Winning for love?

When my little 2-year old nephew does something he likes, he looks at it, then looks up, and confidently says, “Mooi!”, which is Afrikaans for “Beautiful!”. So full of love and appreciation of what he is doing, whatever has been done or created — is good. Once, in my failed attempt to give him some physical love after he fell, he bent down and kissed his own muddy knee — showing me how it’s done.

Have you ever seen a child do a drawing then looking at the kid next to him, and then start crying and throwing a tantrum because his drawing isn’t as good as his neighbour’s? In my experience, I have never seen this happen. They are confidently drawn into their own fantasy world — so caught up in enjoying what they are doing fully at the moment, that they don’t even think of anybody else, or compare their skills as being less than another’s. They are simply present in wonder — undisturbed about the seemingly beauty or ugliness of another’s drawing. (Truth be told, I have never seen a child’s drawing that was not intriguing.) And the key here is — they remain happy; joyous, expressing themselves through play — the thought of it being not good enough not even crossing their innocent little minds.

And us? Us adults? We equate who we are with being good at something. Or good enough at something. And most of the time, in order to feel we are good at something, we need another’s opinion. Sometimes even multiple people. And a way to make it official and prove it to others, is to win.

This morning I went for a run to shake off excess energy. No competition, no proving my worth, not pushing myself to the extreme. Simply, plainly, to allow myself to be healed by the natural surroundings, trees, fresh winter morning air and chirping birds, not caring where I am headed or how fast I get anywhere. A pleasant experience, enjoying the experience. I adore doing this. It puts me in my safe space. I sat down on on a big quartz rock overlooking the waking city. I suddenly recalled a moment from my childhood playing netball with friends, followed by another, more unpleasant memory. When I moved schools in my early teens, I wanted to play netball as I have at my previous school. As this was a high performance school, I never made the team and I did not understand why I couldn’t also play like the other kids. Yes, of course, I might not been as good as them I admit, but where I came from at my previous small 200-kids church school, everybody always got a chance to play a game no matter how good or bad they were, so we could all have part of the fun and feel like we can do something. When we grow up, however, things get more serious and they turn into the world as we know it today. Everything being a stress to perform, to outshine, to be the best, to get one over the next person, to win this and that award, be it as an individual or a group or a company and to judge someone else negatively just because they are not as gifted as us at a certain skill. Such a big and sudden change from a world of innocent play to a space of harsh judgement can be very traumatic. We think that if we are not good at something we really want to do or learn to do, that we are no good at all!

At times, this counts for people who are good at what they are doing already!

Let me explain. Because we are bombarded by competition in most areas of our life, we always see something out there we perceive to be “better than us”. Then what we are good at, actually becomes diminished in our minds as we compare ourselves to something seemingly better. My four years at varsity consisted of endless sleepless nights kept awake by a combination of coffee and upside down yoga poses to get blood flowing to my brain so I could stay awake and work all night — through weekends, weekdays, holidays, you name it — it all went into being the best performer, the best designer I could possible be, over-achieving, in constant competition with the next student, eventually having hazardous health implications. And I was not the only one! The lecturers encouraged this unhealthy lifestyle in order to be the best design course in the country. By the third year, the majority of fellow students were already on anti-depressants in order to cope. Even having done really well, I don’t think I ever felt good enough. Always more to achieve, more to conquer and a reputation to maintain of being a winner. This is truly exhausting. And of course, in due time, the love for what I was doing was started to fade, because with such extreme deadlines and performance pressure, who has the mind to play?

Although there are many good things that happened during working life that I do not want to discount, I clearly recognised a rising greed to win in the industry I found myself in. The past 6 working years clearly indicated an addiction to winning to a point of near-collapse of employees: expected overtime through evenings and weekends for pitches and award entries without pay, possible bribes for food in order to work later… I recently worked with a bunch of twenty-something, amazingly talented designers who come to work every day tired, uninspired, slumping like old people who’ve had a hard life, wrinkled foreheads from worries about finishing tight deadlines 24/7, eating unhealthy quick-meals every day to save time on cooking, too tired to exercise, hardly a sparkle left in their “old” young faces. All for the need of the company to win approval of the client, and ultimately, of “the world”. You would think as a creative we would have fun expressing our creative talents, but we seemed to have sold these talents in a frantic attempt to find acceptance for who we are in the eyes of the world. In other words: rather than co-creating, constantly being in extreme competition with fellow creators to prove who is good enough (or better) to win a client or a prize — like desperate and insecure children fighting for acceptance. It is the false future sensation of being “loved” by others that becomes the craving, rather than the joy of creation itself.

Hereby I am definitely not saying winning awards are bad, or that competition is wrong — but we forget to have fun with it. We equate who we are with it. When we do this, when we base our self-worth on the idea of winning, we become so serious. When we become serious, we forget to have fun. But when we have fun, we forget what others think of us, and we feel like winners anyway! And, as an added bonus, we are rewarded for what we have fun with! Does this not feel like a more free and wondrous way to live?

Controversial as it may be, and keeping an open mind, please contemplate the following:

“I do not believe in competition. I attract and create my own opportunities. If I am in competition with anyone, it’s because I have settled in a fearful mindset of not having enough or being enough.

And as a result I compare myself to people who have what I don’t and don’t consider the things I do have that they don’t have. And then I am living in a constant state of misery, insecurity and greed, ending up trying to fill this hollow feeling of lack with chocolate and coffee and unhealthy foods, trying to fix this with going to the gym (that I hate), overcompensating with wearing too much make-up and buying clothes I don’t feel comfortable in, thinking that I will look as good as someone I saw somewhere, comparing myself as less than something good, and having to create a perception of someone else as not-as-good-as-me so I can be on top. Simply because I do not feel good enough being who I am, what I have, what I do, and what I can create with what I have been given.”

Of course this phenomenon is human nature and relevant across all areas of life, not just in the examples mentioned above. Can we take more pleasure in our activities? Can young people at schools be guided to safely enjoy sports, arts as well as academics? All it takes, is deciding to change this mind-set. We do not need to win or be the best in order to have fun — that is the bottom line. And fun is essential to a fulfilling life, as much as the air we breathe and the food we eat.

So. Do we really need to be good at something in order to enjoy it? NO! Is it possible to enjoy something and not be good at it? YES! Absolutely. I recently went to my first dance class and although I have a flair for it, I am certainly not very good — but I enjoyed it immensely! I took up rock climbing, and went mountain biking, falling and failing to my big embarrassment and anger — but i still enjoyed it; my inner child joyously exclaiming, "Mooi!". In fact, my theory is, that if you admit not being that good at something and not basing your identity on your skill, the more you are open to enjoy it. And in that moment, what else really even matters but being present in joy?