What My Mom’s Friend Taught Me About Competition and Excellence

Growing up, I had the good fortune of having a few “auxiliary moms.” Pam and Bam were my mom’s best friends, and they played a big role in shaping me.

Bam was and is one of the most open and generous people I have ever met. When we’d visit the Behrer home, Bam’s first priority was always us kids. How were we doing? Would we like something to eat? Would we like to go exploring around the pond in their backyard? 

In her view, children were interesting and important people, worthy of her full attention and respect. I have tried to live up to her example over the course of my own life.

I saw Pam less frequently, but she made a big impression on me nonetheless. Pam had an intensely competitive spirit, as well as a mischievous twinkle in her eye. One time, when we were playing in a ping pong tournament together, I gave a celebratory yelp after we won a point. 

“Focus,” Pam admonished me. She didn’t want me distracted by celebration. She was all about the goal. Staying focused takes a lot of self-discipline in our culture of distraction and self-congratulation. I listened. We celebrated after we won the whole tournament. 

What makes a person successful?

I’ll never forget something else she said to a group I was a part of. We were probably hanging out after dinner at the table or out on our lawn. I’d guess I was about ten years old, becoming more aware of the wider world and beginning to form my own beliefs.

I remember she said something like: “People’s success and value in the world depends on how they do what they do, not what they do.”

This came as something of a surprise to me. At the time, I thought that the President of the United States was by definition “more successful” than the janitor at my school. But Pam said, no, the President is not more “successful”—or more worthy of our admiration— if they do their job poorly, or their heart is in the wrong place. The janitor is more “successful”—and worthy of our admiration—if they are committed to excellence and their actions and words reflect love and commitment to the people around them.

It’s hard to know, but this conversation may have had a major impact on my life. I have repeatedly chosen life paths that lead to less prestige than other paths that have been open to me. I have done so because I didn’t think those more prestigious paths were the places where I could show up with the greatest commitment and love for my fellow humans.

Invite your friends to help mentor your children

I’ve never forgotten Pam’s mentorship: Focus on your ultimate goal. Don’t waste time celebrating intermediate victories when you could be preparing yourself for the next step in your quest. Don’t evaluate people by their position. Judge them by the heart and love they show for the people around them.

Today, few of us live in close-knit communities which organically foster these kinds of relationships between adults and children. Families and kids are busy doing their own things. We rarely take time to identify, appreciate, and articulate the unique gifts our friends can bring to our children, the valuable role they can play in helping our kids broaden their perspective and discover who they are. We don’t want to impose on each other, and we don’t want to invade each others’ privacy.

Our children and our friendships would be better served if we took time to identify friends who exemplify values we hold dear, and asked them to play a modest role in helping our child find their way.

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What My Mom’s Friend Taught Me About Competition and Excellence