We Need To Talk About Competition


For years I thought myself in competition with another writer—a writer, I should say, whom I’d never met. I first became acquainted with this writer nearly a decade ago when I joined a Facebook group for people applying to MFA programs in creative writing. Ostensibly, the purpose of the group was to exchange information and resources and to support others who were navigating the application process. However, once application deadlines had passed and people began posting news of their acceptances—acceptances that went out long before rejections—the group did more to provoke my anxiety than anything else. Every day in the springtime of that year I visited the group’s page religiously, compulsively, and it wasn’t long before I began to recognize the same name, the writer’s name, as he posted acceptance after acceptance from some of the country’s most prestigious writing programs—programs I had also applied to and would be rejected from in due time.

Eventually my own acceptance letter came, and though I had a relatively idyllic MFA experience, I found myself in the same situation two years later when I applied for post-graduate fellowships. This time I was rejected across the board and experienced a kind of professional déjà vu when one morning I opened an email announcing the winners of one fellowship I had applied to. There, written plainly, was the writer’s name. The following year, I applied to the same handful of fellowships, and the same thing occurred: a series of rejections and one morning an email announcing the writer had been awarded another fellowship. In subsequent years, the trend continued. I continued to write and apply for fellowships and residencies and scholarship programs to summer writers’ conferences, and very often when I received my rejection, I would scroll down and find the writer’s name among the list of awardees.

It wasn’t long before the writer announced he had signed with an agent and sold his first book. When the book was released, it was shortlisted for a national award. By then the idea that I was in competition with the writer seemed a bit preposterous—the trajectory of his career had catapulted so far beyond my own. And yet every time I read his name on some announcement or other, a variation of the same thought occurred to me.

I thought, “That was meant to be mine.”

I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve read in craft books, or heard writers proclaim in lectures or interviews or on social media, that writing is not a competition. It is a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with but one that can be difficult to integrate when, at times, this writing thing feels very much like a competition. When there are only so many slots in MFA or fellowship or residency programs, only so much available page space in publications.

Writing is not a competition.

I’ve written elsewhere about my experiences with professional jealousy and my belief that it is almost always a cover for disappointment. But there’s an important distinction, I think, between professional jealousy and competition. Julia Cameron elucidates this distinction in The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity more clearly than anything else I’ve read on the subject of competition. She writes, “You pick up a magazine—or even your alumni news—and somebody, somebody you know, has gone further, faster, toward your dream. Instead of saying, ‘That proves it can be done,’ your fear will say, ‘He or she will succeed instead of me.’”

The driving narrative of professional jealousy is that if I had what another writer has, I wouldn’t feel the way I feel (i.e., disappointed). But professional jealousy doesn’t require me to believe that another writer’s success precludes my own. Professional jealousy doesn’t—but competition does. The distinction between the two is a belief in scarcity.

Scarcity mentality tells me there are only so many pieces of the proverbial pie and only the worthy get fed. It is a mentality that fuels the construct of competition, and when it comes to the profession of writing, it is likely the unfortunate byproduct of trying to create art in a capitalist society in which value is determined by limited opportunities for success. But knowing this doesn’t make the construct feel any less real—or any less difficult to navigate.

Eventually I was able to deconstruct the belief that I was in competition with the writer, but it took years, and looking back I can see that its deconstruction was largely precipitated by two things.

The first was that I began teaching mindfulness practice for an Internet startup.

The term mindfulness practice has become a kind of catchall phrase for a variety of concepts and modalities. The definition of mindfulness practice I personally subscribe to is simply the practice of cultivating awareness, and I believe this practice can be broken down into two key components: nonjudgmental observation and inquiry.

Nonjudgmental observation, or noticing, as my friend Molly—a licensed therapist, life coach, and mindfulness teacher—likes to call it, is the act of paying attention to my physical, emotional, and mental states in the present moment from a position of neutrality. It involves noticing my physical surroundings through the vehicle of my five senses; noticing any internal sensations present in my body, including how my emotions are registering physiologically; and noticing whatever thoughts are occupying my mind at the time. In other words, nonjudgmental observation is the act of observing what is actually happening.

For me—and for most human beings I know—there is what’s happening, and then there is the story I tell myself about what’s happening. It is the difference between “I did not get the fellowship and that writer did” and “I did not get the fellowship because that writer did.” The distinction here may seem subtle, but those are two profoundly different perspectives, and if nonjudgmental observation asks me to notice what’s happening in the present moment, the second component of mindfulness practice—inquiry—asks me to identify and interrogate the story I’m telling myself about what is happening.

There is what’s happening, and then there is the story I tell myself about what’s happening.

In inquiry, I identify the story and ask myself questions like, “Is the story I’m telling myself about this situation true? Can I be certain that it’s true? What other stories might I tell about this same situation that might also be true?” The benefit of practicing inquiry in tandem with nonjudgmental observation is that together they help me bridge the gap between what is happening and the story I’m telling myself so that I can take whatever actions are most in alignment with my values, rather than acting out from a place of scarcity or fear.

