the spaz of fitness has arrived

Competitiveness, Ambition, and Peace

In Uncategorized on August 3, 2013 at 8:10 pm

In these last weeks of our dwindling summer, I’ve been blessed with enough time to write again– which is… life-giving. I forget, sometimes, when I ‘m caught up with studying and teaching and micro-managing that I became a writer because I literally don’t know any other way of existing. My experiences become ruminations, become reflections (wise or unwise, insightful or insipid), become emotions that must become words that must reach a page and a reader or else I feel… incomplete. And unfulfilled.

I’ve started a small piece of nonfiction– not sure if it’ll evolve into much of anything, but right now it is the best catharsis. And it has made me human again. It has also led me to some thinking that I believe I can relate to CrossFit.

I’d like to draw a distinction between petty competitiveness and personal ambition, which I think is often conflated.

For the purposes of my discussion, I’m going to use “competitiveness” to describe the will to compare oneself to others– that need to prove oneself against others, to “defeat” the competition. Ambition, on the other hand, is more the impulse to fulfill one’s own potential– or to push that potential. The former is externally motivated, the latter more internally so.

In CrossFit, the externally “competitive” athlete is the one tempted to cheat reps– to be discouraged by others’ achievements. He’s not necessarily mean-spirited, and certainly not by definition a bad person, but he cannot help but define himself according to the rise and fall of others. The ambitious athlete is much more stable. He evaluates his progress based on his own abilities and aspirations. He will repeat his rep if he knows he could have done better. He will go home satisfied, even if he finished last, if he finished with all he had to give.

It’s a blurry distinction, and one that doesn’t manifest all that differently sometimes, but I think it’s a necessary one to recognize because it changes so much about our attitudes. The petty competitiveness that I’m describing, I believe, originates not from malice, but from crippling insecurity. It appears (and I think it appears in all of us, at one point or another) when we feel less confident in ourselves, and when we need the validation of others… when we haven’t defined for ourselves our personal standards for our own satisfaction, and instead rely on others.

By contrast, ambition occurs when we have the self-confidence and determination to define our goals and to pursue them– the rest of the world be damned. Individuals feeling competitive can be made small and downtrodden by others’ accomplishments. They may even resent these achievements. The ambitious individual can see those achievements as apart from his own actions, and can applaud them– even as he experiences his own setbacks.

I’ve noted this more because I feel like, when I was younger (not that I’m alllll too old or wise now), I was much more frequently “competitive.” I wanted to be “better”– not out of ill will, but because that seemed like… well, the thing to do. It seemed like a way to mark my progress in life– that I was doing something worthwhile. In recent years, I’ve realized that’s no way to live at all. Much too anxiety-inducing. And, even those moments in which I “beat” others felt… empty– because they weren’t based off any standards I set for myself, or any goals tailored to my own dreams… They were just meaningless external representation of some sort of superficial milestone.

I’ve found a lot more peace trying to build my personal ambition. It doesn’t matter what the fuck the other girls deadlift if I can manage to get through this workout in good positions– if I can push myself while improving my form. If I can get the damn weight off the ground without injuring my spine again.

As the summer semester concludes, I’m getting a lot of emails from my students, asking: “How do I get an A on this paper?” “Will you read this an tell me if it’s an A.” “Did I get an A on this assignment?” And I am dismayed. Because, all semester, I work on building them as writers… I try to broaden their minds, their thoughts, their ability to think critically. Honestly, I don’t think about how many points this is worth or what grade this assignment will apply to until later. That’s not my purpose.

But, of course, I understand. I was grade-obsessed as a student. I was the Asian stereotype crying in my seventh-grade classroom when I saw a B+. And I’m not denying my students their worldview… there is significance to grades, and ultimately the underrepresentative letters they accumulate each semester will possibly mean something somewhere when they try to take their ambitions out of the university and into a larger world. But it’s not everything. It’s so far from everything. I want my students to ask me if this paper has thoroughly explored the topic. I want my students to ask if they’ve effectively captured the emotions they tried to express in their narratives. I want my students to ask how more they can learn. How more they can grow. I want them to understand their progress when they leave my classroom not by the stupid letter I have to turn into the office, but by their understanding of language– before, and after. By the fact that, hopefully over this semester, their world has become a little bigger. A little more complex. Possibly even a little more scary.

I know I can’t live in a dream world. We do live in a universe that operates by these external validations and, for most of us, these predetermined standards and external comparisons will need to happen at some point. But I think we can survive them with much more sanity– and possibly perform better through them if we orient ourselves to our own abilities and our own landmarks. The Regionals athlete who fell a few places short of the Games can’t help a little external comparison. These other athletes advanced before him. But he started from a different place, with different abilities. He has a life with different challenges. He can be disappointed. But he can also know that he now squats twice what he did a year ago, or that he halved his Fran time, or that he took himself to Regionals with a year of experience, and that he has another year of training and another year to cultivate his potential. Hell, he can know that outside the Games, he has a career and a family. Perhaps the best moment of his year was watching his kid graduate elementary school, or spending a week with his family away from the rest of the world. Having those things– knowing those things, and knowing that they matter more so than any outside validation– will keep him sane, and will carry him to whatever his next goals are.

Setting our own standards rather than relying on those of others is harder. It actually involves more self-assurance– the belief that you know what’s best for you, and the confidence that you can pursue it with everything you have. But I’m coming to believe it’s the only way to survive this world and the disappointments it will inevitably throw at you. For me, it’s actually allowed me to smile and shrug at shortcomings that would’ve crushed a much younger, much more insecure Jo.

The “distinction” I’ve created here is false… of course. There’s probably more a spectrum between petty competition and entirely self-assured, self-driven ambition. But I’m going to try to keep leaning towards the latter… and hopefully, keep smiling.

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