Not the best but for the better


Sometimes the point of an endeavour is not about winning, but simply to be better today than you were yesterday

I never thought of myself as a competitive person as a young adult, but I did refuse to celebrate my 14th birthday because I had final exams two days later.

My family surprised me with homemade strawberry-and-vanilla cake when I came home from school that day. I said: "I don't have time for this", ate one grudging slice and locked myself in my room to study.

I didn't consider myself competitive as a child but long after my brother forgot that he won a swim meet in his age group (six years), I remembered not winning in my age group that year (eight years) and coveted his prize. It was a red tin tray with the sponsor's logo. Both paint and logo wore off in about six months, leaving a slowly oxidising sheet of increasingly battered metal.

If anyone suggested throwing it out, I would make a huge fuss, reminding the family that it was a sports prize. "Did you win this?" they would ask and I would admit that I hadn't. It was still as important to me as if I had, though.

Am I alone in recalling a secondary school essay that netted only an honourable mention, while a classmate's on the same topic won an inter-school prize? Surely I'm not the only person who hung wistfully around morning sports practice, hoping to be spotted for the school hockey team the day after my cousin, only two months distant in age, got in.


I don't remember wins, I remember losses and second places. I am competitive, I am indeed, but the reasons that drive me have changed since I was two years old and watching a new baby get most of the family's attention, nursery rhymes and puppet shows (I liked shadow elephants, made with a grown-up arm held against a torch).

There are two kinds of competition. The first kind is impossible to avoid for any child. Either you grow up with siblings and fight for parental attention or you grow up an only child and at school and the playground fight for the same undivided attention you receive at home.

Children's rivalry for adult attention is a primal urge. Like ancient farmers placating the gods of rain and sun, children want to know when the creators of bedtime and bathtime and TV-time are pleased. Like those same farmers, at the mercy of the uncontrollable, adult laughter or focus assures children that they are not entirely without power even if they do have to get up, go to sleep, eat, bathe and stop playing when someone else commands.

I grew up with six cousins and a younger brother, was loved and disciplined by whichever set of parents was in charge at the time, but competition was a fact of family life. If one of us got the adults laughing over a joke, others vied to come up with something funnier. If one of us sang beautifully, I would hum hopefully for days afterwards, within adult hearing. When we played Monopoly competitively, one cousin always landed first on Park Lane and Mayfair, the richest properties, and some of us (me) were ready to take her to court - our grandmother - for adjudication.

School, of course, adds another layer of competition to the family dynamic. For children or teens or anyone whose identity is still being formed, it is deeply reassuring to find a category in which one fits, whether it is being pegged as "the artist" or "the athlete" or "the champion reader" or even "the one who always acts out in maths class by dropping marbles".

Maybe the marble-dropper was actually the brainy one, but found the teacher's pace too slow and boring; maybe the champion reader wished she were a national-level athlete with a tin tray or 10 to her name but we didn't fight too hard to change our labels.

It is deeply frightening for a half-formed identity to contemplate transformation. Better to compete as the sole contestant and default winner in the category one has been placed in, even if this is a category arbitrarily chosen by circumstance and not actual desire.

Competition for the sake of winning, for the sake of adulation and a roaring crowd, may or may not drive athletes to the Olympic Games. It will drive a child to tears when she fails to win an after-school swimming race at the age of eight because the effort was all in the hope of an external reward.

Then there is the competition that results in inner change, that drives this same child to concentrate on improving her stroke, even if she fails to win anything year after year (still hasn't won). Winning is not the point of this competitive urge. The point is to be better today than you were yesterday, to congratulate yourself on passing milestones and look forward to the still long road ahead.

I used to help out in a primary school and while overseeing the children at recess one day, got scolded by a classroom teacher for not stopping a 10-year-old from seeing how many times she could jump over the skipping rope. The kid kept on going long after she had broken her classroom record, face set in grim determination. "Stop her or she'll kill herself trying," the teacher said.

How could I stop her? I recognised that urge to keep on going just to see how far you can go. The teacher called out to the child but she kept jumping until she was ready to stop and pour a bottle of water on herself.

This is competition for the sake of personal excellence, not to find out what people say about you but to find out new things about yourself.

My cousins and I are all adults now, comfortable in our skins and with the identities we have chosen in our careers and hobbies. Free of the boxes of early childhood, we are free to rediscover one another and forge stronger relationships.

I visited the artist in Hyderabad recently and had a fabulous time going on long runs with her, discussing training schedules and running a 5km race around the historic Golconda Fort. We finished almost at the same instant and she changed her social media profile to a picture of the two of us, sweaty and triumphant at the finish line.

A couple of weeks ago, she beat my personal best timing in a 10K race. I applauded her and signed up for a 10K as well. I never did get into her hockey team, but see no reason why I can't match her pace at the next finishing line.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 13, 2015, with the headline 'Not the best but for the better'. Print Edition | Subscribe