I don’t know that anyone who knows me very well would call me competitive. Unfortunately, staying in academia for so long has meant that my grade-session has flourished into a genuine problem. As any self-help book will tell you, allowing your feelings to be dictated by external factors is a mistake. Most experiences in your life are dictated less by other people and more by the perspective you allow yourself to take on a situation. Where one person sees risk, another person sees opportunity. Where one person sees failure, another person sees an opportunity well-taken and lessons learned. I know all of these things.
So why, then, is it so hard for me to stop being competitive? The reason why people don’t see me as competitive is because I make a conscious effort to downplay this self-described negative trait in social situations. I play up my commitment to accessibility and enthusiasm rather than my extensive knowledge or my elitism. I’ve let this grad program get to me. I’ve let myself feel stupid and inadequate and what’s worse is I’ve let other people influence my feelings.
I’ve spent a lot of time in my life letting what I thought other people wanted dictate my actions. My parents have never been the type to constantly tell me that I’ve made them proud, and for an approval-seeking person like me that meant I only tried harder to gain those infrequent praises. This isn’t a criticism of my parents so much as an acknowledgment of my own shortcomings. After all, letting other people’s (imagined) opinions and approval tell me what to do has only made me bitter. Going to grad school, which was based less on my own desire to continue my education and more on the fact that I thought it was what was expected of me, has turned out to be one of the most challenging, anxiety-provoking events in my life. The problem with feeling like a decision isn’t entirely your own is that you can then blame the people that surround you. And I did. I spent the first three months living hundreds of miles away from home angry at my family and myself. I hated everything about my life.
But, as my favorite band The Weepies says in their song “Can’t Go Back Now,” “you can’t go back now.” And so I’ve tried to make this experience as positive for myself as I can. I’m presenting at a conference, so I feel less jealous of other people in my program going to conferences. I volunteer. I try to focus less on how other people are doing and more on myself. I don’t assume the worst. To be fair, I still struggle with those last two every day.
So the competitive edge? Sure, it gave me a lot of great opportunities. It motivated me to do well in high school and my undergrad and has propelled me through one semester of grad school and has taken me halfway through a second term. It has motivated me to try things I would never have tried before. But at this point, I’ve realized that I need to put away the competitiveness and try and be more intrinsically motivated, which means I want to find my motivation from myself, not in comparison to others. Hopefully, that transition from external to internal will help me figure out exactly what it is I want to do with my life, and not continue to make choices based on other people’s definitions of success.