In the Competitive Arena: How a Change in Perspective Can Bring a Lot of Joy

Doug PowersCulture

competitive arena

Some people love competition. However, when the subject of competition comes up during a coaching session, the emotions instead are usually centered on anxiety and fear. How is it possible for competition to evoke pure joy in some and fear in others? The answer is in our perspective.

Competition as a Means to Win or Lose

The most common (and I argue most unhealthy) perspective of competition is centered on winning and losing. Within this mindset, the goal of the competition is to destroy the competitor. Kill or be killed. If we must compete, let us hope it is against someone weak.

When we assume the only goal of competition is for us to win, then the goal must also be for others to lose. It should be no surprise this leads to anxiety and fear and that our fear leads to insecurity. We then put our attention to feeling more secure, which often leads to two fallacies:

  • Fallacy #1 – If I am better than my competitor, I don’t need to feel insecure. Our first major experiments with this line of thinking probably took place in middle school, and some of us never grew out of it. What we fail to acknowledge is we all have different strengths– that there will always be someone who is better than us at something.
  • Fallacy #2 – Power is the antidote to insecurity. Destroying our competition (or preventing them from competing fairly) gives us more power. Unfortunately, this line of thinking actually gives us even more insecurity as we fear losing power.

Don’t assume this mindset is only for the Neanderthals amongst us. We all like to win, and it starts at a young age. Nearly all of the children on my son’s Little League team ask me what the score is at the end of each inning. They want to win. Last Saturday, we lost. It turned out that the five year old players on the other team were really good at catching fly balls. It also turned out that one of our team’s players had a great perspective on the competition as he stated quite matter-of-factly following the game, “We need to practice catching.” This leads us to a second (and healthier) perspective of competition.

Competition as a Means to Grow

Within this mindset, the goal of competition is to get better. We grow. As Daft Punk would put it,  “Harder, better, faster, stronger!” If we are only as good as our competition, we seek out strong competitors. We invite loss as a means to learn and grow.

When I was a child, we had a ping pong table in the basement. After school, my dad would often challenge me to a few games. Day after day he would beat me. Each day I got better and his margin of victory would fall until that glorious day came when I won. I gloated. In response, my father smiled, held up his left hand and emphasized the motion of moving the paddle from his left to his right hand as he said, “Again.” He, of course, destroyed me on the next game. Fortunately for me, I continued to get better. It’s a lesson in growth that I’ve carried with me my entire life.

Iron sharpens iron. Grit and growth pay off in the long run. For those with this mindset, competition is a joy. There is no winning or losing—only growth and harder challenges.

Shift the Mindset Everywhere Competition Occurs

If you’re like most companies, you’ll find competition in at least three distinct places: between team members, between different teams within the same company, and with the company’s competitors in the marketplace. In every case, I usually find employees getting anxious as they compare themselves to others. An implicit goal that I often uncover is that everyone wants to be better than the competition.

The danger of needing to be best lies in what happens when we achieve it. Simply put, once we are best, we have an emotional incentive to hold others back. We have an incentive to oppress so that we stay on top. If you look closely, you’ll find this happens between individuals (so much for teamwork), between teams (so much for corporate values), and between corporations (just look at all the lobbying by legacy telcos to try and prevent Google Fiber or SpaceX’s StarLink). When we do achieve success, it’s important to remember our humble beginnings. Within your company, you should certainly use your success to help others—not hold them back.

Individual performance, team performance, and company performance improve much faster when we focus on growing ourselves and improving our customer’s outcomes rather than trying to best someone else. Look closely and you’ll find an inspiring trait amongst some of the world’s best competitors: they genuinely appreciate their competition. They don’t resent the achievements of others. Rather, they are inspired by them. It is simply fuel for their own growth. And they never stop growing.