Everyone’s competitive. The first step is to admit it

My son’s cello teacher is dying. This is the third time she’s had cancer, so this week is my son’s last lesson with her. He has grown to love her. He cried during a lesson a few weeks ago and she said, “It’s okay. Everyone dies. Now let’s work on Saint-Saens. You need it for the master class.”

So my son cries now only at home. And we talk about how so many people are sad that she’s dying and what if everyone wanted to cry and tell her how much they will miss her during their lessons? She’d be listening to people cry all day long, but she just wants to keep teaching.

Before you become thrilled with my newfound empathy, let me admit that while she is trying to stop his crying, I am worrying about what will happen to my son when he does not have a cello teacher.

A therapist once told me that therapy is successful when you internalize the therapist’s voice and just do the whole therapy session in your head without going to therapy.

So, for example, I want to tell my husband he is a moron for saying he has done the dishes even when he has not washed pots or pans or glasses—only the plates.

Then I hear the therapist say, “What do you want to accomplish by telling him he’s a moron?”

And I’ll say, “I want to make him feel as bad as I feel.”

“Will that make you feel better?”

“No. It’ll just make him feel bad.”

“Would you like him to do the pots and pans and glasses when he does the dishes?”

I can do that conversation in my head to stop myself from throwing a glass at him.

So I do the same thing here:  I want to tell you that my son had the very best cello teacher for young kids.

And you will say, “Oh, I’m sure there are other good ones.”

Then I will get frustrated that you are arguing with me about cello teachers. Of course I know more than you because I spend my life steeped in statistics and qualitative analysis about ten-year-olds learning Tarantella.

You will ask why I think I have to control everything.

I will say I want the best for him.

You will say the best would be me not being so uptight.

So the teacher told us to go to a cello teacher at a university for the summer who is great at getting kids into Julliard. And look, I’m taking a risk here, telling you what I worry about, okay? So don’t jump all over me. Getting into Juilliard is not something I worry about. All the kids in my son’s program got in this year who wanted to get in.

What I worry about is if my son is going to be a soloist, he has to be so great that he won’t even need to go to Juilliard. He has to have won international contests or something by that age.

It’s embarrassing to admit I think like that. Why am I so wrapped up in his life? I’ve become insanely competitive and strategic and I’m second-guessing everything.

So we go to this new teacher, and the teacher says he is not going to do competitions with my son. Which makes no sense to me because my son loves the pressure. He loves performing. He loves winning. But the teacher says cello is not about winning. “Cello is about making beautiful music,” he says.

I say nothing.

He says, “Preparing for competitions is like teaching to the test. Do you know what I mean by that?”

Oh my god. Does he know I write a whole blog on this topic where I scream at parents about how teaching to the test is stupid because it’s not how the real world works?

I want to tell him cello is different. You have to win competitions in order to win soloist invitations. And my son wants the terrible life of a soloist: always competing, always traveling, living in a series of hotels, eating canapés at meet-and-greets.

Another person tells me, “That’s such a terrible life. It’s not even about the music anymore. It’s about performing.”

But that’s what my son wants. To perform. If he didn’t have cello he’d do something else that was still performing.

I can hear the therapist telling me to let my kid live his life.

I’ve coached a lot of you—a gajillion of you—and the root of every coaching session is feeling some sort of competition. Looking at what someone else got for themselves and wanting it. Thinking you should be doing something that you are not doing. Feeling like you are not doing enough. Wanting to do what you have not done. Yet.

I have never coached someone who is non-competitive and I don’t believe that person exists. Even a yoga teacher–she wants to give speeches because influencing one class at a time isn’t big enough for her. Or the coach who wants to tell people not to give up because he’s scared he gave up already and he wants to feel important. The woman who is just with the kids when everyone around her seems to have a part-time job, and the twenty-three year old who is hotter than everyone else, or the twenty-five-year-old making more money than everyone else.

