I’ve never been competitive. It's not the thrill of the win that motivates me. I’ve played sports since I was child, and although I was far from the fiercest competitor, I was always the reliable team-player.
I am all about the challenge. I love planning and plotting and applying massive effort, experiencing the camaraderie of the start, the hero's journey of it all - but I don't need to win.
I can remember they used to match the worst girl on the tennis team with me for doubles since that would ensure the minimum, we wouldn’t lose and we would both have fun, since that is, and I guess always has been, my #1 goal.
The idea of beating someone else never compelled me, but it certainly compels most, and for good reason. Competition is one of the strongest human motivations. Scientists argue the desire to win was hard wired into the human brain since the beginning of our time, because survival meant beating competitors out for scarce resources.
Survival may have been the second stage of Darwin’s theory of evolution, if inception qualifies as the first, but this idea of scarcity or competition as a motivator is not what set-apart the most successful of species - what set us apart was cooperation. The element of differentiation allowed our species to leverage variance and flourish.
Here’s the reason why competition simply can not be the most powerful economic or human force - it’s an extrinsic motivator. This means, it takes something outside of yourself to force action.
“What’s wrong with that,” you ask? Well, a few things.
Studies suggest our motivation may compound at the beginning of the perceived competition, since motivation is excited by imagining the successful end of the competition, but our desire to win actually decreases the closer we get to achieving our goal.
The real clincher is, our motivation stalls post-competition, meaning, once we “win,” we tend to slow or even stop applying the effort involved during the competition.
I can hear you, “Well, of course - we don’t train for marathons everyday,” and you’re right. Setting a goal like running a marathon provides huge motivation for training not necessary for an every day run.
Look, if you want to train to run a marathon, I am hoping you’ve got something pushing you beyond getting a 26.2 sticker for your car, or letting Sarah at BlahBlah & Co. know you ran the big 3 this year.
Maybe you think you need the accountability of a race date, a competition, and a perceivably impossible fitness goal, but the goal is to push yourself past your limits, stretch the boundaries of your imagination, and prove to yourself the impossible is possible. The strategy is creating a public display of your training, and the tactic is setting such a fierce goal you might actually hurt yourself if you don't train and train hard.
This is my biggest gripe with competitions, they tend to be maligned with our values. When you rely on something external to motivate you, you’re essentially saying, I can’t (or won’t) motivate myself.
Harsh? Maybe. But the truth is even when you’re taking on something gargantuan - like a marathon - the competition is a dangerous motivator.
Focusing on others efforts or perceived advantages simply distracts you from your own systems and strategies.
Oh, and it doesn’t feel great.
Here’s where cooperation gives you the real advantage.
Firstly, even though Sarah from BlahBlah & Co. might run past your shopfront every morning, and you swear you can see her smirk, she might just be listening to her favorite song and getting her mind right for another successful day. That feels good.
Why not ask Sarah about her training regime, go for runs with her, and use each other as accountability buddies in beating your own times and distances? You don't need a race to create the motivation you desire.
And buddying up sounds like more fun to me than running a marathon (the only time trial I’m going for is how may hours in a row can I sleep).
Oh, the last point I’ll make about competition is, it is your perception that is pushing you (ie. its all in your head). You don’t know what your competitors are doing behind the smoke and mirrors. You don’t.
Maybe this race is dedicated to a family member who just passed, maybe their doctor told them if they don’t start exercising their diabetes will not be treatable, maybe this is a bucket-list to do? Who cares!?
Run your own race. The only stats you are competing against are your own. Get very clear on why you are doing what you are doing, and for what desired end. Then track your performance, evaluate it (without judgement), and course-correct until you improve.
Goal setting theory suggests we need a challenging enough goal to motivate us, but we still must perceive the goal as possible. As an example, if I decided I wanted to be a pilot, I shouldn't set my sights on the flying the next United Airlines plane - I am probably not going to become a commercial airline pilot anytime soon, but if my love of travel motivated me enough, I could get a small-plane license.
We do respond well to deadlines - and this is where ye olde challenge (read: competition) becomes useful, but the deadline should not define our purpose. Giving ourselves a time-limit for what might feel like a gargantuan or hyper-focused effort creates a sense of urgency, a crucial part of reaching our goals.
We also need to win. Small, achievable steps are necessary to build the confidence and autonomy to actually set-out to and achieve our near-impossible goals.
This is why signing up for the local marathon can absolutely help us to become a better runner, but what is the real goal?
The above examples suggests these values; honoring our loved one (because connection and loyalty are our Why), losing weight to ensure we not only meet but also get to know our grand-children (because our children are #1), or checking off every item on our bucket list (because life is precious) - these motivations are intrinsic because they are the expression of our highest values.
Are you beginning to see why our internal motivators outshine extrinsic forces?
These values do not go away. They do not diminish once the challenge subsides. They are a part of us and ensure we keep living our best life.
I love cooperation. Honestly, I often find myself MORE accountable to others and enjoy looping in a buddy to keep me honest. When it comes to business, of course friendly competition is healthy! Shit, competition is the backbone of capitalism, and so encouraged, it is regulated (or so we’re told).
A friend of mine works in a very niche industry. With only 5 other businesses competing in her space, every "competitor" is acutely aware of how the others do business. This could make for an industry microcosm where tactics get ugly. Jealousy? Undercutting? Dishonesty?
Here’s how this boss navigates their local market:
Each business is very busy, so when one can’t take on a new customer, they refer to their competition
During slow times, when seasonal staff gets cut, the owners call each other to see if it’s worth swapping hiring the good staff, so the high performers stay in the industry
They share the names of particularly problematic customers so no one has to deal with their bad attitudes, delayed payments, or “never good enough” critiques
They share price points so no one is undercharging each other, the market understands the value of their collective service, and customer experience is the #1 differential
I LOVE THIS idea. I’ve always believed a healthy ecosystem needs diversity, and the more like-minded businesses help each other out, the more everybody eats. Educating customers, creating industry awareness, and building strong local economies is good for business.
A mentor of mine told a similar story. He used to own a series of karate schools. He and a business owner would call each other at the beginning of the month to set their student numbers and financial targets. Then they would TEASE each other all month, every time they got another big membership sign-up or filled a class. This approach helped both of them beat their targets month after month, and get a delicious beer as a prize!!
I dare you to reach out to your number one competitor, swap notes, share some numbers and challenge each other to beat your own best efforts. Perhaps a friendly wager would keep your eye on the prize. You could reward the best efforts with a beverage or a crisp benjamin. Better yet, frame that cashola and use it like the seasonal trophy to get swapped back-and-forth between the winners. The prize represents a celebration of each win, because who wants to stop playing this game?!
I am not saying, competition is evil, get out while you still can! What I am suggesting is the competition should not be the means to the end. Understand, a deadline and near-impossible goal help to build your autonomy, setting these parameters help you to grow your goal-setting chops, and celebrating every success gives you the confidence to dream up even bigger goals.
The more wins under your belt, the more you will keep winning. This is why we should sweat the small stuff! Celebrate every step forward, especially the baby steps! Track for progress! Look at lower performance metrics as an opportunity to get even better!
When I think about it, by participating with others in a "race," and by understanding our only real competitor is ourselves, we truly are cooperating to improve our standards and experience.
Hhhmmmmm ... deep.
Get clear on your Why, prioritize your values, and let them push you further than you ever thought possible. Invite and encourage others on your journey to push past their previous limits.
And if you’re anything like me, HAVE FUN.