We pilots tend to be competitive by nature and that can lead to a shortsighted view of the world when it comes to reaching for our goals. I caution my children to resist the urge to compare themselves to their friends because that will either lead them to becoming satisfied with the progress too quickly or to becoming forever frustrated because different people have different strengths. Having been surrounded by people who turn everything into a competitive race, I have learned to embrace another thought: there is no race, only the runner.
— James Albright
The 1992 Race for Promotion
The first time I walked into an office called "Current Operations" at the 89th Airlift Wing (Andrews Air Force Base), the Chief of Current Operations sized me up and let me know everything I had to know about him.
"So you are my competition."
"Competition for what?" I asked.
"For the next promotion board."
"I guess you aren't my competition after all, if you don't even know that."
Major Stan Jeffries (not his real name) had turned the next promotion board into a race. In one way, he was right. We had ten majors competing for five slots to become lieutenant colonels. If five of your peers were rated above you, you didn't get promoted and the odds were good you would be kicked out of the Air Force after the next board. This was the Air Force "up or out" system of the era; a merciless plan to rid the Air Force of officers who lacked the necessary aggressive spirit. But in another, more important sense, he was as wrong as he could possibly be. The promotion board considered what was called "the whole man," even if that man happened to be a woman. Everything you had done for your entire career was to be judged.
Stan made it to major without a problem. He had been promoted to first lieutenant (with a rate of nearly 100%), captain (rate of 90%), and major (rate of 65%). These rates have gone way up these days, but back then, that is what we were dealing with. Our promotion rate to lieutenant colonel at Andrews that year ended up at 50%.
So Stan had a plan, the same plan he had before: get himself a good job in the wing where he could throw insults and sabotage his peers. I don't know what he did aimed against me, because he was always cordial in my presence. But I suspect he wasn't kind, based on what he told me about the others in the group. He bragged to me that he found an email from one of the majors that mentioned the wing commander in a negative light. He promptly forwarded that to the wing commander. End result: both Stan and the person he mentioned were passed over.
What Stan didn't realize was that the rules for promotion went beyond petty gossip and job titles. The reports used to document your case depended on the many jobs you had held over the years, your professional military and civilian education, and the ratings given to you by those you had worked for. Stan was so blinded by the race he thought himself to be running, that he failed to realize his real competition was elsewhere.
Not too long ago, I was thinking about our competitive natures and how when we are young, (1) we make big plans for taking the world by storm. These plans are (2) tempered as we age and, except for very few of us, these plans are (3) abandoned completely. The key to happiness, I think, is how quickly and honestly we arrive at Step 2 of this process.
As these things tend to happen to me, I was in a restaurant when a song I had never heard was playing and the words spoke to me personally:
There's no race, there's only a runner
Just keep one foot in front of the other
There's no race there's only a runner
1, 2, 3 even when you get tired
Just keep one foot in front of the other
There's no race, no ending in sight
No second too short, no window too tight
— Lucius, "Two of us, on the run"
Wise words, those. If you spend more time working on yourself (the runner) than worrying about others, you will be amazed at how quickly you will improve at what matters the most to you. If you concentrate on the now (one foot in front of the other), you will be less inclined to become dispirited by any apparent lack of progress. As I have told my children for years, don't worry about being better than anyone else. Work on you becoming better today than you were yesterday.
Note: If you ever find yourself wondering what the name of a song you are hearing is, preload Shazam. You will be amazed by how it can pick out the music in a busy restaurant or other crowded space and get the song's name and artist. (And it's free.)