Are There Any Winners In A Competitive World?

Why are some people so competitive? You'll know the sort – you might even be one.  Your neighbour puts up a few fairylights in their front garden come Christmas time, you decide to turn your home into Santa's Grotto. Your friend cooks you a souffle, you feel distraught if you can't respond with a Baked Alaska. Your sister has a nice faux diamond ring, you can't resist mentioning that yours is the 'real thing'. Not that I'm suggesting any of the lovely people that regularly visit this website would ever be that kind of person! But if you just dropped by in accident you might well be. Because the truth is there are plenty of people out there who can never resist the opportunity to compete with anyone and everyone in their lives.

I used to work with a woman who claimed she was a great cook. To illustrate this, she would bring samples into work. Which was, of course, very generous. Except that she really couldn't cook. Everything tasted of garlic and onions … and I'm talking about hot cross buns and chocolate cake here! Of course, there's nothing wrong with not being a great cook, but when you not only think you are, but are tempted to claim that all your friends' hubbies flock to your door because they'd rather eat your food than the stuff their wives cook, you really ought to resist. 

Of course, some people's boasting is based on fact. But that makes it no less aggravating to any other kind. I've overheard parents bragging as they compare the relative intelligence, creativity and sportiness of their kids. Personal pride at having given birth/raised such a fine human being aside, they use their children's relative achievements at best as a flag to wave or a cosh with which to hit other parents over the head. And it causes tensions. It's little more than little boys do when they boast their dads could beat up their rivals' dads. As a non-parent, I probably shouldn't pass comment, but it's always struck me as a bad example to set for those precious kids anyway.Competition may be essential in sports, a good thing in business, even. But competition in parenting? Come on! 

The problem with competition is that it can end in an ugly, undignified scramble. Especially if two or more competitive individuals lock horns. Things quickly get out of hand when neither party will let things rest. Making ever more outrageous boasts, spending more and more money, putting odder and odder garden ornaments on display. And competition seems to be everywhere these days.

Even our dentist has begun 'marking' our teeth! Seriously, the last time I went I was presented with a detailed score of everything from gum health to tooth appearance. Obviously, before I upset all dentists (and particularly the chap who may well one day have a power drill hovering over my smile), I realise that this is a good thing. It allows you to see, check-up by check-up just how well, or badly I suppose, your teeth are faring. But when you happen to find yourself attending at the same time as other family members it's not so good. Particularly one who happens to be just a little bit competitive, especially when it comes to teeth ('ten years without a check-up and all I needed was a scale-and-polish' and that sort of thing …). 

But that's the problem, even the most non-combative amongst us can find it difficult not to join in once someone starts competing and it's all around us. It didn't always used to be this way. When I was at school our (very socialist, as it happens) local education authority all but banned competition. Schools were discouraged from rewarding success or achievements by individual pupils. Only sporting achievement was really formally recognised and, while it's great that we were taught it was about how hard we tried, not how well we did, that really counted, it didn't really fulfill the very human need to be best at something. 

Which is why, I suppose, people like to watch quiz shows. Not to see who's the cleverest, but to see how many questions they can answer themselves. Believe it or not, I've heard people comparing notes on how many Mastermind questions they could answer! And watching that competitive spirit degenerate into virtual bitchiness is doubtless why programmes like 'Come Dine With Me' draw in so many viewers. Not that I don't understand the urge to compete. I find it hard to watch any football match, or any sporting occasion for that matter, without choosing to cheer on one team or competitor over the others. And I can get just a teeny bit competitive when playing Trivial Pursuits. Perhaps it's just a character thing. Because the only things I've ever been reasonably good at have been indefinable things that you can't really score (I'm not sporty, or good at maths, I can't build anything, or invent things, or understand gravity or anything useful like that), this has left me used to being 'quite good', 'reasonably good', or 'competent' at several things. And I'm okay with that. 

But some people find it essential that everyone knows what they're good at. Or even what they have. Which is when being competitive turns into being boastful. Things like huge, professional portrait photos on the walls, personalised number plates and frequent Facebook updates with photos of their latest glamorous parties might be intended to show how well a person is doing, but have the unfortunate side-effect of seeming shallow and boastful. Sometimes, of  course, this is over confidence.

Take a former co-worker of mine. Whatever the conversation, she could always 'better' me. We might be talking about cooking. Say, some new recipes. I might tell her where I'd found one for a great, healthy casserole. She'd have one using rare truffle oil. Or I might mention that the supermarket delivery had to be cancelled because of the snow. She'd casually drop into the conversation that her weekly organic vegetable box delivery was 20 minutes later because the rickshaw it always came in had a puncture. 

