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How to Win at Everything: The Rules of Healthy Competition

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You can be competitive without being cutthroat. Here's how to win and still have friends.

Competitive Confessions

I confess: The reason I choose the treadmill next to yours when others are empty is so I can sneak a peak at your speed and incline settings. This isn't to critique your performance but to improve mine. I know myself well enough to realize that I push a little harder and work a little longer when I'm competing, even if I'm the only one aware of the contest. Sure, I could save $50 a month by running outside, but with no one to "race," I'd walk the hills and quit after the first mile.

And yet I've never run an actual race. While competition secretly motivates me, I'm uncomfortable with open challenges. It's an aversion many women share, says Stanford University economist Muriel Niederle, PhD. In one of her recent studies, she had men and women solve simple math puzzles. Despite the fact that the women scored on a par with the men, when Niederle offered everyone the opportunity to enter a tournament with a big payout for the winner, just 32 percent of the women signed up compared with 75 percent of the men. Okay, so maybe you run 5Ks all the time or would put your long-division skills up against anybody's, but chances are you've struggled with some aspect of competition. Even women who've played sports can have trouble transferring the confidence and drive they developed to other areas of their lives. "Sports are games with rules, so it's easier to learn how to compete in that arena," says psychologist Sylvia Rimm, PhD, coauthor of the book How Jane Won (Three Rivers Press, 2001). Off the field, where the tenets are unwritten and the stakes may be higher, you might refrain from competing entirely or limit yourself to sure bets -- applying for a promotion only if you're positive it won't ruffle anybody's feathers or sticking with your (boring) beginner step class because the people at the next level are so much fitter than you.

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