We compete over what we value. And everyone values something.

Which brings me to myself and cello. I want to be a parent who navigates the cello world impeccably. But at the top of the cello world is a small group of parents (mothers) who are untouchable when it comes to getting their kids what they need. These moms make the Tiger Mom look like a bunny. And I don’t know if I can keep up.

Which is how I know that no matter how much you pull out of the rat race, no matter how much you lean out or lean in —you can’t get away from that feeling like you wish you had more. I think it’s only natural. And the people who say they don’t feel it are the people who are most out of touch with what they value.

If I were dying, I think I would keep going just like the cello teacher keeps going. Cello teachers compete by getting students to play the best they can. I would compete by steering my kids as carefully as possible so that when I am gone, they are on track to get what they want. Because that’s what I want.

And that’s what the teacher did when she sent us to the next teacher. She sent us in the right direction. But I’m not sure the teacher is right for my son. And I think the truth is that I can’t compete through someone else’s life.

That’s what you would tell me if you were my therapist. You’d say I can’t control my son’s life and there’s not really much I can do that will determine whether he goes on to have a career as a soloist.

We can only control what happens in our own life. I am focusing so much energy on the world of competitive musicians. But I can’t compete there. I am in the world of mothers. That’s where I have to compete. And competitive mothering is so humiliating because mothering should not be about competing.

44 replies
  1. Erin
    Erin says:

    There’s this book (that you would probably hate bc it’s so INFP-fabulous) that I love called Hope For The Flowers. It seems like a children’s book, but it’s for adults. And it’s a quick read.

    It tells the story of this caterpillar who keeps trying to claw his way to the top in life, only to realize it’s pointless. Then he sees a butterfly and realizes he’s supposed to become a butterfly, and leaves the rat race behind, even though he isn’t sure how his lumpy, wormy body is supposed to transform.

    As he goes, he sees a potential butterfly inside each caterpillar he passes.

    Then he trusts his instincts and forms a cocoon and transforms and butterflies save the world.

    Yep. It’s an INFP book.

    But I think when you write like this it’s because you’re looking for the butterflies inside of the caterpillars. And I love you for it.

    • MBL
      MBL says:

      Erin, this seemed like a “needs to be in hardcover” book, so that is what I just ordered. Thanks for the recommendation, my fellow INFP. It sounds kind of Jonathan Livingston Seagullesque.

    • Joyce
      Joyce says:

      Hi Erin and MBL! Hope for the Flowers and Jonathan Livingston Seagull are good. I still have Jonathan, but had to give away Hope because I can’t stand too many caterpillars. We read this books in high school alongside Siddhartha. Then we studied Buddhism.

      • Sarah M
        Sarah M says:

        Hah, before I read the other two comments, Erin, I thought, “this is probably just like J. L. S”. My mom made me read that when I was a teenager and my takeaway was that I’d never get that hour back. Haha. I’m so sorry, from an INTJ

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You’re right that I would probably hate any INFP-fabulous book but I do love the term INFP-fabulous and I will use it going forward.


  2. Maria
    Maria says:

    Have you seen 2 Cello’s? Have you heard them being interviewed? They breathe Cello and are having FUN doing it. They break all the Cello rules, play the songs they love, they are the Cello rebels. When interviewed, one of them was still moving his left hand as if he had a Cello in his hand.

    They don’t worry about competitions, Julliart, nor teacher’s approvals. They are the rock stars of Cello.

    I watched them. They want to be the best. They play hard. But it’s the fun that is the most impressive. They LOVE it.

    You can teach that. You can help your son have FUN and help him find his path with his skills. It’s HIS not yours. He will change his mind several times, may drop out and decide to go to law school or become a painter, or an actor, or launch his own company.

    It’s not life or death…unless he goes into the depths of depression and isolation and hangs himself.

    So I recommend you help him socialize, have fun, enjoy the process, have a variety of interests… and stop pressuring him.