But the thing is, when people get obsessed about outdoing you, they tend to get desperate. And when they get desperate, they get careless. They begin to exaggerate more and more. Fib a little, even. They show you their wedding photos and the beautiful 'handmade' shoes that she found in some tiny specialist boutique. And this is where, should you be terribly competitive yourself, you could bite back. Because you've seen those shoes before. In fact they're  at the bottom of your wardrobe … in their original Marks and Spencer packaging. Now, as it happens, I'm not a particularly competitive person, so my co-worker friend escaped unchallenged on this particular point. But it made me wonder just how much of what she'd previously claimed (in particular some of the very impressive tales of her exotic gap year) had indeed happened.

And it changed the dynamic between us, although I doubt she noticed it. Because, instead of being quietly, and politely, impressed by her tales, I began to ask for details. Just a little idle investigation, you understand. Not at all competitive. One day we happened to be discussing holidays. In the middle of one of those meandering conversations (you know the sort, you start of discussing litter on the street and end up talking about jam) someone mentioned the Grand Canyon.  My co-worker immediately launched into her tale of adventure, talking right across everyone else. Had she waited, or even paused a second, she would have learned that she was not the only one to have visited this gigantic natural wonder. Okay, I may not know much about the beaches of Bali, the Temples of Thailand or the hot springs of Hawaii, but when it comes to the Grand Canyon, I can hold my own.

I mentioned I had been there, overflown the canyon in a tiny Cessna, as it happened. She paused, only briefly, to comment that I had done the 'tourist' thing, as she called it, something which she and her fella would never had considered. No, they had taken the far more adventurous decision to take a mule ride right to the bottom of the canyon and back. I admit I was a little impressed. I'd seen people making their way down the canyon along the trails. It looked steep and difficult and very, very hot and, although the mules are doing most of the work, it didn't seem at all like fun to me. So I was impressed, but only up to a point. Up to the point, in fact, where, shall we say, fantasy began to take over. Because she couldn't quite resist embellishing her tale just a little bit. As I say once she'd heard the words 'Grand Canyon' she'd  ceased to listen to anything anyone else said. Far too excited to be able to get her own personal story out, she was. Which was a pity because had she listened she'd have known I knew the area quite well. That I had been there three times. Walked around some of the rim. And stayed overnight in a lodge. And I know that after dark the park is only sparsely lit and, while it's utterly beautiful, there's not a lot to do once you've admired the stars. So you read. In particular you read the dozens or so leaflets about the Grand Canyon and the activities you can participate in. And so you know all about the different ways to get down to the canyon floor. And how long they take. I know that you can ride a mule to the foot of the canyon, right down to the Colorado River. Or you can take a trip part way down, or even along the rim. But all this takes time. An hour for a little stroll, half a day for a brief trip into the canyon and part way to the river. All day to the bottom and two-days on a mule to the river and back. 

So, when my co-worker announced she had been to the bottom of the canyon, paddled in the Colorado River and been back at the rim in time for lunch, I knew she was making it up. I was presented with a quandry. Should I say anything? I mean she was clearly 'mistaken'. Her achievement was quite impossible (unless she'd been riding Champion the Wonder Mule) and, without wishing to compete with her, it did seem she was getting far too much credit for a story that was so clearly fiction. Strangely, I didn't so much mind that she was impressing everyone with her fanciful claims, as I did her assuming that she was so clever, so wordly, that no-one else would know any better. But I resisted the temptation to intervene. Because I was raised to be polite and because I didn't think she deserved to be 'outed' quite so publicly. But primarily because it would just have seemed so darned competitive to challenge her. And that's so not me. At least not most of the time. 

A couple of years ago I took one of those history holidays – about the Second World War as it happened. As we got to know our fellow history enthusiasts better, we began to entertain ourselves with some of those cutesy dinner party break-the-ice conversations. One day, over lunch, someone suggested revealing the most famous person each of us had ever met.  In truth mine wasn't all that difficult. There was only really one candidate because a few years ago I met Charlton Heston. While the circumstances weren't all that impressive (I stood in a long queue for nigh on an hour to shake hands and have a photograph taken as the veteran actor promoted his autobiography at a book fair) but I thought this would be a pretty impressive answer nonetheless. As we all sat their mulling over our choice, one of our group – a delightfully charming lady who had worked on radar during the war – shifted a little uncomfortably in her seat. And, as it happened, she was the first to be asked. She seemed none to keen to go first, suggesting that we should begin with someone else. But, encouraged to join in, she gave her answer.

'Well, I suppose it would be The Queen', she stated serenely. It brought the conversation topic to an abrupt halt. There seemed little point in continuing after that. 

And it reminded me of an important lesson. No matter how much you think you can out-do someone, there's always someone, waiting near by, ready and able to out-do you!