Competition exists in most areas of life. You’ll encounter it in any situation with limited opportunities, whether in money, career, education, prestige, or relationships. But can the drive to outperform others harm our growth and impact? Some people believe that we should strive to compete with ourselves more than we do with others. However, we can maximize our potential when we balance both forces. These steps help you harness the power of competition with yourself and others. (Estimated reading time: 10 minutes)
“Competition on anything is good, because it makes everybody better.”– Eddy Cue
Life is a competition; a belief that did not sit well with me for the longest time. It makes the world seem unfriendly and ruthless. It can breed a scarcity mindset that causes jealousy, stinginess, and undermining others’ ascent to success.
But my not liking the ‘life is a competition’ paradigm does not negate its pervasive social impact. The truth is that competition exists in any situation with limited opportunities, whether in money, career, education, prestige, or relationships.
In early childhood, we compete with our siblings for attention, toys, and treats. The belief in competition is reinforced in school, where teachers remind us daily that we won’t get into the best universities if our grades are not higher than our peers. Once we join the workforce, superiors demonstrate that we can only climb the corporate ladder by outperforming our colleagues.
We see it even further enforced in competitive arenas such as sports. In the Olympic games, for instance, only three medals are awarded to the winners. The remaining participants go home empty-handed, regardless of how long and hard they trained.
Social scientists have discovered that disappointment looms larger in athletes who win a silver medal. A study based on an analysis of athletes’ emotional displays found that bronze medalists showed more positive emotion than silver medalists.
This may seem counterintuitive as it seems logical that earning second place is better than getting third place. This discrepancy is due to a psychological phenomenon that researchers call ‘counterfactual thinking’ or thinking of ‘what might have been.’
In the case of the silver medalist, they compare upward, imagining how the outcome could have changed if they had pushed themselves a little harder. The regret of missing out on winning gold makes them disregard their accomplishment and all the hard work that went into getting there. In contrast, the bronze medalists compared downward and felt happy they managed to earn a medal at all.
Given this exposure, it’s no wonder we’re inclined to view life as a competition. Social creatures like us want the validation and the approval of others to be at the top of our game.
It’s essential to know that where you stand on the podium of life matters significantly less in the grand scheme of your journey and development. Everyone’s path is unique, and often, not winning indicates we need to pivot and take a different route that’s better suited for us.
But how do we keep this in perspective when living in a world where competition is a reality? How can we prevent the pressures and alienation of a competitive framework from demotivating us and undermining our potential to grow and thrive?
Like many things in life, it comes down to balance. Once you balance competition with yourself and other people, you’ll emerge a winner regardless of what others think. When you find satisfaction, the hard-hitting and harsh forces of competition disappear.
The psychology of competition
Competition is the drive we must outperform others or ourselves. It exists within every person and organism. Each species competes for food, territory, or mating partners. Those who are better have a clear advantage from an evolutionary perspective because of their dominance or survival efficiency.
However, humans don’t only compete for survival. We often compete for fun, even if it has the undesirable quality of a ‘zero-sum game’ — if one person wins, someone else has to lose.
Throughout history, people have engaged in organized competition, from the ancient Greek Olympic games to the NBA. Competition also exists in our economies, where creating efficient and productive marketplaces is essential. In politics, competitive arenas like presidential elections and foreign relations ensure that we get good leadership and outcomes.
So, what causes us to compete even if it’s not necessary for our survival? Studies show that we are instinctively driven to compete with others. Along with the basic need for survival, competitiveness is a biological trait that co-evolved with it. It helped our ancestors compete for resources critical for survival, such as food and shelter. While the things we compete for have evolved, the basic instinct still strongly influences our behavior.
Some people are more driven by competition than others. Highly competitive people have been shown to have traits like extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and situational aspects such as the perceived difficulty of a task or the presence of a rival. These traits and environmental factors shape our drive to compete and our ability to discern the line between healthy and unhealthy competition.
Extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation
A competition is, by nature, what psychologists call an extrinsic incentive that motivates us to engage in an activity. We base this on what we get out of it or to avoid punishment.
People who are extrinsically motivated to compete do it not because they find it satisfying or enjoyable but because they expect to get something favorable in return. For example, some athletes are willing to go through a grueling training program and a restrictive diet because they hope it will increase their chance of winning and garnering praise for their victories.
However, people can compete for other reasons besides an external reward. They could be intrinsically motivated to do something because they find it enjoyable and rewarding if they compete for its own sake. This motivation often comes when competition aligns with their interests and values or because of its altruistic benefits.
Some athletes might train because of the prize and the person it makes them. The discipline, tenacity, and grit make them stronger and better than they were before. They set their own standards and compete with themselves before competing with others. Winning could also give them the resources and leverage to contribute to society and benefit others.
To strike the right balance between competition with yourself and others, it’s essential to understand your deeper motivations and how to harness them to get the most desired outcomes.
The dark side of competition: when competition becomes counterproductive and unhealthy
Competition has many benefits. It can foster innovation, stimulate growth, and drive us to put forth our best efforts. People who compete often have passion and an inner spark that ignites a fire within, which can inspire them to increase their knowledge and learn new skills.
Healthy competition can also lead to positive participation and improved teamwork based on cooperation and trust.