    • Vika
      Vika says:


      the two guys from 2Cellos went to the best cello schools in the world (e.g. Royal Academy of Music) on full scholarship and won some pretty prestigious soloist competitions. They started early, though, just like most seriously minded classical musicians do, so that by the age 25 they already had 20 years of experience and gajillion of concerts, awards, and so on. Only then did they begin “crossing over” and expanding the type and size of their audience.

      Bottom line: you need to learn the rules first in order to be able to break them. Learn them like a pro, break them like an artist. These guys did, that’s why we like to listen to them.

      Good luck to Penelope’s son, may he have a life in music that he enjoys!

  3. MBL
    MBL says:

    Random thoughts:

    I am so sorry to hear about his cello teacher. That must be so hard for everyone involved.

    I love the style of this piece.

    While I agree that it is natural for people to be competitive, presumably anyone who pays a coach is guaranteed to be.

    Love that the teacher mentioned “teaching to the test” to you. Love!

    I googled “cello moms” to see if it’s a thing. It isn’t…yet…

    I agree that this parenting gig is hard!

    I love the typesetting in the middle of the last three lines. There is a great diagonal of “compete” “competitive” “competing”

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I feel like we are turning a linguistic corner here. I don’t remember a time when someone left an emoji-only comment. I like this. The comment is clear, and fun to read, I like that emojis work on blogs.


  4. Caroline Byrne
    Caroline Byrne says:

    Never thought of coaching like that before- at it’s core is the belief that your client needs to compete- even if they don’t know it or are scared to admit they’re not good enough to compete. As coaches, if we deny that competing is essential, and don’t instil this, then we deny our clients the possibilities of greatness.
    Thanks for the inspiration

  5. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    During my most awful years I had a psychiatrist, one of the last anywhere around here who still did therapy and scheduled luxurious 30-minute med-check appointments. She got pancreatic cancer and they didn’t catch it until it was too late. I saw her maybe once a month by that time and a lot could change in a month, and when I had a med question I called her office.

    And she called me back — from her deathbed. She sounded weak and tired. But she said right off that she wanted to treat her patients until she simply couldn’t anymore.

    I think that’s a common thing among people with something to give who are dying. They just keep doing it. It gives their life meaning right up until the end.

    It sounds from here, through you, that your son is highly competitive and won’t be happy just making music. You could well be the perfect partner for him, as you have a highly refined and practiced ability to compete and surge and succeed.

    But please figure out what really matters to you about the dishes. Is it that your husband do them, or that they get done? If it’s the former, give up. It’s not worth it. That’s who he is. If it’s the latter, buy a dishwasher or hire someone to do it.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Jim, I love your comments so much. The story of your therapist is lovely. And I appreciate your insight about my family.


      • Lisa
        Lisa says:


        Reading Jim’s response to your post brought out the blur in my eyes; your blog is as always, a touchstone in so many lives, especially mine. Thank you. And Jim too.


  6. Deborah
    Deborah says:

    “What I worry about is if my son is going to be a soloist, he has to be so great that he won’t even need to go to Juilliard. He has to have won international contests or something by that age.”

    The first sentence is the truest in the entire essay. The 2nd sentence, not so much. If your son develops to the point of not needing Juilliard, he will also develop what HE wants to do with his cello and that may or may not involve contests. The best you can do is give him the time and space to develop his passion along with his technique. The rest will follow.

  7. lisa
    lisa says:

    I don’t see why a person would jump all over Penelope for admitting she is competitive and wants the best cello teacher for her son because everyone is competitive when you get right down to it. It’s true. That’s a major reason why people go to gyms and stay in shape and get beauty treatments and why we pretty much do anything we do.
    The teaching to the test was a brilliant statement. Being a music teacher and someone who has taught a grade 3 class that usually is being taught to the test all year long to take this ridiculous standardized Ontario exam in May, I have to say it’s a stupid approach. I mean the teacher has to teach to the test for the entire year. No one is learning much of anything. I’m convinced of that.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    It’s understandable and reasonable to question whether the teacher is right for your son. What I didn’t read in this post is your son’s impression of his new teacher. I’m fairly sure at this point his new teacher isn’t going to “take the place” or “measure up” to his old teacher. I’m wondering if you’re writing off the new teacher too soon.

