I was talking to a couple of coworkers earlier this week about working under pressure. One of my coworkers is working on a certification in her career field, and she mentioned that 50% of the people that take the test do not pass. I said that is exactly the kind of thing that would motivate me to pass, and she looked at me like I was crazy.
It’s true, though. With the right amount of external pressure, I excel. It doesn’t always feel good at the time, but you can’t argue with the results.
For example, a project I’ve been working on stalled for a while. When the CTO made it clear that we were going to demo the project in less than a week, I panicked. We didn’t have enough time. There were too many features that weren’t tested. It looked like an impossible task.
The reality was that it was possible. It was just difficult. I wound up working extra hours, and I pushed and I shoved and I swore, and in the end, we had something that was not only presentable, it was impressive.
It is something I’ve known about myself for several years. It came out during therapy, when I was having trouble working. My therapist illuminated several areas in my life where, if I wasn’t competing, I was inert.
I’ve mentioned competitiveness and external pressure as though they are interchangeable. They are different things, but I’m able to turn pressure into a competition. When I’m in a position where I have to do something that would be extremely difficult, like the software project I mentioned, it turns into a battle. It is me versus the clock. In that context, if I don’t get the project finished, I lose. And I hate to lose. I have to win. Always.
Well, not always. I’ve learned to back off a little when trying to play a game for fun, with people I care about, or people I’m ostensibly supposed to be teaching. There is no joy in destroying your young child in a game of chess when they’re just learning the game.
But even then, I’m an asshole enough to want to win. I’m just mature enough now to recognize the folly, and to focus on other things I want, such as making other people happy, or fostering good will.
I’m a competitive asshole. So what? Lots of people are, right?
I bring it up because it is a very large part of who I am. Without a sense of competition, I find it difficult to move forward with projects. This includes writing.
Isn’t that amazingly silly? The act of writing is one of the least competitive activities in my life. It is a solitary activity. It is about using imagination and words to create something new and interesting. It is communicating ideas and fantasies to some future audience that you may or may not ever meet.
There are ways to turn it into a competition, certainly. There are writing contests, and there are awards to covet. During NaNoWriMo, some people participate in “word wars” where they see who can write the most words in a short amount of time.
For me, it isn’t enough. I look for and long for places where I can try to excel as a writer. When I’m in a writer’s group, I want to be the best writer in the group. I try to be nice to everyone involved, but underneath my smiles, I want to win.
What do I do when I’m not in a writer’s group? What about the stories I’m working on that I haven’t shared?
Well, that is a problem. It is difficult to find motivation to finish. My fantasy story, A Clean Slate has been growing very slowly. My original time table was to have the first draft done in May, and here we are in September and I’m not even through the first act.
Then there are the short stories. When Writer’s of the Future turned down a story I’d worked really hard on, some part of me became convinced that it was not a place I was capable of competing. I haven’t been able to bring myself to write a short story since.
It’s a troubling dilemma. I’m looking at the problem and I see myself. I’m unhappy when I’m not writing, and at the same time, I’m struggling with a fundamental aspect of my personality that seems to be at odds with this hobby.
I have been a little bit self-deprecating with this post, and I don’t want to end this with the wrong idea. I do not believe that being competitive is a bad thing. When I use it properly, I’m driven, and I accomplish great things.
What I need to do is learn how to use my competitiveness to stay focused on my writing. Money is not the answer. If I was only interested in money, I would focus more on my programming.
Writer’s groups aren’t really the answer. I want to be a part of them, but I need to suppress my competitive side in that area, so that I’m not a jerk.
Setting arbitrary dates has not been sufficient. I’ve set tons of dates, but none of them have had any real meaning. It’s like trying to play chess with yourself. It just isn’t very interesting.
What do you think? Maybe there’s an obvious answer, and I’m too close to the problem to see it.