Competition and Envy

In first grade, I was part of a great rivalry. Once per week in gym class, we ran a perimeter loop around the softball fields in front of my school. The first 10 students to finish the loop won baseball cards—not the greatest incentive for this seven-year-old girl. But, unofficially, the first student to finish also got bragging rights on the playground, and this was incentive enough for me. The problem was my foe, Jon.* He was very fast, and our victories were split. It was an edifying rivalry, to be sure, and he made me a lot better, since I almost had to de-combust to beat him. But Jon was a sore loser. (It takes one to know one.) On the days when it was clear I would secure the victory, he would suddenly stop running and say, “Today, I’ll let you win.” And he would walk it in.

*Names have been changed.

I’ll let you win.

Decades later, this still makes me angry, so I guess I need to work on my forgiveness. And while I was not exactly a gracious loser myself (understatement of the millennium), at least I could admit defeat. Jon’s response was such that, if he did not win, I could not win either. He deprived me of my victories. This is an example of envy in competition.

Envy

Envy is “feeling bitter when others have it better” (1). Unlike greed—which is plainly acquisitive and just wants what others have, too (e.g. I want more money like you have!)—envy wants the very thing the other person has (2). Envy would even be appeased if the other person ceased to have that good thing so that neither of you had it. It is fueled by feelings of comparative inadequacy, so resolving a perceived imbalance, in whatever way possible, appeases envy.

Athletic competitions are ripe with occasions for envy because we compete for a limited good. Only one person wins. So, unless you tie—which is, more often than not, a concession that both of you lose—the other person’s victory comes at the cost of your own. And the temptation for envy can be incredibly strong when performance incentives are greater than playground bragging rights.

But envy ruins what makes competition worthwhile. It can’t celebrate the victories of other people. It is insecure and insatiable, and it will always have more work to do to try to correct for comparative imbalances. Envy is exhausting. It imperils relationships and reframes athletic competition as a zero-sum game. And it is not a necessary part of sport. You can be competitive without being envious. So how do we get rid of it?

I am still working on that myself, but this is what I have so far:

  1. You can expand what it means to win.

Only one person crosses the line first, but there are so many other ways to measure a victory. Other measurables—like improvements on a course, running courageously, practicing patience, or doing a better job meting out your effort on a hilly course—can be reframed as victories. And none of these things are limited goods. Everyone can win at patience. Everyone can do their best at the same time, and that makes the competition even stronger so you can get the best out of yourself. I’d rather get buried in an honest field than be victorious in a weak one.

  1. Actively practice your gratitude.

It is hard to be grateful and envious at the same time. Try it.

I really do mean ‘practice’ gratitude, in the same way that we practice other aspects of the sport—like downhill descents and remaining calm at threshold pace. Often in this sport, we work hard to fine-tune minor aspects of our physical performance, and then we throw up our hands regarding our character. We need to practice that, too. We won’t develop good characters by accident.

  1. Make other people’s successes your own delight, and you’ll never run out of reasons to celebrate.

I used to teach this to my middle and high-school track athletes, and I was always overwhelmed by the ways in which they encouraged each other and were each other’s cheerleaders. Sometimes you can’t race well. Other times you can’t race at all, but there is always someone out there doing something worth celebrating. Seek it out, and cheer it on. This takes nothing away from your own successes.

Final Thoughts

After first grade, Jon switched school districts, so I didn’t see him for years. A decade later, I saw him at a regional Brain Bee (a neuroscience competition structured like a spelling bee). Again we were competitors, and we recognized each other immediately. My first thought was, “My foe!” I felt all the old resentment and wanted to invite him outside for a rematch. Alternatively, Jon greeted me with incredible warmth and kindness, as an old friend. His memories of the rivalry were positive, and—as it turns out—he really is a lovely person.

Neither of us were good competitors in first grade. If I am being honest, we were both guilty of envy. Years later, it is still not always easy to celebrate the victories of my competitors, but I am going to keep practicing. It’s freeing to not have my identity tied up in the performances of other people, and it is a whole lot more fun to celebrate than to crumble when my competitors do well.

Postscript

I beat Jon in the Brain Bee.

He did not let me win.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What is your relationship with envious thoughts? Are you occasionally prone to them and how do you process them?
  • In what parts of your life do you sometimes feel envy?

References

  1. DeYoung, Glittering Vices. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009. p. 41.
  2. Ibid. p. 43.
Sabrina Little

is a trail runner and ultrarunner for HOKA and Nathan Sports, and a Philosophy PhD student at Baylor University. She is trying to figure out whether it is more unreasonable to pursue mountain running in Waco, Texas (elevation 470 feet) or philosophy in the year 2018. Learn more about Sabrina on her website.

There are 4 comments

  1. Amy M

    Yay – I always love Sabrina’s articles! I ended last year feeling very envious of others’ running abilities and races, and I went into this year intentionally trying to change. My envy is usually less about results – I’m a slow runner and if I tried to measure my running success in finishing place, I’d be in for a world of hurt – but I do find myself envious of where other people get to do their runs, the time they have to do it, the people they do it with. I found that Strava was a big problem for me and I no longer look at it except to log my own miles. I’ve also tried to surround myself with people with vastly different running goals as a reminder that one person finding success does not take away from my ability to do so as well. Comparison is the thief of joy!

  2. John Vanderpot

    I’m beginning to wonder if irf’s upped their wages or X-mas bonuses or something — there have been some really thoughtful and engaging and interesting pieces here lately, I’ve even been recommending some to my non-running friends…wow!

  3. Graham

    Amy M – I’ve had the same problem with Strava, I don’t think you’re alone! I’m migrating over to another platform where doing comparisons is less easy, but Strava is handy for working out routes in a new area.

    Sabrina – a very helpful article, something that is applicable to everything in life and not just running and Brain Bees… :-)

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