  9. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I am married to an esfp and one of my boys is an esfp. If anything I feel like I really understand this personality. I have been motivating my husband for over 15 years. True, esfp are motivated through competition, people, and fun. Both esfp in my life will go to great lengths to avoid dissapointing people. Including stuffing their own desires and dissapointments. When your son says he wants to grow up and be a cellist is he partly trying to please you? Second, esfp only stick with competitions if it’s not long term. They fizzle once the fun leaves and there has to be another motivation – like pleasing someone. I know neither esfp in my life would commit long term to being a cellist because the competitions would be to far inbetween. They would only do it to please me or the music teacher. If it’s not fun, they don’t love it. When I read about your son and cello I think, he is only doing this to please his mom or teacher. Because I don’t see SP loving the intricate details of professionally playing. Sorry to be so blunt.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is SO SO helpful. And it’s a great example of how the better you understand your kid’s personality type the better a parent you can be.

      You are totally right that he is motivated by pleasing people. And I’m a fanatic about telling him not to do cello to please me and I don’t care if he does cello or not. Because I know his proclivity to please people. So he has to get that need to please people filled, and he does cello to please his teacher. His music teachers adore him, and that means so much to him. He needs a music teacher that he is able to make happy.


      • John Spaulding
        John Spaulding says:

        So then, it sounds like the new music teacher is just the thing you need here. Your son can please him by just being “about the music”.

        • Elizabeth Templeton
          Elizabeth Templeton says:

          Perhaps one of the reasons the teacher sent your son to the “new teacher” is precisely because the new teacher teaches “about the music”. The earliest skill is learning to play the instrument. Moving on to “about the music” will greatly enhance your son’s playing, and it’s a really important part of his development as a musician. And, as John said, your son can please the new teacher by developing that kind of musicianship.

    • Tracey
      Tracey says:

      My twin is an ESFP violinist. She’s pretty much had an asian upbringing having practiced 5+ hours a day since we were 5. She’s getting her PHD in music in New York now. When we were in school she used to win everything – first in like 6 different track & field sports, cleaned up at talent shows, swimming, ballet, most badges in Girl Guides etc….list went on and on. She loved it. I’m INFP so I never felt competitive with her. Completely different strengths. I have always been very proud of her and happy for her. At 15 she moved to Shanghai to study violin at a conservatory there. She followed her instructor, because that’s what you do when you live in the middle of no where. She absolutely would not be a violinist of the calibre she is today without having done that.

      With that said, she does not enjoy competing anymore. She hates auditions. It’s far too much stress. She has to prepare 45 minutes of music from memory and cover the costs of international trips to audition. She competes with hundreds and from behind a screen (removes any visual bias, but means you need perfect technique, which means no feeling or artistry…not cool for ESFPs). She’s been teaching wealthy upper east sider kids part time and I think she’s probably happier doing that than competing, although ultimately touring with an orchestra is her sweet spot.

  10. JML
    JML says:

    This post reminded me why David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech This Is Water is so important. Especially the part about what we choose to worship.

  11. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    Noooooooo I don’t want to be reading a competitive-mother blog, ugh, especially not if it’s a case of the-wannabe-and-the-queen-bees. Unless it is like the movie ‘Mean Girls’ hehe… yeah, mean girls grow up to be ‘Mean Cello Mums’…ok I’d go for that but there would have to be lots of suitably funny random acts of cello-based sabotage & dirty tricks…

  12. Maria Hanson
    Maria Hanson says:

    I’ve always found your lack of empathy amusing and I love how you shock me, so this post was a real surprise, Penelope. Not the tiger mom part, not even close- but your self-therapist approach. The shift in your coping and perceptions are really different here. I’m always having these kinds of conversations with myself because my mind is constantly on the hunt for different perspectives. Anyway, I find some real comfort in this post. It feels like validation for the way I think. Even if it’s not, I’ll take it. But please, say something completely heartless again soon. So I can conjure up reasons for why your callous soul deserves understanding.

