40@40: The Only Person You’re in Competition With is Yourself

Don’t Compare Yourself To Others

This is a lesson that I learned through my son, Mikan, when he was nine years old. Mikan is a naturally gifted athlete who absolutely loves competing, and in his early years of baseball he was always one of the best players on his team.

But after four summers of coaching my son and spending hour after hour with him in the backyard working on the mechanics of his swing, rolling him ground balls, and hitting pop flies, I knew there was so much potential beyond what he was showing on the field.

Sure, every dad thinks their son is special, but this went far beyond just being able to hit, throw and catch a baseball. This felt nothing less than existential, even though I couldn’t articulate what I was feeling in that moment. Then it hit me.

Throughout my career I had always used my peers as a benchmark for professional success, and even though I had never felt the need to compete at work, I knew that as long as I was staying a step ahead of everyone around me, I would keep moving ahead. Mikan was falling into the same thinking with baseball – because he was always near the top, he never felt he had to work any harder than he already was. “Good enough” was good enough.

Given the fact that the kid was nine years old at the time and that he had never experienced competition beyond the house league in a tiny Chicago suburb, this was a perfectly reasonable way to see the world. But I was in the same place, asking myself why I should work any harder if I was already outperforming everyone around me.

Motivation Comes From Within

At some point I turned inward and realized that it wasn’t about how good I was compared to others. I felt that I had not even come close to my own potential, and that made me feel empty. Like I was wasting the talent I had been given. I realized that comparing myself to others was a fatally flawed strategy, and I decided I would not let my son fall into the same trap.

My initial approach to helping Mikan achieve his potential was to push him harder. We practiced harder, and I never missed an opportunity to tell him that I expected more from him. As his coach, I was more critical of Mikan than I was with the other kids on the team.

I wasn’t helping my son achieve his potential, I was just being another obnoxious sports dad and ruining my son’s love of baseball – and to an extent our relationship – in the process.

I knew that what I was doing wasn’t helping and that I wasn’t connecting with my son on a meaningful level. I wasn’t giving him the “why” behind the push to achieve his potential, because I couldn’t articulate it myself. I backed off and gave Mikan his space while I struggled to find the right words to help him understand why I was pushing him.

One day I realized that I myself have never responded to being pushed – I’ve always been self-motivated by intrinsic rewards. Why did I ever think that pushing my son would be a good idea? He has to want to reach his potential…he has to learn to push himself.

You Can Only Measure Yourself Against Your Own Potential

I changed my strategy completely. For the next few weeks, when we went to the park to play catch or run drills, our only focus was on having fun and enjoying our time together. I still coached him and gave him guidance, but it came from a love of my son and a love of the game.

Mikan and I grew closer the more we just played together without expectations, and that newly regained trust created an opportunity to restart the conversation about potential.

“You know you’re a good baseball player, right?”


“Are you one of the best players on your team?”

“I think so.”

“Are you as good as you think you can be?”

No answer. Just a deep stare and a furled brow. But over the course of the next week, we would repeat the same conversation during our time together, getting closer to the heart of the matter every time we talked.

I told my son about my own journey of self-discovery and how I realized I could be great at something if I put my mind to it. I was careful not to push, only to guide him towards an understanding of a concept that took me nearly 35 years to finally wake up to.

These were some amazing and intense conversations, all the more so when you consider that they were taking place with a 9-year-old.

Anything Worth Doing Is Worth Doing Well

One evening as we were strolling home from the park, Mikan got it. We hand’t been talking about anything in particular when he turned to me and started up the conversation about potential again.

“Dad, remember when you asked me if I thought I was as good as I thought I could be? I think I can be better.”

“Why do you think that?”

“I’m a lot better than I was last year. So I think I could be better than I am now.”

“What do you think it takes to get better?”

He didn’t have an answer. So I asked him what we did every night together.

“We play catch. You hit me fly balls.”

“What’s that called?”

“I don’t know. Practice?”

“That’s right. If you want to get better at something, you have to practice. You have to work hard for it. But I think the mistake I made in trying to push you is that this has to be fun for you. You have to want to do it.”

“Yeah, baseball wasn’t fun for a while.”

“Because I pushed you too hard?”

He didn’t want to answer, but I finally got a head nod from him. I knew I had pushed him too hard, and I apologized for it. I explained to him why I did it, but that I had realized it was wrong. He had to want it.

“So let me ask you again, are you as good as you think you can be?”

“No, I can be better.”

“How do you get better?”

“Working hard.”

“Do you want to be better? Do you want to work hard?”


I still remember the hug that he gave me after that. Almost knocked the wind out of me. Here was a kid that at 9-years-old was grasping a concept that took me well into adulthood to comprehend. He realized that we can only measure ourselves by our own potential. I was no longer pushing him – he was pulling me.

Own Your Success

As the summer months were coming to an end and it was almost time to go back to school, we continued our practices together. Only I wasn’t seeing the check-the-box, by-the-numbers Mikan out there anymore – I was seeing a kid who had found his sense of purpose and gave his maximum effort on every play.

He was having more fun than ever because he had learned about the ultimate competition – the one against ourselves to achieve what we believe is our maximum potential. It was an amazing thing to witness.

After practice one night as we were taking his gear to the garage, I asked Mikan how he felt things were going. He paused, looked down for a few seconds, then looked me straight in the eye and told me, “Dad, I want you to coach me harder.”

I still get chills down my spine when I replay that moment in my head. From then on, my son has been driven to improve himself each and every day. You would be hard pressed to find a kid that works harder than Mikan, let alone a kid who is driven by his own intrinsic desire to achieve greatness.

He inspires me every day to find the greatness within myself and to achieve my own potential. Such an amazing kid.