Nothing against ambition and competition. Nope. They can be very useful. But turn them up too loud, and they become a burden. But I have an unbidden competitive streak that I’ve been working on for a while. It seems to be the cousin of the perfectionist tendencies I’ve been working on, too.
Competition can be healthy and lead to brainstorming and creative blasts. But that’s not what is bedeviling me. Mostly it overcomes me when I’m doing research. I go from “that’s interesting,” to “how is that done?” to “I can do that,” to “I can do that better,” to a growl of: “I T ‘ S M I N E BWAHAHAHAHA!” Not attractive. Worse. Not useful. I don’t even notice the mindset until I feel cranky and hot.
With that feeling comes the need to be best, to excel, to climb the charts, to . . . be ruthless and uncaring. And that’s not at all who I want to be.
Now what? I am working on tiny steps. When someone shares an achievement, I say, “I’m happy for you,” even if I’m not sure I’m happy. It’s the right thing to say, and I’ll let my meaning it catch up with me later. If I feel my inner critic nudging me and saying, “you could do that too,” I call up my Inner Underdog Hero and say, “I have enough on my plate right now.”
When someone sends an email that says they are too busy to teach that class we were going to teach together; I let it go. OK, I work on letting it go. I’m not the boss of them. They get to make their own decisions. I do get to feel a tiny bit of hurt, but only for 20 minutes, then I move on. When I later see that they are teaching with someone else, I do not immediately assume it’s my fault. They got a better opportunity. Truly, if they do not want to teach with me, the class would not work out. I breathe through it. (Sometimes I have to use a paper bag. You know, a Trader Joe’s bag, till I feel grounded again.)
It’s hard not to be competitive in an ugly way. The way that says “Winning is the only thing,” which I don’t believe. But there is that old, deep trigger. That desire to be best, first, and skilled. I respect many of my competitors, respect their talent and the skills they have worked on. What I really need to work on it setting my own goals and steadfastly working toward them. Not get distracted by the flash of attention. I admire most the artists who dedicate their attention to creative work that enriches them and makes meaning for them. That’s my model. But it’s not easy.
—Quinn McDonald is minding the high road, which seems a bit empty these days.