I grew up in competition. It was a part of my life, all over the place. And sometimes competition moved me to push my self far, motivating me to be excellent, and in other cases, competition broke down my will to excel. An individual reacts to competition different depending on the psychological factors, the situation, and how past competitions have played out. Because competition is everywhere in the world, particularly in a career or a quest for financial independence — not to mention just meeting personal goals one might set for oneself — look for ways to make competition work towards a positive outcome.
I wrote recently about one particular competitive experience. When I first began learning to play a musical instrument in school, we were seated by our perceived abilities. I was last in the row, worst clarinetist in the class. And I didn’t enjoy playing music for school, even though I had been musical at home. The following year, my family moved to a new location and a new school, and at this new school, I had a head start because my classmates were just beginning to pick up their instruments. Suddenly I was at the head of the class. And just as suddenly, I loved playing music again.
Year after year through high school, I continued playing, and continued working hard to stay the best. I was the “first chair,” and constantly faced challenges from friends who wanted to take my seat. To keep my position, I had to practice hard and stay focused on being the best. I eventually decided to study music education in college. Had I stayed in my first elementary school, it’s unlikely I’d ever pursue music as a career.
Competition was a main theme for me in high school. Another example happens to be related to music as well; our marching band competed with other similar marching bands from other schools throughout the northeast. Not every teacher agrees that competition of this type is useful in an educational setting. But competition exists in the real world, and learning how to deal with competition as a teenager might be a good way to prepare. We compete for jobs, we compete for money, we compete for recognition, and as is coming more clear to me with social media like Facebook, we compete to have admirable lives among our friends.
In the marching band world, competition was tightly controlled. One group competed against another only if they were similar in terms of size. Today, there are even more guidelines for appropriate competition — not only is size a factor, but so is funding, so a hundred-member band with twenty staff members available to focus on separate aspects of the performance doesn’t compete directly with a hundred-member band making do with only two teachers who have to do everything on their own.
Competition presents some challenges, in work and in life.
But when we compare ourselves to other people, we are often unaware of advantages, whether they are our own or of others. I can’t think of a time when I competed directly with a coworker for a promotion, but this happens all the time. And when faced with competition like this, some people shut down and give up, others rise to the occasion. If you tend to get motivated by competition in work situations, are you also using competition in social situations to motivate you?
Facebook recently conducted a social experiment on its users (without their knowledge but with the consent that comes in the form of agreeing to a contract when you sign up for an account). The news feed showed mostly positive status updates to some users and mostly negative updates to some users, and saw that users’ own moods (as measured by additional status updates) were affected by the tone of the updates they saw. On top of this, Facebook is a chance for people to market themselves to their friends and to feel good about themselves. Thus, people tend to share personal good news more often than bad news. People are more likely to use Facebook to tell the world “I got the promotion!” or “I got engaged!” when appropriate, but when a situation would call for announcing “She turned me down for a date!” or “I failed the bar!” chances are you won’t see it.
All of this makes it difficult to live up to the implied social competition. Even without Facebook, it looks like everyone’s life is better than yours. That’s only because you primarily about the good things that happens in someone’s life, while you still experience bad things even if you don’t share them with your extended group of friends.
Make competition work for you in your career.
You compete for a new job, you compete for recognition with your work, and you compete when you own a business. Without good experiences with competition in the past, there is a good chance that taking the easy way out is safer emotionally.
Steal a technique from video games. When you play a video game that’s based on progressing through a series of levels, you start out easy. You’re able to overcome initial obstacles, and as your abilities improve, you are able to face tougher challenges. The game takes you through a series of levels, training as you go to handle difficulties. You don’t get thrown to the wolves on your initial attempt.
In real life, you may not be able to choose your competition. But you can set your expectations so they match your abilities. I wouldn’t think I’d be able to compete for a first-chair position at the New York Philharmonic without first being the best clarinetist at my university (and I wasn’t). I wouldn’t think I’d be able to compete for a job in charge of a non-profit with someone who has been leading non-profits for thirty years — but I could take a different approach and start my own.
It also helps to keep a larger goal — or a mission — in mind. You may not always be recognized for your hard work, whether the recognition comes in the form of a promotion, a salary increase, an award, or even just getting a job. But if you’re doing what you need to be doing, you’re improving yourself whether other people see it or not. It can be demotivating when you constantly perform competitively and others seem to refuse to recognize how well you are doing. There are many reasons why people are rewarded for their actions, and sometimes it has nothing to do with your particular performance.
Don’t take other people’s achievements personally.
The competition to have the best life is one you can never win. If you’re feeling pressure from other people’s successes you read about on Facebook, and it’s affecting your emotions negatively, either stop reading Facebook or keep in mind that everyone who shares anything personal is automatically biased. Everyone wants to project a favorable appearance.
Not everything has to be a competition. You don’t have to be the first person among your friends to reach an important life milestone. You don’t have to show off everything that you’re happy about. People live their lives at different speeds and have different goals. You shouldn’t live your life based on anyone else’s personal achievements.
Stop comparing yourself and your life to others, and I guarantee you’ll be happier and better able to focus on achieving your own goals, whether in your career or in your life. If you’re focusing more on yourself, you’ll be able to see competition for what it is: something healthy that can spur you to move forward.
Published or updated July 18, 2014.