“Competitive” isn’t a dirty word, and nice girls can be competitive, too.

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For most of my adult life, I identified myself as “not a competitive person.” I was a nice, thoughtful, collaborative, easy going person. Competitive people, I thought, were aggressive, confrontational people who would throw you under the bus and do anything to get ahead. That definitely wasn’t me. I wore the “not a competitive person” label with pride.

And yet, somehow I fell in love with wheel to wheel racing, a sport that involves battling door to door with other cars for the same scrap of asphalt. Racing is arguably one of the most competitive things a person could do. How did that happen? It turns out I was a competitive person all along, but being competitive didn’t mean quite what I thought it did.

My “not a competitive person” label started with my childhood experiences in organized sports. The way my dad described my single season of basketball was; “Ann is so not competitive that when she played basketball, she’d basically tell the other girl, ‘If you want the ball that badly, you should just take it!’ And she’d give the other girl the basketball.” That description wasn’t very far off and I happily avoided organized sports after that. Being “not a competitive person” growing up left me with lots of time to focus on writing, art, wrenching on cars and teaching myself computer graphics and programing.

Several years ago, my brother told me, “I think you are a competitive person. I think you’re so competitive, you won’t even try something unless you know you can win.” At the time I refuted his comment, but it turns out he was totally right. While I love a challenge, I’ve always stuck to things I know I’m good at. In high school I opted to sign up for art class and auto shop instead of physics and calculus, and I chose my career in “web design” (as it was called in the late 90s) because it was something I already knew how to do. In fact, since the internet was brand new when I started my career, I rarely encounter anyone more experienced than me at work. I would seek out challenges, but I avoided any challenge where I wasn’t the person with the best odds of success.

And then one day I went to a track day and passed a fast car because I drove through a turn better. I thought, “I got ahead because I was better!” It felt so good. How could I describe that feeling as anything besides competitive? My whole world changed. It turns out, not only am I a competitive person, I’m a really competitive person who never learned how to lose. It’s been a difficult journey, but I’ve learned that being competitive isn’t the personality flaw I once thought it was.

Myths about being competitive

“Being competitive” has so many unfair negative connotations, especially when it comes to stereotypes about competitive women. I had a lot of misconceptions about what being competitive was, so I’d like to take a moment and debunk some common myths.

1. Being competitive means being aggressive. When I got freaked out in December by the “fun race” that was more aggressive than the “points race” (the one that counted), a few people told me, “Racers are competitive. They’re going to race whether it counts or not.” At first, this made me question if I really was a competitive racer. I would have much rather spent the day running practice sessions so I could perform better when it counted. Since then I’ve talked to some other racers (including some at the front of the field), who were also surprised by how aggressive that race was. I’ve come to realize that being competitive doesn’t necessarily mean you’re willing to knock your competitor off the track (or “throw them under the bus” at work). Motocross rider (and fellow Minnesotan like me) Ryan Dungey has won nine professional motocross and supercross championships even though he often finished races in second place because he was too nice to make an aggressive pass for the win.

2. Competitive people are competitive about everything. Before I started racing, most people I knew who self-identified as “competitive” were competitive about everything. These people wanted to win anything they could, from “team building” competitions at work to card games at parties. They’d explain their behavior by saying, “I’m just a competitive person!” I figured I just wasn’t a competitive person if I didn’t care about logging more steps on a pedometer than my coworkers. It turns out that’s not the case. My competitive nature only gets ignited by challenges I find interesting or feel passionately about. When I’m competing or really working to solve a problem, I’m going to give it everything I’ve got and do what it takes to succeed. I just can’t get excited about putting all that energy into something I don’t care about.

3. Competitive people have big egos. I think a lot of behavior that gets labeled “competitive” is actually people trying to protect their egos. I’ve heard people say all kinds of things, ranging from a man over-driving his car at a track day to a woman making disparaging remarks about another woman’s appearance, are “competitive,” even though those behaviors are likely rooted in insecurity. Being competitive doesn’t mean having a big ego. Competitive people aren’t out just to look good or make others look worse in comparison to them.

In fact, you’ll be a happier, healthier competitive person when you don’t wrap your ego up with your competitive drive. You have to be able to give it your all and come up short without falling apart. Which brings me to our next myth…

4. You have to feel bad when you lose. Without realizing it, this was probably the biggest reason why I never wanted to be a “competitive person.” Being competitive when you’re not sure you can win makes you feel really vulnerable. Do you really want to find out you don’t have what it takes? This was the root of my impostor syndrome. I was scared to try because I was scared to lose, because losing meant I wasn’t good enough. My breakthrough was when I realized that even though I’m not a “naturally good” race car driver, there was no limit to how much I could improve. And the only way you find out how to improve is to give it your all and see where you come up short.

Once I got over my fear of failure, I discovered that giving it my very best shot, no matter how I measured up, was actually really satisfying! If you keep going out and leaving nothing on the table, and then work to make your best better, the progress you see is incredibly gratifying.

5. Being competitive means you make other people feel bad. This was probably my second biggest reason for not wanting to be a “competitive person.” I just seemed well… mean to want to beat other people! When I was first learning to drive a race car, I felt a lot of inner tension between wanting to win and not wanting to make other people feel bad by beating them. This tension didn’t resolve itself until I got to a place where I didn’t feel bad about losing, myself.

