, the news was a mere blip to these professionals who, like everyone else in our office, were amicable team players. But somehow things got ugly. Amicable team spirit yielded to tension and tension yielded to conflict as each raised their case as to why they should receive credit for this order. I invited both women back to my office, heard each of them out and provided a few suggestions of my own – the last one of which was that they agree to resolve their issue or I’d resolve it for them.

Unfortunately, the tension did not abate; to the contrary, it only escalated – and fast. Passionate discussion about the infamous “order” quickly made its way around the sales staff, creating discontent toward the company and fomenting a rising tide of sales people choosing sides with each of the offended. As if by stealth, this simple “order” had arrived in our district office as a fast-acting cancer or fatal bio-hazard with a mission to destroy our previously peaceful environment.

Two and a half days of this growing insanity was sufficient. I’d called both women back to my office and asked them to sit before me again. This time, I picked up the phone and called my contemporary in Atlanta.

“Susan, this is Maura. I’m calling with a gift.”

“A gift?” she asked, both pleased and surprised at an unexpected gesture. “What kind?”

“It’s an order.”

“An order? Was it from an account up here?”

“No. It’s an order that we can’t agree upon down here. It’s not huge, but it’s a decent size new account and I’d like you to have it.”

Suddenly, the two women in my office turned white with shock. Then, as if the unseen cancer miraculously lifted, these two former rivals became instant compatriots engaged in rapid-fire, whispered discussion to remedy their previous dispute. But it was too late. Now they lost not only the coveted “order” – but the commissions they were both entitled to receive.

Conversation with the Atlanta manager continued. “Maura, why would you want to give this thing away? Don’t you realize you’ll be shorting yourself, too?”

“I don’t care. If that order stays in Tampa, it’ll kill us all. It’s not worth it. The only thing I ask is this: Give it to the rep who’s doing his or her best and be sure to award it during one of your sales meetings. Tell the rep ‘Congratulations and Best Wishes from the Tampa Team’.”

And so it was. The case was closed. The two women slipped quietly out of my office and the cancer lifted – immediately. Word of the disposal of the bio-hazardous “order” quickly made its way to the rest of the previously offended. By the following morning, peace was restored to Telecomland. Ahhhh. We never had another dispute.

* * * * * * *

Some final thoughts . . . .

Do I know what ever happened to Zelda, the young girl who needed to compete with me in Algebra? No. For one, I didn’t stick around long enough to find out. By the next year, I’d transferred to public school. Did Zelda learn reciprocity – and respect – for others? Or is she merely the next generation of her own mother’s insecurity, modeling small behavior to her daughters and teaching them to “compete” also? A good ending to Zelda’s Life story would be hearing she’s learned the only one worth competing against was her old self – and winning!

How about that $3300 check that was never really mine? It was never really mine. Period.

Finally, what about the bio-hazard “order” that provoked unnecessary egos, undermined positive working relationships, and threatened the health of an otherwise thriving group of professionals? Promoting egos at the expense of Peace was entirely too high a price to pay for any order – big, small or otherwise.

As a side note, someone in Atlanta was rewarded unexpectedly simply for doing his or her best.

So what’s competition the way the world measures it got to do with the Encore performance in life? Just about Everything.

To demonstrate, I’d like to recall the closing of a letter I’d penned to my then-boyfriend Jimmy during the summer of 1978:

“I think most people live their lives on the outside only to find that when they grow old, they’re unhappy. I’d rather live from the inside out, so that when I’m old, I can be happy. I might be wrong, but I don’t think so:)”

What’s my reward of a lifetime competing only with myself – to become the higher version of who I am? A single word comes to mind: Happiness.

My ENCORE Performance is all about Life Happiness.

What about yours?

Maura Sweeney is a Podcaster, Author and Public Speaker

Find her on iTunes and Stitcher Radio.

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