Competition. It’s the American way. It shapes evolution, forges improvement, drives the wheels of progress. It is the crucible in which innovation is honed to perfection.
Or is it?
For the last 18 years, I have gnawed at my own dogma: there is no better way to advance than to line up and see what you have got. I first came to this conclusion when I successfully fought my own expanding new-to-the-working-world waistline by joining up with a few folks from Blackwater Bike Shop (Piedmont Bike Shop at that time) to race mountain bikes. Understand, no one was fool enough to anticipate any remarkable results from me, but I was a good ambassador of the sport, vastly more important to sales. I remain a steadfast supporter to this day of both mountain biking and the shop that put its faith in me: those experiences changed my life.
As I look back now, it wasn’t the desire to win that provided the motivation, but more a sense that others had a vested interest in my performance. I was part of a team.
I also had a coach.
Hunter Allen is now pretty much the mack-daddy of cycling coaches. To think that I got to be a student as he shaped his own methods for extracting the absolute maximum out of anyone who wants to go faster on a bicycle is actually pretty incredible. The main lesson I took from the experience: training works, and smart training works even better.
Over the years, I have gone through different phases, from mountain bikes to road bikes to triathlons to swimming. And then somehow, I ended up in cars. And not just any cars, really fast cars, with people who are really, really serious about racing. And even more serious about winning.
Which, I think, is why I was never destined to do much of anything in that arena: I just don’t care that much about winning.
Earlier this year at Daytona – a race I was simply overwhelmed to even show up for – another competitor was fuming at his ill fortune: they were being shafted. The car he and his co-driver were piloting was wicked-fast in a straight line, and Daytona has lots of that. With something like a 10 mph advantage, they owned the event. But the other teams – teams with cars that were going to have their own advantages at other tracks in the season that rewarded cornering over outright speed – they were given a boost in the form of some wing modifications that reduced drag. Which evened the odds.
“I came to win. If you can’t win, there is no point in showing up.”
That was when I knew for certain I was not made of the right stuff for this crowd. My goals have always been about self-improvement, not winning. I like to build things, to learn new skills. I may not achieve anything nearing mastery, but it is still valuable to understand what is required to perform at the highest level, because you can often apply that knowledge to other areas of your life.
Want a course in art appreciation? Try oil painting.
Without question, competition is a driving force. But you’d best evaluate with extreme care the underlying goals you hope to achieve. Because it seems we are extrapolating the concept of winning – regardless of the manner – with success. Though competition unquestionably yields individual triumphs, these pale in comparison to the nearly limitless possibilities that can be realized through a collaborative approach.
Healthcare may be the quintessential example.
Competition results in individual winners. And multiple losers. When it comes to the health of our community, we don’t want any losers. None. And if you are thinking, so long as it’s not me… One way or another, we are all going to pay.
Where competition in cycling led to personal results that were tangible – like managing to stay reasonably fit – motorsports is another world. What’s the best way to assure success on the racetrack? Have the fastest car. Granted, this is one of the things I love about it: playing the game begins when the rules come out and the engineers start to dissect exactly what they are up against and attempt to uncover an exploitable loophole that will give them an insurmountable advantage. And if you think a spec series where all of the equipment is standardized somehow prevents or limits this process, think again. It only serves to make it that much more intriguing.
But as fascinating as this process is, it has little bearing on my personal goals: to get better as a driver. If the goal is personal improvement, then winning through drag-reduction by modification of the internal airflow past the radiators represents a hollow victory. But this personal bias not only puts me in the minority, it is in reality quite difficult to endure. Anyone with a shred of pride has difficulty smiling from the back of the pack. “But I am faster than last year.”
In a recent trip to the Texas-sized F1 track Circuit of the Americas at a very non-competitive track day that stood in stark contrast with the pressure of an IMSA Prototype race, I relearned the value of a coach. Without the stress and strain of competition, I really would not have been motivated to do much more than circulate the track at a leisurely pace. But by the second session as my coach literally scolded me for my lack of effort, my mindset began to shift. I didn’t drive 1500 miles to dawdle, I came to push it. So I did.
With a healthcare entity like a cancer center, accreditation is the virtual equivalent to a coach. There are goals and guidelines, scrutiny and reprimand, encouragement and celebration. We need this. Without it, we may be inclined to do the medical equivalent to circulating at a comfortable pace: be stagnant. Because of this, that oversight becomes essential to realizing what we are capable of achieving. Continuing the analogy, we need a coach that is capable of extracting the best we have to offer. If our coach shrugs and says, “Good enough,” much is left on the table. We need an Olympic-caliber master that pushes us to heights we didn’t think were possible.
Right now, we don’t have that. We are outgrowing our coach. We either have to find another, or we will need to go clean off the reservation and make it up ourselves. That’s what my trip to Livestrong was really about, to find a new coach. They are in the process of changing the rules, of wiping the slate clean, and building a new car from the ground up.
We can’t allow winning to be our goal; we will only win when everyone crosses the line together, when everyone has great healthcare. But we can absolutely forge a relationship with an innovative guide, and attack the course with every imaginable trick, and an ace in the hole to boot.
And that what I will call winning.