I think those of us who pride ourselves on being nice, caring people struggle with this one. I’ve built my career in user experience by helping people, either the people who use the software I’m responsible for or the employees I manage. I am a strong advocate for other people, but rarely for myself. Once I understood that challenging competition can be satisfying even if you don’t win, I started to see how being a strong competitor could be the nice thing to do. I thought about how I would feel if I had given it my all and narrowly bested a competitor, only to find out later that person had let me win because they didn’t want to hurt my feelings. I imagine that would feel pretty patronizing and icky.

6. Competitive people aren’t collaborative. I often hear “competitive” and “collaborative” referred to as opposite ends of a spectrum, which is really inaccurate. Anyone who plays a team sport, for example, needs to be both competitive and collaborative. In fact, even racing in Spec Miata, which is a very individual competition, with one driver per car and no pit stops, requires collaboration. Sometimes it pays to put off battling with a competitor in favor of bump drafting down the straights to make a gap to the cars behind you or catch up to the cars in up ahead. You frequently see Spec Miatas collaborating to bump draft right past competitors!

What being competitive means to me

Long before before I discovered race cars, I started describing my career as, “It’s not interesting to me unless there’s a risk of epic failure.” It turns out that’s also a really good description of my version of competitive.

I’ve always been a driven person, and I’m motivated by challenges. I need my challenges to be things I find interested or exciting (i.e. not basketball), where there’s a chance I could succeed at something really difficult, but also a risk of epic failure. When I encounter a challenge like that, I’m compelled to try to succeed and give it everything I’ve got. That compulsion is the trait I now call “competitive.” 

I think Betty Klimenko, Australian V8 Supercars’ only female team owner, has the best description of how racing ignites the competitive spirit:

 “For me, it’s not about the speed. It’s not the winning, either. It’s that it is so hard to win.”Betty Klimenko

Competing against other people

The biggest distinction between racing and all the other challenges I’ve taken on in my life is that racing is competing against other people. When I’m trying to build a website that does something no one has ever done before, it’s easy to say, “Well, maybe it wasn’t possible after all,” when I fail. But when you’re racing, someone is going to win, and you have to learn to deal with that someone not being you. Drivers who do track days and time trials tell me I’m brave for going wheel to wheel racing. I does take courage to race around the track at 100 mph inches away from other cars, but I think it takes even more courage to go out and risk that you might not be able to keep up with those other cars at all.

There’s more to competition than just competing with yourself. I often here people say, “I only compete with myself.” Competing with yourself and always trying to improve is a critical part of being successful, but you miss out when you never compete against others. When you measure yourself against superior competitors, you find out what’s possible. That possibility motivates you to find a way to achieve that performance yourself. Jim Pantas, our NASA-SE regional director, always says, “Everyone gets two seconds faster when they start wheel-to-wheel racing. It doesn’t matter what you did before; HPDE, time trials, whatever. Racing makes everyone two seconds faster.” And that’s because seeing what’s possible is so deeply motivating. There is nothing like that faster car ahead of you to inspire you to stretch yourself right in the moment when it counts.

Competitors give you real time feedback on your performance. When you’re racing wheel to wheel with other drivers, you instantaneously know where you measure up against them. You not only know they’re faster, but where and how they are faster. If you’re losing ground to another car in a particular turn, you know in the moment that if you want to get around the car ahead, you’ve got to be faster through that turn. Is its line different? Do you see its brake lights come on in a different spot than yours do? Maybe the next lap you’ll try what the other driver is doing to see if it works for you, too. Getting this instant feedback that you can see and use right away helps you improve more quickly than if you were lapping around on your own.

Competing versus comparing. “Don’t compare yourself to others,” is mantra I’ve heard repeated in yoga class, self help books and all over Instagram. It’s good advice. But don’t you have to compare to compete? Personally, I like to think of racing as measuring myself against the competition. The drivers at the front of the field are all significantly more experienced than I am. I can’t really compare my performance to theirs or tell myself, “I should be that fast right now,” because I just don’t have as much experience. To me, competing means going home after a race and working hard to make the gap to the front get a little bit smaller next time. Comparing would be a value judgement, thinking “I suck,” because I’m not as fast as the more experienced drivers. I can compete while still being on my own journey and not comparing myself to others.

Strong competition makes achievements more satisfying. One of the biggest reasons I chose to compete in Spec Miata is that it’s so hard to win. If I wanted to, I could take my Miata and compete in other, smaller classes and get on the podium. But I don’t, because it’s so much more satisfying to finish 11th out of 13 cars than it is to stand on the podium when you’re third out of three. Every position I gain on the grid or in a race is a meaningful achievement for me, because I know other drivers were doing their best to get into that spot, too.

Battling with other drivers on track is really fun. When Brad switched from racing a fast horsepower car in the small Super Unlimited class to Spec Miata, one of the reasons he cited was, “I’d rather have an epic battle for fifth place than lap around by myself in first.” And it’s not just Brad. Little kids ask you to play board games with them and dogs beg you to play tug because they know that life is more fun when you have someone else to play with. Racing door to door with an evenly matched competitor is so much fun, it’s the thing racers live for. If you have a great battle on track in one of our NASA-SE races, it’s customary to find your competitor after the race and give them a high five. No matter who finished ahead or what position you were battling for, you want to connect with the person who gave you such a fun challenge. And that’s why I’m now proud to say “I’m a really competitive person.” Because life is more fun when you have someone else to play with.