    By the way, have you seen the movie “Shine” with Geoffery Rush? I think it’s fitting for your situation regarding your sons cello.

  13. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    One of my kids is a born performer who loves being the center of all things. A great outlet for her has been musical theater, she has made so many friends and she gets to perform and get instant praise. Once one production is over, there is always another one, typically with the same kids so friendships get to keep building.

  14. Denys
    Denys says:

    Is it Gilda Barston the cello teacher? My oldest daughter did a Suzuki Intensive with her in Delaware years ago and that day remains one of the highlights of her cello playing. Gilda’s focus on each child was amazing. She really listened for their strengths and could provide immediate specific instruction on what would improve their playing. It was amazing watching her teach.

    My younger daughter’s ballet teacher died suddenly Dec 29th. The studio had just completed the annual Nutcracker performance the weekend before Christmas and Ms. Hedy was completely fine and healthy. One afternoon at home she had a cerebral hemorrhage and her husband said she was dead within a few minutes. When I got the phone call from another mom, we just cried on the phone together. The parents organized a memorial service for the girls and it was an amazing day to honor the work she had done for 30 years as a teacher. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place as each girl spoke about how they became a better person through their time with Ms. Hedy. Sometimes I still go to a place of “that’s not fair” and “this sucks for my kid”, but I keep that in my head and make sure the words I speak are in appreciation of what she provided for the kids. Five months later the girls all are together with a new teacher and are all OK with what happened. They are still committed, maybe even more so, to study of classical ballet. I chalk that up to how all of us as parents handled it in our families. It wasn’t easy. I feel like I climbed the Mt. Everest of parenting when we went through that.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah. It’s Gilda. I felt weird putting her name in the post. And I thought that probably anyone who knows about Suzuki would know it’s her. Anyway, thank you for understanding.


      • Lindy
        Lindy says:

        Was the teacher close by? Just curious how far you’d travel. My teacher is a half hour away and I hate commuting a half hour each way for a half hour lesson

  15. Lk
    Lk says:

    I think you have a problem with competitive paranoia. It’s pretty normal. You’re definitely in the top one percent of competitive. Some of it needs to rub off on your son. He can’t rely on you forever. If he’s yoyoma a great teacher will want him. If he’s good enough for a professional career just call a music school for chrissakes. It’s not rocket science. So sorry to hear about the teacher. Maybe she’ll be ok. Miracles happen. Also you once said you got your son ten lessons a week which seemed oddly excessive to me as a professional musician because how much can a teacher add without practice but I figured you had multiple teachers. Good luck. Your sons lucky to have you. Ps you have website devoted to personality types. I think it’s bunkum but trust me there ARE non competitive people. Plenty.

  16. MBL
    MBL says:

    From a post a little over a year ago when Zehavi was requested to write a bit about Gilda. //education.penelopetrunk.com/2015/02/08/what-counts-as-good-writing/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+PenelopeTrunkHomeschooling+%28Penelope+Trunk+Homeschooling%29

    The whole post is good, but the last lines…well, they have even more resonance now than when I first read and loved them.

    “Because I am a very emotional person I feel lots of things when I perform. It depends on what kind of piece it is, whether it’s sad or happy or another emotion. Gilda is like a gate to open up my emotions and set them free from inside my body.”

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      What a sweet kid he is. I know if this was my middle kid, she would be devastated and inconsolable. She is just as sweet and sensitive. My heart hurt a little reading his words about Gilda. What a special relationship too.

