“Competition doesn’t have to be about beating other people. It’s about collaborating and improving our game.” — Misti Burmeister

I have been a member of Toastmasters for several years but have never competed. Despite having been an Olympic track-and-field hopeful in high school, I’ve never liked competition, because it’s purely about winning. I prefer to focus on giving my best effort – a feeling which is heightened when performing with others.

When my Toastmasters group strongly encouraged me to compete, I finally agreed to do “table topics” – an event where you’re given a topic and, without any time to prepare, you speak for one to three minutes. My teammate, Ann, would do the prepared speech portion.

When I arrived at the competition, I learned that Ann – who was ready and excited to deliver her five-to-seven minute prepared speech – got disqualified. She had not yet given the required number of prepared speeches in group to be eligible for the competition.

“That’s so wrong,” I told Joe, our group leader.  “Ann is ready. Can’t they do something?”

“You could switch positions with her,” he said. “She can do table topics, and you can do the prepared speech.”

“Prepared speech?! I have nothing prepared! This is my first competition. It’s a bad idea, Joe!”

He just stared at me silently for a long 15 seconds.

“I need to think about this,” I said. “Wait here … let me think.”

“I don’t need to stand here for you to think,” he pointed out.

“You’re right. You should go … leave … go away and let me think!”

After I composed myself, I quickly pulled together a speech, which I practiced aloud in a bathroom stall until the program got underway.

Moments before the speeches began, Joe knelt down beside me – which was brave, considering I was ready to punch him for talking me into this. “You’ve got this, Misti,” he said.

The first speaker was good. The second speaker was so great that I couldn’t help but give him a high-five and a hug when he returned to his seat. I felt like I was back in a high-school competition, where it was much more about collaboration, love of the game, having a good time, and pushing each other to give it our very best.

Before I knew it, my speech was done. I had SO much fun!

Ann and I both walked away with trophies, but that little statue was not the best gift I received that day. It was Joe’s unwavering belief in me and commitment to my excellence. If not for him, I would not have delivered that speech – nor would I have been reminded that competition doesn’t have to be about beating other people. It’s about collaborating and improving our game.

In Flow: The Psychology of Ultimate Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that we’re happiest when doing something because we enjoy doing it, rather than to win something. He writes: “If extrinsic goals – such as beating the opponent, wanting to impress an audience, or obtaining a big professional contract – are what one is concerned about, then competition is likely to become a distraction, rather than an incentive to focus consciousness on what is happening.”

I couldn’t agree more. When I competed in track and field, my joy did not come from standing on the podium and receiving awards. It came from playing the game and from supporting my teammates and competitors in their efforts to get better results. The times I focused only on winning, I didn’t enjoy myself.

Join the Conversation
Have you ever been a part of a collaborative experience that brought your game to a whole new level? Do you like to win, or do you prefer to improve?

Keeping it simple,

Misti Burmeister, best-selling author of From Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies Across GenerationsHidden Heroes and Power Suck.

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