Three things about competition

It’s awards season. In between discussing who should’ve gotten what, it’s also a good time to consider the relationship between competitions and creative work. In many ways, it’s always awards season—30 under 30, weekly funding announcements, grants and fellowships, Olympics, etc:

Competitions pay the bills

Competitions take place because we value stories, drama, and craft. Today, this manifests itself in award shows, lists, and big numbers. These are all organizing structures for us to discuss who the best is. 

Competitions are also inherently challenging. We develop admiration for people who can rise up to the occasion, and we are in awe of people who can do things that we can never imagine ourselves doing. If you’re practicing your creative work, when you win a contest, your victory makes us aware of your work, notice your craft, and curious about the journey you took to get here. 

For many people doing creative work, winning a competition is at least part of why they start doing art competitively in the first place.

Of course, a competition is just an imagined reality (or an imagined barrier). If you achieve what you set out to, even if it’s not first place, you can still win on your terms.

(But people who organize and watch the competitions don’t want you to believe that.)

School doesn’t teach you how to deal with competition

The problem is competitions create situations with extreme amounts of pressure. There’s the pressure to:

  • Defeat your rivals and to perform at your best
  • Make money—and not lose it 
  • Win your first time and defend, or just to avoid losing 

This pressure is completely the opposite of the pressure that actually fuels creative work. Creative work is fueled by good health, curiosity, exploration, openness, and a love of the process. 

At some point, in order to focus on the work, a person must lose themselves in the process and temporarily forget about results like how a competition will turn out.

The best competition is when you decide what success means

It helps to know that the work itself and the pageantry are two different things. Competitions are about power, promotion, and perception

You can still participate in a competition to pay the bills, without needing to get first place. You can choose to focus your creativity to be about the work, and on a definition of success that you set, not one that’s set for you by someone else. Whatever happens in the competition will happen.

Whenever you hand over the power of validating your work to someone else, including a competition organizer or winner, they become your boss. 
Imagine a situation where only you can validate your own work; whether you win first place or fifth, become a winner or a finalist or just a nominee, or make more money or less, doesn’t matter as much as the process of you making the work. And maybe if you had more time you could’ve made better work, but it’s nothing to be ashamed about.

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