It’s Not a Competition

Picture a game of pickup basketball.

Now picture the player who ruins it by being way too competitive.

They talk loads of trash, argue anything they can, and foul like some imaginary championship is on the line. 

More times than I’d ever like to admit, that player has been me.

Growing up, what I would have considered a “healthy will to win,” was probably more like a “toxic competitive streak.” I would “ruin games,” and it took until college to recognize how my competitive-ness was preventing myself and those around me from enjoying activities that could actually be fun, if I had only decided to chill for a second.

Unfortunately, by that time, my win-at-all-costs perspective had already bled into the way I conceptualized music. My development as a guitarist had mutated into a competition of its own, and I started measuring my value as a musician against other players my age who (without their knowledge or permission) I began to view as my competition.

Looking back, the ability to see music (and sports, for that matter) from a healthier perspective would have not only benefitted my emotional and mental well-being, but probably made me a better player as well. Winning isn’t everything in music. In fact, it’s nothing at all.

Here’s what can happen when we get confused:

  • We see other musicians as competition

Music isn’t a place for lone wolves, but if every other musician (especially those who play our instrument) is treated like a threat to our reputation, we can start to behave like one. We avoid playing in bands with better players because of the feelings of inadequacy they generate within us, and fail to make connections with other players for fear of vulnerability. Surrounding ourselves with talent is often the quickest path to improvement, but we’ll never experience that catalyst if we’re scared of not being the best in the room at all times.

  • We lose the ability to give compliments

If we’re constantly trying to remind people of our own incredible skill set, we’re not going to be likely to reference talent in someone else. Often, the most good we can do as a musician is actually encouraging other players, celebrating their accomplishments and adding more value to the broader community. If we save all the adulation for ourselves, we may never realize that the players who are quick to give a compliment often receive them just as quickly in return.

  • We develop an urge to impress

Once, when I had the opportunity to jam with some new coworkers, I decided that the number one priority was to make sure they knew that I could play like a beast. I unloaded every show-boaty technique I could think of, convinced that they’d be impressed. Later on, I was startled to discover that the rest of the players from that jam had decided to keep meeting on a weekly basis, but had purposely decided not to invite me back. The lesson here is that other players know when we’re trying to measure certain body parts instead of actually creating music, and they usually find it rather distasteful. Don’t be like me.

  • We constantly try to upgrade

In our relentless pursuit for musical supremacy, we may falsely attribute any lack of upward mobility to things that may not actually have a causal relationship with our skill level. We blame our lack of progress on tons of dumb things, but the most frequent culprit is always our gear. Maybe we’d be more of a shredder if our guitar had a thinner neck. Maybe we’d be able to reach our potential if our overdrive was more “organic.” Maybe our $1k amp is holding us back from the sound we could achieve with a $4k amp. Every second we spend lusting after better gear is a second that should be spend enjoying our music, or practicing, or eating Chic-Fil-A. You know, things that matter. 

  • We focus on the wrong things

In the everlasting game of comparison that accompanies an extreme sense of competition, we can become aware of the ways that certain techniques or ideas carry more of a dazzling quality than others. We can spend countless hours honing our sweep picking, alternate picking, tapping, legato, and “intricate chord voicings” without ever asking ourselves if we cared about any of those things in the first place. We should never become the musician some else wants us to be, but in our endless pursuit of supremacy, we’re liable to forget ourselves.

  • We become musical cowards

The simple lack of space on the guitar wall of fame means that there are countless players that want to be the best, and are painfully aware that they’re nowhere close. Now, a healthy player will view this disparity as both a sobering reality and a motivation to practice, but a player bent on competition will twist it into something debilitating. They become consumed with being outed as a musical fraud, to the point where it’s their loudest thought. Performing or recording with that kind of weight makes confidence impossible, because it replaces the goal of “being the best player we can be today” with “being the best player anywhere ever,” and we’ll never measure up.

Sure, there are players in certain contexts that are legitimately competing for gigs and session work, but even those players will affirm that while we should all strive for excellence, we should never let winning be everything. It keeps us from making our music say what we mean.