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What Drives Us to Win?

My partner said something to me the other day that really made me think. We were watching, of all things, the Little League Baseball World Series. As we sat at the bar, eating our brunch, and watching the young athletes step up to the plate, the topic of competition and winning came up. 

That’s when he said, “I understand why people have a competitive nature, but at the same time, I don’t see how people can be happy with winning, because that always means that someone else is losing.”

Well duh, that’s the entire point of competition, I immediately thought.

But then I took as step back and began to ponder. Perhaps he had a point. It’s a perspective I have not once taken the time to consider, at least not consciously, anyway:

If I win, they lose. 

On the surface, this seems like an obvious implication. If competition were a coin, it is impossible that both sides will land face up; one side must simultaneously land face down. The state of one is dependent on the state of the other.

But as someone who has always been competitive by nature, shifting my frame of reference on this topic has proven to be more difficult than I imagined. Such a simple concept, yet never at the forefront of my mentality when in the midst of my accomplishments.

It appears that the notion of winning is centered around “I”. I scored that goal. I got that promotion. knew more than that other person. What we tend to forget, is the relativity of our success. 

What about the other side of the coin?

Am I saying that competition and the drive to win is an inherently egotistical endeavor? Not exactly. The conversation continued.

“I mean, I have the drive to succeed, but not the drive to hurt other people and prove myself to ‘be better’ than them,” he said.

Interesting interpretation. (Can you tell who the empathetic one in the relationship is?) This is when the gears really started turning in my head.

I began to explain how my mind processes winning in a much different manner. For me, this “be better than” comparison to my competitors has never been my driving factor. Instead, it is much more internal. 

In my mind, the culmination of my own potential far outweighs the concept of simply “being better than” another individual. The thought of any sliver of unutilized potential is what drives me to win. The only thing that I want to “be better than” is a previous version of myself. The intent to surpass my peers or competitors is not the cause for such actions, but rather a result of them. 

We both sat there, perplexed, trying to wrap our heads around these opposing views. 

That’s when something clicked for me. Those unpleasant interactions I often experienced (and still do, on occasion) throughout my life may very well have been linked to this entire concept.

“There she goes showing off again.”

“Stop bragging.”

“We get it, you’re better.”

In the past, I used to associate these types of unsolicited comments as a sign of projected insecurity. I also did not fully understood their remarks, as I was almost always intentionally removed — physically and vocally — keeping to myself, off in the distance, away from the crowd, in the background, silently perfecting my skills. 

I guess they’re just jealous they can’t do this thing that I’m doing. That doesn’t mean they need to chastise me for my efforts, sheesh. I didn’t even ask for them to look at me. And I most definitely do not seek their praise. 

Over time, I believe this led to developing insecurities within myself. 

That’s not the impression I want to give. I don’t think I’m better than anyone, honest. I’m doing this for me. I put in so much time and effort to be able to do or know something, and finally being able to precisely execute that thing is euphoric to me! Maybe I should just stop, I don’t want to be seen as a braggart. 

Yet in the midst of this conversation at the bar, I see why these responses easily become commonplace by those unlike myself. It even provided comfort and helped alleviate those insecurities. These people, who I once worked so hard to block out of my mind, simply may have viewed certain forms of superiority as a result of the desire to be better than another person, and not as a result of the desire to be better than one’s self.

In all, what I have gathered from this conversation and contemplation is this:

While the drive and desire to win is universal, the rationale behind this drive is unique to the individual.

In other words, take some time to figure out what drives you to win. Is it to utilize untapped potential within yourself? Is it to be better than your competition? A combination of both? Maybe something else. Of course, these are only two options from a long list of motivating principles. Recognition, awards, money, fame, power. The list goes on and on.

There is no right or wrong answer. But recognizing the differences between us, and what drives us, can be beneficial in understanding perceptions and actions of those around us.

What Drives Us to Win?


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APA Reference
, A. (2020). What Drives Us to Win?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 7 Jan 2020 (Originally: 21 Sep 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 7 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.