Healthy competition can be a good thing

Ken was a neighbour and buddy of mine from school.

“The biggest things are always the easiest to do because there is no competition.” — William Van Horne, pioneering Canadian railway executive

Ken was a neighbour and buddy of mine from school.

Throughout junior high school, Ken scored higher than me on every test, ran faster in every race and came out on top of every competition. Ken could shrug off his victories but, to me, they were frustrating and demoralizing. The latest competition was part of our annual 4-H fundraising endeavour — raising money toward our 4-H Colour Night, the final celebration of our year together. The tickets were 25 cents each and each book contained 25 tickets. The raffle prize was a food hamper filled with goodies from the club mothers — all farm wives. The prize for selling the most tickets was a storage clipboard with pens, pencils, sharpener, a geometry set and plenty of paper.

I was determined to best Ken for once so asked my father to driving me around the countryside to sell tickets. I wasn’t surprised when many neighbours remarked that Ken and his dad had already hit them up. Being supportive, they also bought tickets from me. By day’s end I had sold nine books of tickets. Winning was beginning to feel like a distinct possibility.

We were to announce the winner and award the prize during the 4-H whist drive at the local community hall. When we arrived, Ken was already there hitting up the few remaining neighbours he and his dad had missed. I asked father for another couple books of tickets.

When I approached many of the same people they declined, saying that they had already bought tickets.

Ken came up to me and thumbed a wad of ticket stubs.

“Eleven books,” he declared. “How did you do?”

I walked away without answering.

My father found me sitting on the stairs beside the hall stage.

“How many books are you behind?” he asked.

“Two,” I replied. “Ken sold 11.”

The hamper was awarded to a local bachelor who acted as though he’d won the lottery. We all applauded. When it came time to announce which club member had sold the most tickets, I looked over at Ken who was standing with arms crossed and a big smile on his face.

“This club member sold 12 books of tickets raising $75 toward our 4-H Colour Night.”

Twelve? Ken must have really been flogging tickets. When the winner was announced, it didn’t register at first. That is, until the club leader repeated my name. Everyone applauded when I came up to accept the prize — even Ken, who was clearly surprised by the outcome.

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered it was my father who had purchased those three additional books of tickets.

He had asked mother to fill out the stubs with the names of people who would most need and appreciate the food hamper. Our bachelor friend was one of them.

I think few people would argue that healthy competition is a good thing. It can build character and drive us toward reaching our full potential. Looking back, I can see that I didn’t have the healthiest attitude toward competition — I had tied my self-esteem to the act of winning. Admittedly, my father should have let me come in second in order to better appreciate the value of an honest effort. He did, however, provide me with a powerful and positive insight into his character by asking my mother to write names of those most needy on the ticket stubs.

Possessing a healthy competitive attitude involves having a goal and working persistently toward its achievement and is characterized by perseverance and a “stick to it” mentality. An unhealthy attitude could involve cheating, unethical behaviour and a “win at all cost” mentality.

If your sense of self-worth is tied to the outcome, you may damage your self-esteem by feeling worthless if you don’t finish first. You’ll likely resent those whom you see as better performers.

Here are some questions you might consider asking when entering competition.

By whose rules am I playing? Am I playing to win at all cost? Who benefits the most from my victory? Who gets left behind? Can I still feel great about myself and my efforts if I don’t finish first?

British author Anna Brownell Jameson summed up the essence of healthy competition when she wrote, “The only competition worthy of a wise man is with himself.” I agree.

Successful and happy people are certainly aware of what others are doing but are only ever in competition with themselves — overcoming obstacles and limitations.

Murray Fuhrer is a local self-esteem expert and facilitator. Check the Extreme Esteem website at