I had been practicing this approach to mindfulness for nearly a decade, but it wasn’t until I started teaching it to other people that I began to understand that the mechanism driving the story of that writer and I as competitors was the mechanism that drives most of the stories we tell ourselves: the ego.

Like mindfulness practice, much has been written about the ego—by far more skilled and articulate mindfulness practitioners than myself—but in short, the ego is the part of the mind that engages in a continuous commentary on the world around us and the events of our lives. Unlike the part of the mind that is capable of neutrally observing, the egoic mind constantly judges and assesses and busies itself by replaying and recasting events of the past or projecting and rehearsing events of the future. Which is exactly what the ego was designed to do.

Neurobiologically, the egoic mind evolved to perform two functions: avoid pain and seek pleasure. However, the ego is relatively uninventive, because it only has one tactic by which it performs these two functions: it identifies a problem and then finds the solution. That’s it. That’s the only trick the ego has up its sleeve. But it performs this trick remarkably well, and it keeps us engaged in a kind of perpetual easter-egg hunt, rooting out problems (or creating problems where there are none) for the sole purpose of finding that problem’s solution—i.e., to avoid pain and increase pleasure. This was really helpful when we were all living in caves, but is perhaps less helpful when applying to creative writing fellowships or submitting short stories to contests.

But here’s the life-changing bit about the ego, and it is hands down the most radical and helpful piece of information I’ve ever conveyed as a mindfulness teacher: The ego has no investment in peace. The ego is not interested in freedom. It is not interested in serenity or sustained relief. What the egoic mind wants more than anything is to stay in control. Which is why, once it has found the perceived solution to the problem it has sought out, the ego quickly goes to work searching for a new problem to solve. It is a cycle that never ends.

Sometime during my third year as a mindfulness teacher, I read Eva Hagberg’s How to Be Loved: A Memoir of Lifesaving Friendship, which contains a fantastic illustration of the relationship between the ego’s disinterest in relief and the construct of competition. In How to Be Loved, Hagberg tells a story about her arrival at UC Berkeley, where she was one of several graduate candidates vying for a limited number of slots in the school’s PhD program in architecture. When someone asks Hagberg if she’s finding her peers in the program helpful, the question surprises her. “I didn’t feel like I’d come to grad school to make friends,” she writes. “My cohorts were my competition.”

For the egoic mind there is never safety in being equal because equality presents no problem to solve.

Hagberg goes on to explain: “Stepping into the architectural history graduate student workroom, I met my cohort, and looked to place myself on the ladder—smarter than the social historian over here; not as smart as the nineteenth-century-focused theorist over there. Right from the start, I was imbalanced, unequal, already separate, looking for people to tell me how great I was…I starved for the idea that I might know where I fit on the ladder, that I could be better. There had always been safety in being better, never safety in being equal.”

Ah, yes, I thought. There is never safety in being equal.

For the egoic mind there is never safety in being equal because equality presents no problem to solve, which is what makes competition an ideal construct for it. Competition keeps us in a constant state of assessing and comparing our worth in relation to others based on our attainment of what we perceive to be a finite resource: opportunity. Specifically, opportunities that are valuable (and therefore validating) precisely because they are finite.

We are either losing, or we are winning.

The former is the problem, the latter the solution.

The validation of our worth once again rests on scarcity.

This is why the ego thrives on competition.

The second thing that helped me deconstruct the story that the writer and I were competitors truly surprised me—mostly, I think, because the story’s deconstruction was facilitated via an unlikely source. Remember that book the writer wrote? The one that was shortlisted for a national award? I read it. And it was a beautiful book—a book I believed was doing important and necessary work.

It was also a book I had absolutely no desire to write.

And with that revelation, any delusion I had about being in competition with the writer lifted—and my god, was I relieved. Here was a book I was so grateful existed in the world, a book I believed was worthy of all the praise and attention it received, and yet given the chance, I would not have written that book. In fact, I don’t believe I could have written that book, if only because I had no interest in writing it. The writer’s style and aesthetic and thematic concerns were so wildly different from mine. How could we possibly be in competition? The notion suddenly struck me as absurd.

The belief that what is meant for me is always meant for me is not asking me to surrender to some cosmic higher power.

The myth of competition is the myth of meritocracy—the belief that recognition validates the best work as the best work—and the profession of writing is not immune to that myth. We’ve all heard the axiom that comparing works of art is like comparing apples to oranges, but it’s really like comparing apples to poodles to waterslides. All three are delightful in their own right but best suited to different purposes. It is tempting to believe that when I submit a short story to a literary contest or an application to a prestigious fellowship, whether or not my work is selected will be determined by its value compared to the rest of the applicant pool. That is, by whose work is the best. But that’s just a story. What an award or fellowship really affirms is how well my work aligns with the tastes and interests of the selection committee. It is not a determination of value, but of values.

