It took me five or six years to figure out that other couples don’t play games the way my wife and I do. We’ve got a massive collection of pretty much every game either of us has ever owned, and when we get together with another couple, reaching for one of them is still one of our favorite things to do. But over the years we’ve noticed that with some of our friends, one partner will like to play games and the other won’t. Sometimes we’ve noticed something even weirder:
Couples that play nice.
We don’t play nice. We’re nice to each other, mind you, in the sense of not (generally) being disrespectful or anything like that. And we’re not making strategically poor choices just to mess each other up or anything like that.
But we each play to win. If one of us is on a winning streak of several games, we don’t hold back to spare the other’s feelings. If you want to feel better about yourself, play better. We don’t hold back when we play with the kids either. We might play with a handicap, but then we still do our damnedest to win. If you beat either of us at anything, you know you really beat us.
I think both of us figure that to give anything less than your best in a friendly competition is to disrespect the other. My wife’s better than I am at Scrabble, but I win my fair share of games. Those wins would feel empty if I thought she was holding back.
What was that notion that got all the buzz in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers a couple years ago? To become world class at something, you need to put in the time, with 10,000 hours or more of practice. But specifically you need focused practice, geared toward getting better. I’ve gotten better at Scrabble since I’ve known Lisa, because nothing less than my best is enough for me to win a game.
It applies to writing, too. We’ve both harbored dreams of becoming published writers for years, but one of the things that has kept us motivated is each of us seeing the other chasing that dream. How many words are you up to? You’ve got fifty thousand now? Crap. Guess I better get the laptop out.
There are tons of blog posts out there on how very destructive it is as a writer to be competitive, to be looking at what kind of deal someone else got, or how someone else’s book is selling. And I don’t disagree that there’s a lot of truth in that sentiment. But I think there’s good competitive and there’s bad competitive.
And there’s being a sore loser, which is an entirely different thing.
I’m not a big fan of that T-shirt that says “Second place is the first loser.” It’s a cute phrase, but ultimately it’s a destructive sentiment. Trying to win doesn’t preclude being gracious in defeat as in victory, and winning is not so important that it’s worth achieving at the cost of being dishonest–or rather, winning dishonestly is not actually winning at all.
I guess good competitive is when seeing what someone else can achieve makes you aware of what it’s possible to achieve, and makes you try harder to get better.