Up until, I think, the mid-nineteen-sixties, newspapers and magazines often ran short little expository essays about various topics, like “honesty” and “politeness,” without necessarily demonstrating expertise on the part of the writer. They were just ruminations by columnists about the qualities and aspirations of mankind, in a nutshell. In the fifties, shortly before his death, my grandfather, A. Richard Fiske, a frustrated novelist—I have a box in my closet of his original type-written manuscript—wrote little pamphlets for the “Employee Betterment and Self-Education” rack in General Electric’s employee lounge, including topics like driving, marriage, and voting. (He was good at those. No hypocritical underbelly to his gleaming post-war ideals.)
So I’ve decided to write one of these little epistles to the world on the subject of “competition,” because the Red Room has launched its first competition, the “Housewarming Contest,” tracking who has the most visitors to their online home this summer. The Housewarming is already proving that you can be a star in the Red Room even if you aren’t a star (yet) in the larger literary world. The culture of the Red Room has already been established enough, in the four and a half months since we launched, that I can see that the top contenders are an incredibly supportive and generous-minded group of writers and members, and as a result, their blogs are revealing a sort of bashful turmoil because many both want to win and want all of their Red Room colleagues to win. Many have mixed feelings about competing at all.
My premise is that there are two types of competition, healthy and unhealthy, and anyone can use a contest structure to engage in either kind.
Healthy competition encourages everyone involved to push themselves harder than they would have without competition, and as a result they achieve more personal or professional growth whether they won or lost. Healthy competition expands the boundaries of what you believed was possible for yourself. And it encourages you to admit to others that you’re ambitious.
Unhealthy competition is when your reaction to others’ success is negative, rather than inspiring and motivating to you. Unhealthy competition is where you hope others have limitations because you are afraid your limitations will cause you to lose unless they are somehow held back. Unhealthy competition is where you associate shame with losing rather than see your own nobility for trying.
Healthy competition requires courage. Doing your best at something you care about, with others watching, is "practicing being vulnerable in things that matter," which is my definition of courage. Another definition of courage could be “being afraid and doing something anyway.” If you’re not afraid of losing, it doesn’t take courage. I applied for a Stegner Fellowship, which is the only writing program or fellowship I have ever applied for, and I was not accepted (then again, neither was Michael Chabon). Up until then, the reason I hadn’t ever been awarded any fellowships was because I hadn’t applied for any. The moment I got the rejection notice, I congratulated myself—I had finally admitted I really would like some “mainstream” external validation that my writing mattered, and that was a victory for me. I was practicing putting my dreams out there. I’d done my best and it wasn’t good enough and that was fine. Without the competition, I would not have been motivated to carefully edit the beginning of my unpublished novel.
One of my employees wrote down and taped a piece of paper over her desk with advice I gave her on it. It says on a pink sticky note: “‘Everything I ever waited to do until I could do it perfectly, I never did.’ – Ivory Madison.” This helped her, as someone with high standards, to go ahead and just take action. (By the way, it’s funny to see a quote from yourself over someone’s desk. And it’s not the only one in the office. Our editor Huntington has one over his desk that says, “’No, I want us to be robots.’ –Ivory Madison.” I can’t remember the conversation, but out of context, it could sound like I was giving contradictory advice to the two of them.)
My fiancé, Abraham, is reading the book The Art of Learning, which was written by a chess prodigy who realized it wasn’t that he was good at chess, he was good at learning. Part of the author’s strategy was to make sure he often played people better than him at whatever he was studying so he got used to the feeling of losing and wasn’t afraid of it.
If you are practicing being vulnerable and you are fearlessly finding out what is possible for you, you are admitting you want something you might not achieve. Then you win the important stuff, such as dignity and an expansion of your courage, regardless of the outcome of the particular contest.
Teddy Roosevelt said “better it is to dare mighty things, and to live a life chequered by failure that to live in that perpetual twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” Or something like that (I am recalling it off a bookmark that used to be tacked up over my desk. No, I do not have quotes from myself tacked up over my desk.)
I am very happy to see several of my favorite Red Room community members promoting themselves, shamelessly. My friend, author Joyce Maynard, says that she is proud to be “shameless” because that means she no longer believes she should have any shame about who she is or what she wants in life, and how emancipating that is for her.
A big part of Red Room is providing a forum for people to do whatever they want to do. If you want to sell more books, sell more books here. If you want to be famous, get famous here. If you want to save the world and spread information about important issues, you can do that here. If you want emotional support and new friends, you can find that here. If you want entertainment, find it here. If you want a forum for writing you don’t have a publisher for, share it here. If you want feedback or to have a conversation, you can have one here you can’t find anywhere else. If you want a safe space to learn to promote yourself and your career, do it here. The contest is a good excuse to be shameless about what you want, and for us all to encourage those who go after what they want.
I congratulate all the participants who chose to compete in Red Room’s first contest. I thank those who don’t really want to compete for exploring their feelings about competing and for supporting their colleagues who are competing. And I am impressed by everyone who actively created an environment of healthy competition for themselves and others.Ivory Madison
Founder and CEO, redroom.com