Due to the way some people have been brought up – coupled with the programming done on their minds in formal schooling systems – they believe that to get ahead in life, they need to compete with another person. That’s why you find people who claim to be friends(sometimes even relatives) working hard to outdo one another. One frequent fallout of their desperation to better(or get “one-up” on) each other is the absence of true sincerity, love and free, candid expression of feelings that would normally be expected to exist in such relationships. I believe anyone who wants to get great fulfillment in life, must live without carrying the burden of anxiety caused by a need to keep up with, or outdo another person, in order to look good/appear successful. This article explains why competing ONLY against yourself(like I do!) will help you live a more productive, fulfilling and LONGER life.
First published online: 2006
(Based on excerpts from Tayo Solagbade’s Self-Development Bible : Ten Ways You Can Use Self-Development To Create The Future You Want)
I have personally found that(most times) it is safer, easier and better to compete against oneself in any area(s) of endeavour. The minute you consciously begin to measure your progress against another person, and use that to decide whether or not you’re doing well, you (might) do yourself more harm than good for two reasons:
1. Your standard or reference point becomes that person. So you may tend to only push yourself as much as it takes to keep up with – or stay ahead of – him/her! Now that’s not good enough because you might have much more potential to do better than s/he might ever be willing to do – going this way will therefore make you miss being your possible best.
2. Jealousy or other bad emotions could build up between both of you over time because you are likely to eventually betray the fact that you measure yourself against him/her. People who do this often say things like “Well, I’m not doing badly. After all so and so hasn’t even done as much as I have yet!”.
Some people believe it is good to maintain a healthy rivalry with another person. Sometimes however, the line between rivalry and negative competition can get dangerously thin – depending on the mental attitudes of the parties involved. How they deal with defeat (or indeed how they handle success!) when it comes, is often a key indicator. My personal experiences make me believe not all of us are ready to practice healthy rivalry – yet! Too many of us seem to thrive on measuring ourselves against others as a means of judging our level of success or otherwise.
Below, I present a number of perspectives(A to E) from which the problem of negative competition can be looked at, proposing – where appropriate – alternative approaches that those involved can adopt.
A. Do You “Use” Your Children To Compete With Others?
In my article(based on an ebook) titled “How To Help Your Child Discover His/Her Purpose In Life” I suggesed that parents resist the temptation to use their children to impress peers, colleagues, friends, relatives or rivals, listing some symptoms as indicative of the fact that they were doing it. Below, is an excerpt :
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a. You choose to put them in a specific school because you do not want xyz to think you cannot afford a school as good as the one she sends her kids to.
b. You buy expensive clothes for your kids in order to make sure xyz’s kids don’t “out class” them.
c. In general, your decision to do anything for(or to) your kids is often determined by how you think it will make you look “better” or avoid being outdone by others you feel you need to impress or keep up with.
As you will have noticed, none of the above listed symptoms has anything to do with your child. They are all about you – the parent! Search yourself. If you think that you are guilty in any way of even ONE of the above, make a change today. As responsible parents, the decisions we take about what to do for our children should always be in THEIR best interests at all times – for obvious reasons.
Children, as earlier stated, watch us adults more closely than we realise – especially comparing how what we say conforms to what we do. And they subsequently act accordingly, based on their observations. If your kids notice that you like to “keep up with the Joneses”, they are likely to develop an appetite for similar behaviour.
Once a person begins comparing herself to others, she stands a chance of losing her sense of individuality/self-esteem. A person who lacks self-esteem is VERY unlikely to WANT to discover her purpose in life, talk less of pursuing it. People who lack self-esteem often never want anything for themselves(and hardly ever believe they can achieve anything worthwhile on their own) – instead preferring to find out what so and so wants, and then deciding that they also want it.
There is a quote that underscores the need to avoid developing this kind of mentality:
“You were born an original. Don’t die a copy!” - Anon
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B. Negative Competition In School – And Society
In his book “If you want to be rich and happy don’t go to school?” Robert Kiyosaki gives the reader a brief glimpse of his experiences in the corporate world. Among other things he explained that people displayed the same “kill or be killed” mentality he saw while in active service during the war in Vietnam.
