Competition ain’t healthy

It’s that time again! The pomp! The circumstance! The pageantry! The flags! The competition to see which country can win the most pieces of metal and make their national anthem play the most times! Oh yeah and the sport!

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Photograph: Brian Snyder/REUTERS

When I raise the issues I have with the Olympics, most people will agree that the billions of taxpayer dollars spent for the “benefit” of repeated exposure to fast food and sugar water brands (which builds affinity and therefore consumption — is that irony or design?), most people respond “Yeah but think of the healthy competition! This is better than having the world at war!”

Here’s the newsflash, folks: There is no such thing as healthy competition as long as that competition is with anyone but yourself.

That’s right! We’re told that we have to compete with others to know just how good we are and that competition pushes us to be better but is that even true? It certainly isn't in business. What are we even trying to be better at? Not only is trying to be better than an incomplete and idealised perception of someone else upon whom you have projected hopes, fears, dreams and insecurities misleading, it’s also not helpful. When you compete against someone else, you’re trying to close a gap that may only exist in your head and have, therefore, set an unattainable goal. You also are choosing a goal that, while superficially attractive, may very well be one that doesn’t help you become your best self. When it comes to the value of competition with others this quote by Theodore Roosevelt (or was it Aleister Crowley?) comes to mind:

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

"What does competition have to do with comparison?" you ask? Well isn't that the point of competition? To get a better score than the other people you're competing against? To beat the opponent? Whether you are comparing your speed on a bobsleigh course, your annual income, your weight or your grades, comparing them to others will only ever produce a baseless feeling of inferiority or a temporary sense of superiority. In the end, neither produce joy and that's, in part, because you're chasing someone else's definition of "success". What's the point of that? How does that help you?

By comparing yourself to others and chasing someone else's goals, you end up orienting your life towards goals that are either irrelevant or unattainable. You are, therefore, creating a bottomless pit "winning" will never quite fill. Sure, the prizes and attention are usually nice but in the long term, have you really done something that honours your talents, passions and abilities?

“But how do you get jobs or clients or spouses without competition?"

You don't need to compete to do any of those things. You need to put your best foot forward. None of these situations is a proper evaluation of who you are as a person. Marriages can fail and jobs sometimes turn out to be the wrong fit. “Winning” any of those is no guarantee of long-term success and it won't necessarily bring you joy.

"Ok, but what about improving skills? How can you do that without someone to push you?"

I'm always a bit concerned when people bring this up. Do we really need to go beat someone else and live our lives in comparison to others in order to become our best selves? Aren't we worth the effort on our own? I don't see much joy in this sort of mindset. It sounds exhausting to me!

"Ok, so how do you get joy then?"

What can produce joy is fulfilment and self-actualisation. Seeking to become the best versions of ourselves will produce the best results. In doing so, we give ourselves a purpose, take away the pressure to be someone else’s idea of what “successful” is. We also discover so much about ourselves in the process. What is important to remember is that the only person with whom it is fair and healthy for you to try and become better than is the person you were yesterday. That’s not to say that we should expect measurable progress every day. Sometimes you have to take a break to “sharpen the saw”, take a step back in order or even change paths and start all over in order to move forward. That's how this works, folks!

So, instead of looking outside of yourself for purpose and validation, why not look inside and find the things that you are uniquely good at? The world can only have so many gold medalists, lawyers, doctors or whatever profession you think will give you financial security or fame or respect. Not that getting there is a guarantee you will stay there. You have something unique to offer the world! It’s time you found out what that was and time that you nurtured it. Not only will you finally find the happiness you seek but the world will also be a better place for it! If your friends or family object, tell them that you plan to master something you are best at that you will always be in demand. Tell them that you are striving for excellence which is a far more objective measure than comparing yourself to others. I’m not saying quit your job and abandon your responsibilities. Just that, if you are measuring your worth or your success through comparison, I encourage you to re-examine your goals. I expect that you will find the happiness and satisfaction you were looking for outside of yourself. This is the real path to world peace!

What do you think? Are you worth it?

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