When it came to the desire to win, I could be obnoxious when I was a child. It’s not that I rubbed it in when I won or was a bad loser when I lost. It’s simply that I was very, very intense when I was competing — no matter how small the stakes were.
When I was in the fifth grade, we had a running team competition in a math class. We had four teams and each team had a captain. Three fourths of the class seemed to be divided randomly, but one of the teams had all the worst students in the room — and I was their captain.
For months, we would have one period each week when the teams worked together. The team captains were expected to take the lead. I was furious at being saddled with the weakest students in class, but I pushed and pushed them during those work sessions. I didn’t care whether they said they didn’t understand the work. I was going to make them understand. I wanted to win.
After several months of practice and then regular matches against each other, my team was the only one that never lost a match. The worst students — those on my team — finally understood their worst subject, because I refused to let us lose. I forced them to learn. Toward the end of the year, the teacher privately confessed to me that she did it on purpose — because she knew I was competitive enough to force my peers to learn.
I love to win and I hate to lose.
Those are two entirely different things, but they’re both true for me. I’ve always been driven to win — and I’ve always been furious with the prospect of losing.
The angry and driven side of me is something which I don’t always like to show. I don’t always like that part of me, because it can seem ugly and crass. To mention a ridiculous example, I hate the person I can become when I drive.
The other drivers are idiots. They don’t know how to drive. They’re in my way — especially if they’re in the left lane. If I had hood-mounted machine guns, I’d mow them all down.
After I’m finished driving — at times when I’ve been angry at other drivers — I realize how ridiculous I’ve been and I’m embarrassed at how I’ve felt.
When I worked in politics, I was very driven to win. Yes, I wanted to make money from the campaigns. Yes, I was a mercenary working for whoever hired me. But I had a deep and vicious desire to win.
I needed to win.
Very few feelings I’ve ever experienced are as satisfying as the feeling of having beaten an opponent — especially when we weren’t supposed to win. It was exhilarating. It was emotional. It felt primal.
I found myself thinking today that there aren’t enough places in modern society where this primal desire to win is considered acceptable. We’re all supposed to be cooperative or collaborative or whatever the latest buzzwords are. It’s considered old-fashioned and maybe a bit brutal to want to line up and simply destroy someone — in whatever way is acceptable in the game at hand.
If I had lived in a less-civilized time, I strongly suspect I would have become a military leader. If I had lived in a day when conquest and killing were considered proper and virtuous, I would have been very good at it.
Today, those characteristics aren’t welcome in many places. They’re acceptable in some sports. (Although I was never a great racquetball player, I was a vicious player. I hurt myself and broke racquets because I was too willing to sacrifice myself for points.) Those characteristics are also acceptable in some business settings, but even there, it’s not entirely acceptable to openly want to crush the competition.
(My business heroes have been the mavericks who went up against impossible odds and stormed the castle of entrenched competition — and somehow won. One of my favorite books is still “The Corporate Warriors,” which is a collection of stories about half a dozen men who have done this.)
I was thinking today about how two parts of my personality sometimes seem to be competing for control of who I am. One is kind and loving and empathetic. The other is vicious and brutal and competitive. I sometimes find myself thinking of the competitive part of me as the bad part.
But I couldn’t be who I am without that part. I couldn’t have done many of the things I’ve done in the past — and without that part, I’d have no chance of doing the things I want to do in the future.
Have you ever watched an episode of the original Star Trek series called “The Enemy Within”? Due to a transporter malfunction, Capt. Kirk is split into two different people — one with all of his good qualities and another with all of his lurking inner evil.
As the episode goes along, you quickly think that Good Kirk needs to kill Evil Kirk. The evil person is doing terrible things. He even tries to force himself on Yeoman Janice Rand. But toward the end, we learn that Good Kirk can’t be what he has to be — a strong, decisive captain who makes quick, necessary decisions that sometimes hurt people — if he doesn’t have those “evil” traits inside.
Kirk learned that the evil inside him had to be brought back into him — for him to find a balance. For him to learn how to be the good and loving person he normally needed to be — but for those more base instincts to be there when he needed to fight and win.
As I thought about this today, I realized that I need my vicious and passionate side just as much as I need the more loving side. I truly want to be a loving and decent person. That’s who I choose to be.
But on the inside, there’s someone else — someone I don’t choose to allow to control me — someone who can fight and destroy and win.
I sometimes fear that part of myself, because I don’t want to be angry and I don’t want to hurt anyone. But I have to accept that part of me — and keep it under control for the right times — if I want to do the things that matter to me.
That little boy of my youth was driven to win. He was proud of winning. The teen version of me could be calculating and manipulative. He won almost every time he played any game.
The more mature adult version of me wants to be kind and loving and decent. Those are choices and I approve of those choices — but there are times when the competitive and savage primal instinct has to come out.
I live halfway between arrogant confidence and crippling self-doubt — and there are times when each of those extremes serves my needs. It can allow me to be cautious and humble at times, and that can be a good thing.
But I need to use that primal and confident passion that’s inside me, too, because I still want to win in everything I do.
I need to win.