He added that he felt sad, to see the kind of people those who played the game became in the process of doing so. Deciding not to join the corporate game, he left to start his own business. Ironically, going into business for himself also revealed a harsh “dog-eat-dog” side to the world of business. The only difference was that he was soon able to learn the rules – and afterwards it became more fun, and fairly safe to play the game.
Let me ask you the following questions: What is the point of having a friendship or partnership with another person if you(and him/her) will not be able to relate without being suspicious of each other? Burt Dubin, in one of his many insightful articles, challenges the reader to make a habit of demanding “integrity” from all those with s/he has to work with. He advises that one break off any relationship we have with anyone we find to be insincere in their dealings with us.
Adult human beings in our societies, seem to lack the ability to maintain sincere relationships with each other – a sad contrast to the situation that prevailed when they were children. Why? Because by the time children pass through formal schooling, they would have been taught how to be fiercely competitive about everything in relation to others. Schooling is about winning at the expense of others. Someone has to come first and someone last. The former gets treated preferentially and called “intelligent, genius etc” while the latter is told s/he is “a loser, stupid etc”. Since children naturally want to belong to the former group, they learn to be competitive and adopt the “win-lose” philosophy – which they subsequently carry on into their adult lives/relationships.
“The trouble with the rat race is that even when you win, you’re still a rat”
- Lily Tomlin
C. Be Generous With Your Gifts – And You WILL Win More Often!
One of the major requirements for anyone to achieve enduring success is the willingness to share with others. If you fail to do this, you will find that somehow, you never really fully achieve that which you want. It’s a law of nature. Napoleon Hill said it in “Think and Grow Rich”. Many other successful people all over the world will tell you the same. Always look for a way to “give back” to society when you eventually begin reaping your success.
I once read an article about Bill Gates in which he was reported to have said that he sees his software business as a big bus, with no brakes, no clutch, and no rear view mirror. The bus however has an accelerator pedal on which has been placed a very heavy weight to ensure that it continues moving a top speed, never slowing down, talk less stopping! The moral of his analogy is that since his competitors will always be right behind him, trying to get ahead of him, there will be no point looking (in the rear view mirror) to see if anyone is coming; neither will there be need to slow down (using brakes), or change gears (using the clutch). The only thing to do is keep going FORWARD at full speed! This probably explains why Microsoft remains a force to reckon with in the IT industry.
What has that digression got to do with sharing your knowledge with others? A lot I assure you! If you would just begin to think of yourself as that bus described by Bill Gates, then you would never have to worry about anyone “catching up” with you after you’ve shared with them. Constantly work towards improving yourself in every aspect of your knowledge or skill and you’ll find that what you share today will frequently become obsolete compared to what you’ll know afterwards, which you will be YET to share!
Having said that, you will eventually need to get to the point where you are able to see the “bigger picture”. By this I mean that you will need to realise that sharing with another person even to the extent that s/he becomes better than you, will actually be evidence of YOUR success in another dimension – for which YOU SHOULD feel proud! You cannot be the champion all the time. Sometimes you have to be the champion’s coach – which is even better!
D. Avoid Negative Competition – Or Risk Becoming A Mediocre(America’s NBA Stars Offer Useful Lessons)!
One can NEVER stop learning. For as long as a person remains alive, s/he will find that there’s always something new to learn. In my ten ways manual, I described Self-Development as:
“.. the process by which an individual continually – and intelligently – uses her own efforts, resources, knowledge and experiences(as well as those of others, voluntarily supplied), to improve her ability to achieve repeated personal or workplace successes” – Tayo Solagbade
Two words – “process” and “continually” – in that definition indicate that the practice of Self-Development is meant to be “perpetual” or never ending. There are some people who believe that the need for them to “learn” ended when they graduated from the university. What a pity! Anyone who thinks like that is destined to remain an underachiever all through his/her life!!
Comparing yourself to those around you who are not up to your level does not prove that you have NOT underachieved. Don’t fool yourself. You are an underachiever if you do not maximize your fullest potential, by perpetually striving to improve and become better in every facet of your life!