The funny thing is, I already knew this—from my work as an editor.

For eight years, I edited fiction and nonfiction for a fairly niche but well-respected literary journal. Every year during our general submissions cycle, I read anywhere between seven hundred and twelve hundred submissions, and of those submissions I selected approximately a dozen for inclusion in our annual print issue. Over the years I rejected a lot of fantastic work, including work I very much wanted to publish. But not once during my tenure as an editor was I ever forced to choose the better of two pieces for publication. Every time I rejected a story or essay, I did so because it didn’t fit within the constellation of a given issue. The decision to accept or reject was never about worth; it was always about fit. And in that way, no two writers were ever truly in competition with each other for the same creative real estate.

When I read the writer’s book, I realized the same was true for him and me.

We were not competitors. We had never been.

Today when I find myself tempted to buy into the construct of writerly competition, there are two reminders I’ve found useful in recalibrating my mindset. Used together, these reminders invite me to return to the two components of mindfulness practice. The first reminder is a mantra my friend Molly offered me some years ago when I was struggling in a romantic partnership. She said, “Whatever comes, let it come. Whatever goes, let it go. What is meant for you is always meant for you.”

What I love about this particular mantra is its practicality. First, it subverts my competitive thinking by asking me to step outside the framework of the scarcity mentality in which artistic achievement is a zero-sum game. But beyond that, by working backward from this mantra, I can use it as a tool for engaging nonjudgmental observation. That process looks something like this: If I am not awarded a creative opportunity, whatever that creative opportunity may be, it isn’t because someone else has won what I’ve lost. It’s because the opportunity was not meant for me.

How do I know it wasn’t meant for me?

Because I didn’t get it.

The belief that what is meant for me is always meant for me is not asking me to surrender to some cosmic higher power that’s busy doling out and withholding treats, but rather to surrender to the higher power I believe we all must ultimately surrender to: reality. It asks me to notice what is actually happening.

The second reminder comes from one of my favorite modalities of secular mindfulness practice, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). In The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living, ACT practitioner Russ Harris advocates for a nuanced approach to inquiry. Instead of asking ourselves if the story we’re telling ourselves is true, Harris suggests we ask ourselves a different question: Is this story helpful? He writes, “You can waste a lot of time trying to decide whether your thoughts are actually true…again and again your mind will try to suck you into that debate. But although at times this is important, most of the time it is irrelevant and wastes a lot of energy. The more useful approach is to ask, ‘Is this thought helpful? Does it help me take action to create the life I want?’”

When I tell myself the story that I am competing with another writer, and I believe that story, I begin to doubt the value of my own work. And it is a short distance from doubting the value of my work to doubting the value of myself. Like Eva Hagberg, I begin jockeying for my place on the ladder of importance. My ego vacillates between asserting my worth (“I’m just as good as he is!”) and questioning it (“I’m just as good as he is, right?”). But ultimately that debate doesn’t serve me or my work, and it certainly doesn’t serve other writers or the literary community at large. Simply put, the construct of competition isn’t a particularly helpful one.

Now, it is important to acknowledge that the application of these tools to deconstruct stories of competition does not take place within a social or cultural vacuum. The writing and publishing industry, like any industry, has always privileged certain stories and certain storytellers to the diminishment of others. There are times when creative opportunities are not “meant for us” because systems of oppression and exclusion like racism, misogyny, heterosexism, queer- and transphobia, and ableism have predetermined that they are not meant for us. That’s not a story—that’s reality.

For me the entire point of incorporating mindfulness practice into my writing life and reframing constructs like competition is that the process encourages me to live in reality so that I can align myself with my values and take constructive action in their direction in order to stay within my integrity. A necessary part of that process—especially for individuals who belong to majority cultures—is acknowledging that systems of inequity are very much at play in the literary community. As writers, editors, publishers, and consumers of literature, we must ask ourselves if we truly value diversity and inclusive engagement. If we do—and I hope we do—it is imperative to consider how we are or are not putting those values into practice, and if we aren’t, we must ask ourselves why not and take action toward a more just version of literary stewardship.

In his essay “The Autobiography of My Novel,” Alexander Chee argues that “writing fiction is an exercise in giving a shit—an exercise in finding out what you really care about.” The same could be said about the writing life. When I deconstruct the construct of competition and return my attention to what I truly care about, which is the work, rather than the success and validation of that work, or how that success measures up to the success of my peers, I experience a shift. It is a shift away from the problem-finding-and-solving machinations of the ego and toward the present moment—the only place from which the work can be done.

“What is Meant for You is Always Meant for You: A Mindful Approach to Writerly Competition” was first published by Poets & Writers Magazine (October/September 2023). Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Poets and Writers, Inc., 90 Broad Street, New York, NY 10004. www.pw.org.

Read the original article here

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