Compete with Yourself – Leading As Lawyers

“There is no better rival than the person you were yesterday.”

Alex Wright

Hardwick Fellow

University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2023

I remember an embarrassing story from when I was in second grade. We were playing this game where it was a one-on-one competition to say the answer to the math question first in front of the class. I was cruising along and crushing everyone in the class until I abruptly lost. The class exploded in cheers and I remember bursting into tears and crying into my arms in front of the entire class. I wanted to beat everyone and when I failed to do so, the pressure I put on myself resulted in an embarrassing collapse. I wanted to compete with others more than I wanted to compete with myself, and my desire to win clouded my vision of the bigger picture, which was to improve my basic math skills. This story is amusing to think about now, but I imagine that it isn’t that hard to believe when it’s read by a group of lawyers and law students. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the readers of this blog post recall a similar story, maybe not bursting into tears in front of the class but definitely losing a school contest and becoming more upset than they should have.

I consider myself a competitive person; I like to win. When I’m playing basketball, video games, or boxing, I enjoy coming out on top and feeling the emotions that come with triumph. I have observed that many people who come to law school enjoy the feeling of winning and the goal of winning for future clients, whether it be in the courtroom, a settlement deal, or a merger. The idea of winning in the legal field is something that we all likely yearn for, and I imagine the feeling after winning my first case will be so euphoric that I will have no idea how to contain myself if and when it happens. Yet, I think people can get caught up in the adversarial system of law and law school and become so competitive with others it might do more harm than good. I believe that a single-minded focus on besting others is the wrong approach to law school, law practice ,and the legal system as a whole; in legal education and lawyering, competition with oneself is far more healthy and productive than competition with others.

Competing with the person you were yesterday indirectly makes you a more formidable opponent in areas of life and the legal field. There is no anger, hostility, or aggression directed at any specific individual, group or organization when your biggest opponent is yourself. When aggression founded in competition with others isn’t properly channeled, it is detrimental to a person attempting to achieve goals. When people are focused on victory by any means necessary and are unable to properly control their emotions, they are far more likely to make mistakes and create obstacles for themselves.

Competition with others can be helpful and productive in certain situations. Yet, it can also turn some people bitter and vindictive. This happened to me when I was younger, in a non-law school-related situation. I wanted to compete with everyone in school and sports, and I became aggressive and unfriendly because I was too focused on being the best. There is nothing wrong with working hard and striving to be the best in any field; however, that passion to achieve must be harnessed and channeled in a healthy way. If not, that passion can grow into a burning flame that won’t be able to be extinguished, and could become volatile. 

In sum, competition is healthy. The world is a competitive place and people have a natural desire to come out on top in all arenas of life. Competing with others is natural and often healthy, and can instill feelings of competency and triumph in individuals and groups. Yet, if a person’s competitiveness is not properly harnessed and channeled in a productive manner, that spirit can turn into arrogance and unpredictability. As we go into the world as leaders and lawyers, I think it is quite important to maintain a competitive fire and desire to be victorious while maintaining composure and realizing that there is no better rival than the person you were yesterday.

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