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The Value of Competition

This post may sound hypocritical. Michelle Rene, the creative advocate who monologues regularly about the virtue or working together, is now writing about how important competition is. She must have won something recently. Well... I did win something... but there's more to the story.

"Look to your left and look to your right. These people are your competition."

I've heard that before in college, and I'm sure most of you have too. Everyone around you is competition for money, prize, jobs, etc. This is true but it isn't. Again, there's more to the story.

Let's face it. There are more people in the world than ever before. And it's easier today to put something you've created out into the world. Technology connects us all. This is wonderful in that it gives voices to those previously denied. People are able to create art, write music, and publish books on their own.

The issue now is getting your work noticed. Your one book/painting/song gets swept away in the tidal wave. I'll use books as my example since it's relative to my experience. Not too long ago, the publishing industry would publish 250 books a year. Now, around 2 million books are published a year. How the hell can you stand out?

Competitions. Something that can lift you up out of the crowd. Winning an award.

There are the rules that we remember from school. Everyone competes with one another for the big prize. There can only be one winner and the rest losers. Now, it's not polite to be a sore loser, but the nature of the game made us seethe internally as kids. "Why didn't I win?" "His project wasn't so great." "Sure she has great hair, but what a bitch."

This old way of thinking about contests has good and bad qualities. Competition often makes people try harder. If there's a prize involved, the want is stronger. This brings out our best performance. Well, for some of us it does. The rest, those who never win, don't even try because they've been beaten down over and over again by those who always win. What's the point in trying? There's only one winner and the rest losers.

I'd like to submit a different way to approach contests.

What if we didn't see everyone as our competition? What if we observed our work and it's placement in a contest as a benchmark to measure our own accomplishments and not someone else's? What if we celebrate others around us in the spirit of lifting each other higher? If competition motivates us to do better, imagine where our work can go if we all collectively move the bar together?

It's no secret that I'm an indie author and a staunch advocate for creatives. Ever since I started submitting my own work in competitions, I started seeing this idea as a reality. The idea that these other authors were not my enemies.

When I entered my novel, I Once Knew Vincent, into the Chanticleer Reviews Book Contest three years ago, I had no idea what to expect. When they told me I was a finalist, I was floored. As soon as tickets were available, I went to Bellingham, WA to attend the conference and award gala. There I found a community of authors. A supportive group who pulled me in and congratulated me when my book won first in category.

"Keep writing," they said. "You're doing great. This is worth it. By the way, great hair!"

These people are still my friends today. Did I win the big prize? No. I lost the overall historical fiction prize to the man who won the grand prize. When I watched him go to that stage, I felt two things. Not bitterness toward him like you'd think... like we've been conditioned. He's a lovely person, and we are still friends. I was truly happy for him because he was just like me. A writer trying to tell a story. I was disappointed it wasn't me, but hey, I still got a cool ribbon for best in category!

What did this make me do? I wanted to try harder. To write better. To go back home and bleed it all out on the page again. I wasn't labelled "loser." Those other writers weren't really my competition. I was. It's the opposite of how we are taught to see contests. Winning a contest isn't really about beating other people. It's about elevating your work to a winner status. That's a different mentality... a saner one.

Staring at other people's work and comparing it to yours gets you absolutely nowhere. There is no win if you aren't producing your best work. Don't worry about your competition. If you're writing your best book, it won't matter what the others are doing.

I've been to these contests, and I've cheered on my friends. Sometimes we were in direct competition and sometimes we weren't. But always we squealed with joy when one of us won. I wanted to see my fellow creatives succeed sincerely. Other writers were the same. We've created communities of support. These are my colleagues, my advocates... even when our books are competing.

Last Saturday, I went to the Chanticleer Award Gala, the same one that lifted me up for the first time three years ago. My novel, Hour Glass, was up for an award. I sat at a table as they announced the category winners, and my friends cheered loudly when I won for best western novel. My friend that beat my book three years ago jumped up and gave me a high five. Such a great moment!

When they announced that Hour Glass was the winner for the best book of the year, I could barely see straight from the excitement around me. Writers, most of whom were competing for that very honor, were on their feet and screaming my name. The world trembled as I walked up to the stage. I was so shocked, I barely remember any of my speech, but it ended with everyone giving me a standing ovation. My dear friends next to me wept because they knew how hard I worked on Hour Glass, and they were so happy for me.

People mobbed me after. They wanted me to sign their books, take pictures with them, and talk about my story. I was hugged all night by people I both did and did not know. Newer authors were inspired by my speech and were enthusiastic to start their next books.

I rose above the sea of books not to the jeers of others but with their applause. It's such an honor. I competed against no one but myself... and I won.

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