Do away with the stone age mentality of scarcity – or inadequate resources to go round yourself and those you share a similar target or goal with. Begin to think in terms or abundance – believe that there is enough success to go round you and those who do what you do.
Whenever I watch the American NBA on TV and listen to the way one superstar basket ball player speaks glowingly of the ability and/or potential of a colleague in the league, I feel goose pimples popping up all over my skin. I particularly remember watching the documentary in which Magic Johnson knelt down in front of the camera and pleaded, looking intensely into the camera, for Michael Jordan to return to the game following his impromptu retirement after his fathers death.
Think about it – some other players may have felt it was “about time Jordan left the scene” so they could enjoy greater recognition – or less opposition. But no, these NBA guys have mutual respect for each other, and when asked will readily acknowledge the other person as being a worthy opponent, who makes them play better etc.
Many of them also understand that if the best players in the game stay on for as long as they have the competence to do so, it would be to the benefit of other players in the league, since it would bring out the best in everyone most of the time. Young, up and coming players knew that playing alongside – or against – great players like “Jordan” would help them learn how to be better players themselves and therefore welcomed the opportunity when his ‘airness” chose to return.
Worthy of note is also the fact that even when the person being profiled is a rookie, or much younger player, veteran players – such as Michael Jordan himself – readily admit the person’s potential, sometimes giving examples of how they were outdone in a particular match by him.
In short, the culture at the NBA(for the most part) appears to be “win-win”. Most players consequently feel good about being there – so they always put in their best. No wonder it’s the most exciting basket ball league in the world! If more people could “copy” this good side of the NBA society, and apply it in their daily interactions with others, there would be more productive relationships that would benefit a larger number of people.
Life is ultimately meant to be fun – and the spirit in which the game is played at the NBA is often very positive. You can also learn to play YOUR games in life the same way – positively.
Give it your best every time you play but NEVER feel that you need to bring others down in order to win. Learn to be a gracious winner – and a gallant loser. Bitterness, envy and jealousy are feelings/emotions you MUST avoid at all costs.
E. A Negatively Competitive Mindset Makes You Vulnerable To Exploitation
There are devious persons in every society. By this I mean persons who love to take advantage of others to achieve ulterior motives. Typically, they would study us, and discover our weaknesses, then use those weaknesses to make us do things we normally would not have done, which would benefit them in the long run. Many instances have occurred in which otherwise strong friendships have been destroyed because one friend felt envious of the other, and made the mistake of voicing his frustrations to the hearing of a third party who had hidden motives, and would eventually exploit the situation.
It is important that each of us stays alert to the possibility of the foregoing happening, and constantly “purge” ourselves of any bad feelings we nurse towards another person, that could make us willing pawns in the bad games others might want to play.
Check Yourself By Answering The Following Questions:
Below I pose a number of questions designed to help you do a self-check, and ascertain where you may have a need to modify your thinking and/or actions in relation to others. This will help to eliminate any possibility of a negatively competitive mind set creating problems for you in your relationship(s), be it now or in the future.
1. Do you feel pleasure or pain whenever that “other person” gets publicly acknowledged or recognised for being the “best” at something you both do?
2. Are you able to truly and honestly in your heart tell him congratulations with feeling any anger, envy or resentment?
3. Do you sometimes say to yourself “Why does it always have to be him/her?”.
4. Do you silently derive any personal pleasure from learning that some misfortune has befallen him/her? Do you in fact – in your heart – wish him/her well, or do you hope s/he’ll have some setback(s) that will enable you catch up with – or overtake – him/her?
5. Would you share some knowledge you have or teach him/her a skill if you know doing this could make him/her progress ahead of you?
6. Do you deliberately speak ill of that “other person” to those you meet, so as to discredit him/her – especially when you discover that they appear to approve of that person?
7. Do you often find yourself trying to convince that “other person”(even when s/he has not made an issue of it) that there is nothing s/he can do that you cannot do?
