Several recent threads got me thinking about a watershed experience I had earlier this year. A group of people I worked with 20 years ago keep in touch and I see them about once every two years or so. One of them is a woman who teaches Zen Yoga. She's a highly respected professional in her field and does not make her living doing the yoga thing; rather, it's a lifestyle thing for her. In any event I was surprised to see her in the audience at a professional conference in which I was giving a presentation. After my presentation we spoke. She asked how I was and I said OK. Her response was, "Just OK? That's not like you." I responded that to some extent I was feeling a bit less joy these days. To make a long story a bit shorter, we spent the afternoon together talking. Here, to the best of my memory, is how the conversation went.
Abby: "So, are you still riding."
Me: "Yes, but feeling a bit guilty about it and enjoying it a bit less."
Abby: "Why guilty?"
Me: "I finally got the expensive custom made bike I've wanted for years late last summer, and I don't think I really deserve it in terms of my abilities."
Abby: "What's happened to your abilities?"
Me: "Well, as an example I was riding with (my oldest son) last week and we hit a hill that he used to struggle going up. This time around I was the one struggling just to hold his wheel. I was completely breathless at the stop while for him it was almost no effort."
Abby: "So, why does that trouble you? He's 30 years younger than you."
Me: "I don't know. I guess the competitive part of me just doesn't like getting trounced like that."
Abby: Laughs and says, "You competitive? No, I don't think so. Now my husband John is competitive."
Me: "Abby, I don't know what you mean. John likes winning and I like winning. Where's the difference."
Abby: "I don't see you as competitive at all. Rather, I see you as purposefully tenacious. When we worked together I saw you fearlessly take on our direct supervisor, the CEO, and even folks in the position to shut us down if they wanted to. You were like a little bull dog. But you didn't do it to beat anyone. You did it because you believed your ideas were correct and would do a better job of reaching the goals we were trying to achieve. It was never about you trying to out do someone else. Now my husband, he's competitive. He simply likes to beat other people. He wants others to be less than him in given situations. He wants to be the alpha in any sporting situation. That's being competitive, and that's not you."
Me: "Purposefully tenacious...sounds kind of odd. Where do you come up with this stuff?"
Abby: "Think about it, when you're riding and try to out sprint someone to the road sign, is it about making you stronger or beating them? I'm guessing you just like to do it because it's a way of pushing yourself, not because you want the other person to be less."
Me: "Abby, I think you are right. I'm not really interested in being better than someone else. I'm more interested in me getting better at something."
Abby: "It's important to know the difference between what you think you are and what you really are. You are very purposefully tenacious, but really not very competitive at all. So, stop worrying about the hill. What your son doesn't know is that while he might have mastered the hill for now, it is inevitable that the hill will someday not be mastered so easily. The question is if you're purposefully tenacious enough to still want to go where the hill takes you and willing to continue riding it."