Richard Petty, the stock-car racing legend, finished second in his very first race. He was so excited that he sped home to tell his mother.

“You lost!” was her candid response.

Richard objected and thought he did a great job to finish second among 35 cars in his first race.

But his mom didn’t see it that way. She said, “Richard, you don’t have to run second to anybody!”

Petty never forgot his mother’s message, and for the next 20-plus years, he dominated stock car racing.

As a competitive person, I thought that second place was the same as last growing up. Losing was a source of shame.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with striving to be the best. That’s what makes America.

Competition makes us better and stronger. We should not only welcome stiff competition, we should actively seek it. We’ll never realize our full potential in business or athletics unless we are challenged. Competition is healthy. It keeps us sharp. It makes us better. It improves quality.

My good friend Nido Qubein says: “Winners compare their achievements with their goals and with their own potential. The rest compare themselves with others.”

For there to be a No. 1, someone must be No. 2. And three. And four. There’s only one Michael Jordan, Tom Brady or Muhammad Ali.

A problem I see all too frequently is that people are afraid of competition. Perhaps it’s because they fear losing, but I suspect a better reason is that they know they are not as prepared as the competition. They are not willing to put in the hard work, training and sacrifice that is required. They think things will be easier for them than for others, possibly because others have made things look easy.

People can exceed expectations when motivated properly. You’ll profit a lot more by trying to learn from your competition than by trying to destroy them.

I have always been very competitive. I understand that some people don’t like competition, but you have to accept that competition is unavoidable in life. That’s the way our society works. And it’s my firm belief that our society improves with competition.

Two hikers discovered that a mountain lion was stalking them. One stopped to change into running shoes, and his buddy asked, “What good are those shoes going to do you? You can’t outrun a mountain lion!” He responded, “I don’t have to outrun the lion. I just need to stay ahead of you.”

There’s nothing like a little competition to boost productivity. Look at industry studies and you will consistently see that competition helped improve results.

Some parents have legitimate concerns about engaging their young children in competition. I understand their reluctance in situations where unrealistic expectations are set. But friendly competition is positive. Age-appropriate competition helps kids understand the importance of learning and improving. It is critical to prepare children and teenagers to compete in the real world. As they grow older, they will face competition in schools, getting a job, even buying a house.

A University of Florida study found that participating in sports is a healthy way to teach kids about the positive aspects of competition. Playing sports helps kids understand how competition works in a friendly environment and that if they try their hardest, they have a better chance at succeeding, not to mention improving their health and self-esteem.

Mackay’s Moral: If you can’t win, make the person ahead of you break the record.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail [email protected]