8. Does that “other person” have the correct impression of the feelings you nurse towards him/her? (Or do you play the game of pretending to be a “friend” so as to stay close and plot his/her downfall?)
9. Is it possible that you are not normally one who thinks/acts based a negatively competitive mind set, BUT you have someone close to you (say a spouse) who always “pushes” you to see a need to be this way?
10. Is there anyone (a friend, relative, associate or colleague) that you feel a need to outdo or impress anytime you are together? Do you find yourselves trying to catch each other out?
Give yourself honest answers to the questions I just posed, and if you find that any of your answers betrays the negatively competitive mental attitude I have described in this article, I urge you to make a change today.
Become A Truly Liberated Mind Today
I honestly believe more of us today need to operate based on the philosophy of “Live and Let Live”. Life need not be a do or die affair. Outdoing one other does not have to be the sole purpose of our existence. Perpetually wanting to prove that you are better than your friend, colleague or associate(even though s/he may be unaware that you nurse such feelings against him/her!) need not consume you to the point that you are unable to settle for a more worthwhile vision to pursue in life.
Make up your mind today NEVER to feel threatened by another person’s progress. THAT would be undisputable evidence that you have become a truly liberated mind. Or what I like to call an Emancipated Thinker™ - someone who understands that his/her ability to achieve any set goal does not depend on another person’s progress or lack of it. Someone who believes that what is meant to be his/hers will always come to him/her if s/he thinks in the right way and takes appropriate action to bring it to reality.
In my language(Yoruba) we have a saying : ”Ma wo ago alaago se ise”. Translated literally, it means: ”Do not decide when to work by looking at the time on another person’s watch”. The logic is that each of us will have to follow a unique path to achieving the success we desire. We will be tested individually according to our abilities. Therefore, there is no need to obsess over another person’s progress, because there will be times when we too will experience “seeming progress” and s/he will not appear to be doing so well. Life is full of ups and downs – which we must learn how to deal with as individuals – taking lessons to help ourselves where necessary from others who may have walked the path before us.
Nothing stops you from staying up to date with what others who do what you do are doing – especially if the reality is that they are currently better than you are in certain areas. It would not be wrong to explore ways to learn from them how to improve your ability. Neither would it be bad for you to set yourself a challenging goal of matching or exceeding whatever achievements they may have recorded, with the primary purpose of improving yourself.
The challenge however is whether in doing this, you will remember that the relationship does not have to be win-lose. You can both be winners. A proverb in my language(Yoruba), which emphasises this point, translates literally thus: “There is plenty of room in the sky for as many birds as so desire, to fly without crashing into each other”. The moral of this proverb is that there is enough room in the world for each of us to succeed without getting in the way of another person(so why rush, fight, back-stab, gossip etc?).
The “Win-Lose” mentality – in the long term – does NOT work! You need to ensure that in “monitoring” others, you do not begin to tie your progress or otherwise to their own progress – or lack of it. I repeat: The idea that someone else must lose in order for another to win became obsolete a long time ago. That philosophy does not work anymore and will ultimately do you more harm than good if you adopt it.
There are forces in nature which reward – with appropriate penalties – people who, in their desperation to achieve a valued goal ahead of “others”, deliberately plot the downfall of others(or who do not wish them well). Anytime you want to act based on your desire to succeed relative to another person, always ask yourself this question: “Will I be proud to admit publicly, that I did what I am about to do, to achieve the “success” I hope to achieve by doing it?”. If you are unable to honestly answer YES to that question, take it to mean you do NOT need to pursue THAT line of action you are considering.
So, compete against yourself. Define a target to achieve each day. Work towards it diligently and return home at night to evaluate your performance. Next day, try and do better! You will never lose your motivation; neither will you nurse negative, mind-destroying emotions (like jealousy, envy, bitterness or resentment) if you use yourself as YOUR own standard or reference point.
Among other benefits(such as significant personal development/advancement) you NEVER feel unduly threatened, or anxious, because you will only have to review YOUR current achievements at any point in time against YOUR previous ones – and NOT any one else’s.
You will “stay healthy” – and live long – as a result(like I intend to)!!