Hating to Win: Why I Undermine My Own Success

My senior year of high school, I was one of two students nominated by my German teacher to compete for a foreign language scholarship. The prize was $500.

“Suzanne,” the other student, and I both wanted to win badly. We were friends; Suzanne was close with April, my girlfriend, which made it desperately awkward. “I’m staying out of this,” April said, “I wish you both could win.”

The day before the scholarship interviews (in German and English) that would determine the winner, I felt this inexplicable certainty descend on me that I would win. And I felt this equally powerful certainty that I needed to step aside.

I couldn’t get Suzanne’s face out of my mind; I couldn’t stop imagining her disappointment if she lost or her elation if she won.

I told my mom that night that I was dropping out. Suzanne could have the prize. I knew she was smart and talented and might well win anyway, but still I couldn’t bear the thought that she might not. My intuition said the scholarship was mine.

“I don’t want anything I have to compete with other people for,” I said; “I don’t ever want to get anything at another’s expense.”

(One of the things I liked about distance running? I was competing only against clocks and my own best time, not other people. The only reason I don’t throw Monopoly games or ping-pong matches is because it pisses people off when you let them win; I compete hard because it’s necessary, but I despise every moment of it. It is nice to be defeated when one has actually tried!)

Mama sat me down, told me that alas, I would spend the rest of my life competing for scholarships and teaching positions and (she said this with a smile) maybe even romantic partners.

“Just do your best,” mom said. “You’re not the one making the decision. And you can’t protect people all the time.”

Mama was smart enough to sense I was in particular anguish because Suzanne was female. It would have been easier, but still difficult, if it had been a Steven I was besting.

I did the interview, nauseous the whole time, and won the scholarship. The day after the winner was announced, Suzanne hugged me before class. “I’m so happy for you,” she said. She had tears in her eyes, and four seconds later I had them in mine, and we both had to step out and cry together on the lawn outside the classroom. She was gracious as could be; I was grateful and guilt-ridden to my core.

I have never, ever gotten used to winning, I still hate it, and if you look at my life, you’ll see plenty of times I’ve undermined my own imminent triumphs just because I couldn’t bear success. I’m not sure I want to suddenly find a competitive edge in my 50s; I don’t think I could live with the man I would become.

On the other hand, my children deserve a father with perhaps a little bit more ambition to make a good life for them. I don’t have much fire in my belly for success, and what fire I do have I loathe.

But those who depend on me need me to do what I would rather not do, and so I do.