Excessing competition or competition that’s not internalized in a healthy way, however, can lead to psychological downsides, counterproductiveness, and even unethical behavior. The unrelenting desire to win at any cost can cause people to burn out and overextend themselves. It also leads to strained relationships and a struggle to maintain good ties with the people around us.
Hypercompetitiveness can cause us to lose sight of what really matters: love, understanding, and creating a win-win situation for all. When we’re only motivated by rewards and the desire to reach the top, we don’t mind trampling over others and being self-serving. But this attitude will inevitably cause disharmony within us and in our relationships.
Humans are pack animals – at our cores, we’re meant to help each other and work in unison. An effective way to make decisions from this place of empathy is through being more driven by the intrinsic motivation of competition and by choosing to compete with yourself more than others.
While we should be aware of other competitors to maintain a competitive advantage, our main focus is on ourselves and becoming better than we were yesterday. With these two yardsticks in place, you can win and feel good about your actions.
Why competing with other people can be a good thing
One popular opinion is that we should only strive to compete with ourselves and pay less attention to others. However, we can maximize our potential when we engage in both if we don’t let competition consume us and impact our self-esteem. We should compete only on the qualities and skills needed for the goal, not other factors like looks and money.
It’s impossible to avoid competition completely. The benchmarks in almost all fields are based on the performance of others. Like the rest of the natural world, allocating resources among humans centers on Charles Darwin’s theory of ‘survival of the fittest’.
The positive side of competing with rivals is that it can motivate us to go above and beyond, especially if it improves our current circumstances. In situations like college admissions or job interviews, we know that we must beat other contenders, driving us to up our game.
Competition with yourself may not work for some people, especially if you are the type to procrastinate or go easy on yourself. If you’re one of those people, even in competition, you have no way to excuse yourself from slacking.
We don’t want to measure ourselves only against others – we must create our own metrics of success. That’s when competition with yourself is required to progress and move forward.
The value of competition with yourself
In the pursuit of success, it is easy to get caught up in the achievements and progress of others. However, by competing with yourself, you not only set yourself apart from the crowd but also ignite a fire that fuels continuous improvement.
Embracing this mindset cultivates self-confidence and resilience and enables us to set realistic goals and benchmarks. By constantly seeking to outdo our previous achievements, we create a habit of excellence that becomes ingrained.
When we compete with ourselves, we tap into our internal drives. We set our own standards and definitions of success and become the best version of ourselves.
By focusing on self-improvement rather than comparison to others, we unleash our true potential and achieve a level of fulfillment that external achievements alone cannot provide.
Strategies for fostering internal drive to compete with ourselves
Fostering internal drive requires intentional effort and a commitment to personal growth. Here are some strategies to help cultivate and nurture your internal drive:
1. Set inspiring goals: Choose goals that excite and inspire you. When you are passionate about what you are striving for, it becomes easier to stay motivated and focused.
2. Break goals down into manageable steps: Large goals can be overwhelming, making it difficult to stay motivated. Break them down into smaller, manageable steps that you can tackle one at a time. Celebrate each small victory along the way.
3. Create a supportive environment: Surround yourself with people who encourage and support your journey of self-competition. Seek mentors, join communities, or find an accountability partner with similar goals and values.
Celebrating personal achievements in self-competition
Celebrating personal achievements is an integral part of self-competition. Recognizing and acknowledging your progress provides a sense of accomplishment and motivation to keep going. Here are some ways to celebrate your personal achievements:
1. Reward yourself: Treat yourself to something special as a reward for reaching a milestone or achieving a goal. This can be as simple as enjoying a favorite meal, indulging in a spa day, or taking a day off to relax and recharge.
2. Share your achievements: Share your achievements with others who have supported you along the way. Celebrate your progress with friends, family, or members of your self-competition community. Their encouragement and recognition will amplify your sense of accomplishment.
3. Reflect on your journey: Reflect on how far you’ve come and the challenges you’ve faced. Acknowledge the hard work, dedication, and growth that have led to your achievements. Use this reflection as fuel to continue striving for even greater success.
Inspiring examples of individuals who excel in self-competition
There are countless examples of individuals who excel in self-competition and achieve remarkable success. Here are a few inspiring examples to motivate and inspire you on your own self-competition journey:
1. Michael Jordan: Widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Michael Jordan had an unrelenting drive to compete with himself. He constantly sought to improve his physical and mental skills and pushed himself to new heights throughout his career.
2. Elon Musk: The visionary entrepreneur behind companies like Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk is known for his relentless pursuit of innovation and self-improvement. He sets audacious goals for himself and his companies, always striving to outdo his achievements.
3. Maya Angelou: The late Maya Angelou, an acclaimed poet and author, embraced self-competition in her creative pursuits. She continually challenged herself to write with greater depth and authenticity, pushing the boundaries of her creativity.
It’s natural for us to want a piece of the prosperity pie. We all want to bite into the delicious flavors of life and not miss out. But, we can benefit more from having less pie and offering the rest to others. Sharing the good things in life with others is just as potent, if not more so, as enjoying them on our own. With this frame of mind, competition becomes less about us and more about others.
All my best on your journey,
Questions for you: Are you more motivated by competition with yourself or other people? How does it affect the results you ultimately achieve?
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