Do You Need to Be a Competitive Jerk to Succeed?

Competition doesn’t motivate me. I can’t be the only person who feels this way, but looking around I feel I can’t be in the majority. Business, sports and life seem to be dominated by people who thrive on conflict with other people. Do you need to be a competitive jerk to succeed?

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I’ve found competition actually de-motivates me. I find I can run a race faster if I’m not trying to beat the other runners. Games where you face off against another opponent can be fun, but I’ve always preferred close matches to simply winning at all costs.

Are you conjuring enemies out of thin air?

Competition is based on having an opponent. If you are used to seeing challenges through the lens of competition, you can sometimes invent an enemy. Even if none exists.

Having an actual opponent sometimes requires a competitive edge. But in most pursuits competition simply isn’t important. Inventing an enemy keeps you from thinking rationally. You will overvalue potential threats and become blinded to opportunities.

When I was interested in shareware games development, I saw many people that misapplied the competition lens to starting their business. Some of the symptoms included:

  • Idea Hoarding – Nobody really cares about your ideas. The chances of someone stealing them are minimal.
  • Direct Comparison – Competition naturally makes you compare any strategies or concepts to your opponent. This can be useful if there are only one or two opponents, but if you are a small fish, dealing with thousands, it can stifle you from innovating into new areas.
  • Fewer Bonds – Conflict forces you to separate people into allies, enemies and neutral parties. This causes you to cut off bonds with other people that you might otherwise miss.

Focus on inner talents rather than external threats.

I believe seeing the world through competitive eyes becomes useless once your opponent becomes “everyone else.” Few life pursuits have specific opponents. Health, relationships, hobbies, life and even most career moves pit you against many, not just a few.

Competition also stifles you by pushing you closer to your opponent, rather than your natural abilities. A study offered participants to spin a wheel designed to stop at either the numbers 65 or 15. The study then asked whether participants felt the percentage of African countries in the United Nations was above or below that number. After this guess, they were told to estimate the actual percentage.

Even though the numbers 65 and 15 are entirely random, people still held close to those numbers. Those who randomly spun 65 on the wheel guessed closer to 65 and those who spun 15 guessed closer to 15.

Although this study wasn’t specifically about competition, I think the same effect can occur when people compare themselves too closely with a specific opponent. The result is you might cut off opportunities that don’t specifically compare with your target.

The alternative to this competitive drive is to base decisions on your own strengths and creativity. W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne call this a “Blue Ocean Strategy.” Where you seek out empty spaces where innovation hasn’t been felt and avoid the bloody, “red oceans,” where competition is overwhelming.

How to tame your killer instinct:

  1. Cut Zero-Sum Thinking – Zero-sum thinking only works when competition is extremely narrow. Although you could argue that relationships, business or success is ultimately a competitive act, this isn’t useful when your competitors are in the billions and they aren’t paying attention to what you are doing.
  2. Cultivate an Abundance Mindset – The lens of scarcity isn’t useful. Truly innovative ideas, quality and ingenuity increase the amount of pie, rather than just giving you a bigger slice.
  3. Proactive, not Reactive – Reactive decision making is in response to a specific threat. But the best decisions are usually quiet. These are decisions where you sit down, even in the face of threats and carve out plans that can have results beyond just protecting yourself.
  4. Stifle the Green-Eyed Monster – Keep envy in its place. When another’s success doesn’t directly impact your own, avoid making decisions based on your own frustration or jealousy.
  5. Practice Compassion – Redirect your energy into something positive. Whenever I feel the urge to seek conflict, I try to channel that energy back into purpose. Asking myself what I can do to help others instead of just myself.

When should you use your competitive drive?

  1. Opponents are Specific – Competition is useful when you are facing one or two, not hundreds or thousands.
  2. Opponents are Aware of You – Strategy is useful if the opposition is aware of your maneuvers and will try to outwit you. Trying to sneak around someone that isn’t listening is a waste of energy.
  3. Opponents Threaten You – Even if opponents are few and aware of you, if their actions lack the power to significantly harm you, don’t worry about them. Merit based competitions such as academics, performances or skill testing require you to focus on your own talents rather than worry endlessly about an opponent who can’t harm you except by doing a good job.

What are your thoughts on competition?


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