Compete Against Yourself

There is only one sustainable way to compete: against ourselves.

I have been backpacking with people who turned hiking into a competition. They know of other hikers on a similar route and they feel like they need to hike faster. There are others who hike because they want to break records.There is nothing wrong with this mindset but it does not always foster appreciation for the more subtle things that I write about.

Constantly competing against other people is also more likely to cause burn-out. It is not a long-term solution for motivation.

I am not advocating for the life of a hermit; we can be hugely inspired by the people around us. But if we only ever compare ourselves to other people, we will lead tortured and depressed lives.

Most of our motivation needs to be internal. We have to compete with ourselves. As backpackers say “Hike your own hike.”

For musicians, this also involves a certain degree of not caring what other people think about you. Again, everything is better in moderation so that we don’t turn into uppity jerks. But if we are constantly bending to the thoughts of other people, we will lose ourselves.

I used to tell a story to elementary-school-age Cub Scouts who had just received the Arrow of Light, the highest honor for young scouts. It was about a fictional tribe of people whose rite of passage into adulthood involved climbing a mountain. When one of the boys finally reaches the top, he returns to the tribe and says that he saw more, taller mountains in the distance. The elder then says that adulthood is always finding higher mountains to climb.

I can remember seeing similar mountains in the distance after seemingly impossible summits. I can remember playing a concerto with my undergraduate orchestra and thinking that was the height of my career and that I could never play any better.

I also remember competing against myself and climbing even taller, steeper mountains. I remember playing that same concerto years later and telling myself I was going to play it even better.

When it comes to motivation, self-improvement is most of what we need. When we compete against ourselves, we are simultaneously encouraged and empowered. When we can say “I am better now than I ever was,” it is one of the best experiences there is.

We just have to be better today than we were yesterday and we will be both happy and successful.

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