  17. Caitlin Timothy
    Caitlin Timothy says:

    I’m so sad for your son! It’s amazing how bonded we become with the people we work most closely with to achieve our goals. They come to know us- our weaknesses and our potential- so intimately. He probably feels almost like he’s losing a parent! :( It’s so good that you love him so much, that you’re available to him and are able to discuss his life and feelings, and that you’re working closely with him to help him succeed. Someday he’ll feel this way about you- though hopefully not for some time! <3

  18. Benjamin Monk
    Benjamin Monk says:

    “And the people who say they don’t feel it are the people who are most out of touch with what they value.”…

    Actually, I value not being competitive. I think to a large degree we’re socialized to be competitive- and I’m just not buying into the hype. It’s a conscious effort and it’s not always easy, but refusing to engage in the game of comparison (which engenders competition) is something I strive for daily and, to the extent I usually make that goal, I’m…


    • Jessica
      Jessica says:

      Benjamin – I value not being competitive too!

      In fact, I’m less competitive than you are… neener neener. ; )

      (LOL just being silly on a Friday)

  19. Chrissy
    Chrissy says:

    It’s really easy to misinterpret everyone as competitive because so many of us are trying really hard at everything we do so we’ll stay engaged with life and connected to the few people around us that matter most to us.

    Getting ahead of someone else who has different motivations isn’t the goal for a lot of people. The feeling that many of us carry is just an innate sense of purpose. We really do want everyone around us to succeed. My effort to succeed isn’t meant to take away anything from anyone else.

    I guess with cello it’s different. There isn’t room for everyone to succeed as a soloist. But there’s always room for everyone to love playing the cello. The new teacher wants to teach him to, at the very least, preserve that love for cello, whether he’s successful or not. You’re the perfect cello mom because you can manage him and his talents and make him successful. There’s nothing wrong with that.

    • doug cline
      doug cline says:

      Thank you. I’ve been trying to sort out how I feel about this post for weeks. You got closer to articulating my feelings than anything else here. I’ve never cared for competition as a zero sum game. I’ve never quite grasped why it can’t be the rising tide that lifts all boats.

  20. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    Ah, my dear Penelope! Control is an illusion!

    And just because competitiveness is natural, does not mean it is good or healthy or will bring you happiness…

  21. Lindy
    Lindy says:

    She’s projecting. Of course a competitive person thinks everyone else is competing. I’ve known people who were so non competitive it bothered me. I don’t enjoy either extreme. Competitive people waste time wishing for others to fail and very non competitive people don’t push themselves to improve.

  22. Rachel G
    Rachel G says:

    Hm, interesting that you think there are no non-competitive people because you’ve never coached one. Perhaps non-competitive people don’t want coaching? I don’t. I mean, sometimes I want advice or a chat, but I don’t want to get ahead (and living up to your potential is BS).

    Anyway. I read a blog somewhere with advice for parents of perfectionists. The parents often say to the kids, ‘it’s okay, it doesn’t have to be perfect.’ And this makes the kids even more anxious, because they think ‘yes it does! Why don’t you understand? Why can’t you see it’s important to me?’ Just thinking that maybe you could tell Zehavi that his cello pleases you, rather than telling him not to try to please you. Not that I’m an expert or that you should listen to me. It’s just a thought I had while reading.

  23. Cecelia
    Cecelia says:

    My heart goes out to you and your son, and his teacher. I know I would have been heartbroken if my piano or clarinet teacher had passed away.

    For your next instructor conundrum, I would suggest at least trying the one your current instructor recommended for 6months to a year. I realize you are wary of their teaching style for your son, but I take the recommendation of your current amazing teacher very seriously. In my experience they wouldn’t suggest someone if it wasn’t what your son needed for his music. If it doesn’t work, he’s still young enough to switch before he looses much momentum even with the early pressures for getting into competitions.

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