Challenges and Contests

I’m a writer.

I mean, I haven’t published any fiction as yet, but I write. Every day. Often it’s just a little blog post. Sometimes it’s a little more technical. Sometimes it’s a lot more technical. (And I have published technical papers, so I guess I could argue that I’m a professional writer. Ha!)

One thing that people like me – those who write for pleasure but aren’t really making a career of it – often do is sign on to various writing challenges and contests. I enjoy the challenges and occasionally, I sign up to do a contest.

At first glance, challenges and contests appear to be essentially the same thing. But when you think about it, they’re not. This occurred to me the other day while driving to work, and by the end of my commute, I realized that I’m not really a big fan of contests, but I love challenges. And the difference between the two is not inconsequential.

At the most basic level, the difference is in the goals. In a challenge, the goal is to finish. To succeed in doing whatever you’ve been challenged to do. Take the National Novel Writing Month, for example. The challenge is to write 50k shiny new words by the end of the month. That’s all. Just write. Put a story to paper so that others can enjoy it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Or how about the Kickin’ it Old Skool challenge I did in December. Write a blog post every day based on a prompt you get in the morning. Hey! Fun! The prize is knowing you did it. You win, no matter how fast or slow you go.

A contest, on the other hand, has a completely different goal. There, the goal is to win. To be the best. And then you actually get a prize. Sometimes it’s just specific recognition. Sometimes, it’s monetary. Whatever the prize is, the bottom line is that you need to do better than everyone else to have succeeded.

Well, gee. That’s why I don’t like contests. I may be good, perhaps even really good, but I’m not the best. Not by a long shot. Not a chance. I won’t win. In fact, when I think of it, the only time I really sign up for writing contests is because I like whatever the prompt or final product is, and it’s decent motivation. In my mind, it’s just a challenge, because I know I won’t win.

And this distinction between contest and challenge carries over to lots of other parts of human life. Every time we’re faced with difficulty – whether it’s getting to work on time or passing an exam – we decide whether it is a challenge or a contest. I suspect a great many people consider almost anything like that as a contest. These people are the ones who drive as fast as possible to get to work, perhaps, or are the students who care more about getting an A in a class than whether they actually learn anything.

Then there are others who simply look at life’s obstacles as challenges. They make it to work every day, no matter how slow traffic is moving. They might get a B in a class, and that’s just fine, because they got through the course.

Of course, this is probably a gross over-simplification, but it certainly gave me a lot to think about. I find I’m a challenge kind of girl. I’ll accept all sorts of challenges. I find satisfaction in knowing I can do something, not necessarily in being the best. I shy away from anything that includes the word contest in the title, because I don’t really want to compete.

How about you? Are you a challenger, or a contestant?


  1. I feel the same way about contests. But of course in the words of Wayne Gretzky, you miss exactly 100% of the shots you don’t take. You are miles ahead of all the writers out there who don’t even bother to enter. Also, I tell my tennis students to try to focus on improving your own performance each time. You may not win every match, but did you serve better? return better? handle the pressure better? etc. Strive for your own personal progress after each endeavor. It’s all about the effort.


    1. Penny says:

      Yes, I agree.

      I don’t do anything unless I can see it as a way to move forward. I will join contests if I know I will benefit in some way. I think it’s about motivation. Why does one do these things? I’m not in it to win, usually. I just want to improve. My only competition is me!


  2. Janet says:

    Very good! I think I am both. I liked the challenge of making it through the whole month of Kickin’ It Old Skool but I also like entering contests. Not contests to prove I am the best at something necessarily, but contests where random people can win, luck of the draw kind of thing. That way, all I have to do is put my name in a hat or send an email, etc., and I have a chance of winning. Much less pressure on me than having to be the best at something!


    1. Penny says:

      Oh yeah. I hear you. I love the randomly-drawn-winner types of contests, mostly because I think I actually have a chance to win.


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