Thursday, June 21, 2007

On Competition

Sorry for the long delay in blog posts - once I got home from a week in Orlando for TechEd, the real world jumped on me with both feet and hasn't let up since. I haven't been to the SSIS Forums, I haven't been posting here - I've barely had time to think and breathe. [1]

But while I've been running here and there weathering the changes going on around me, I've had a background thread running and doing a lot of thinking about the nature of competition. And the soundtrack for this thread has been a Manowar[2] song titled "Number 1." Here's an excerpt of the lyrics:

We are sending you a challenge, it’s very clear
We came to win, that is why we are here
Demanding to be tested, tested by the best
Not to be forgotten like all the rest
Let the contest begin, play hard, fight to win
Immortality, victory and pain[3]

The emphasis is mine, but I think it's vital to the meaning of the verse and of the song. Winning is not the most important thing. Winning when pitted against the best, the strongest, the meanest, the fiercest challenge that the world can throw at you - that is when winning matters, when winning really means something.[4]

I've been very fortunate this year. Not only did I win the Iron Architect[5] competition at TechEd in Orlando, I also won several other competitions, including one that earned me a place on stage with Manowar at their Magic Circle Festival this July in Germany. All in all it's been a very good year.

But the thing I remember about the competitions in which I've participated is not the moment of victory. It's not even the brief "moment of fame" that accompanies the victory.[6] The memories that stick around are those of the uncertainty, the dread, the drive, the energy - the whole mish-mash of emotions that swirl through your head when you know that this is the time when you need to do your absolute best or else you're going to be "forgotten like all the rest."

When do you ever feel more alive than when you're faced with the absolute certainty that the only thing that stands between you and glorious victory (or inglorious defeat) is yourself? And when you emerge victorious at the end of the day, will you look back and say "I won because I was better than I have ever been before" or will you say "I won because there was no competition?"

And which one means something, and which one does not?

[1] I wrote this intro on June 21st, so hopefully this should give you an idea about how busy things have been of late. Where did July go, anyway?
[2] The Kings of Metal, the loudest band in the world, my favorite band - despite the fact that they have such a horrible web site...
[3] This line actually goes "Immortality, victory and fame" but I'd always heard "pain" when listening to the song, and I think that this fits better anyway. Victory without pain is usually empty; the pain lets you know that you did something real.
[4] Back when I was in college I used to fence competitively. In all honesty, I was never great, but I was pretty good, I was generally the best fencer in whatever group I joined. (Again here there is a theme of never being better than your competition, eh?) I won hundreds of bouts over the years, but I have difficulty remembering any of them. The ones that have stuck with me through the years are the ones where I was pushed to my limits and beyond by a superlative opponent. One bout in particular is still vivid in my memory: I was having my best day ever, and was beating my opponents readily, progressing through the tournament. But I was eliminated before the final round by a fencer much better than myself. Normally I would not have given him much challenge, but that day I was on, and probably fenced better than I ever had before or since. In the end he defeated me 15-14, and went on to win the tournament. After the day was done he sought me out and told me "Our bout was the best bout I've ever fenced - by the end I was afraid to attack!" Give me competition that means something over an easy victory any day...
[5] Although I have yet to begin work on my Microsoft Certified Architect track - ugh.
[6] But being on stage with Manowar in Germany is about as cool as cool can get, no matter how you look at it. ;-)

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