This piece was written in collaboration with Eric Termuende.
Last week while walking to a meeting I overheard a conversation between two people in front of me who were talking about how they could work their way to the top of the corporate ladder within their company. The comments they made weren’t really about how good they could be as individuals, but how they had to be better than their coworkers. Of course, we have to differentiate ourselves from our peers to be promoted. However, it seems almost silly to think that we will be better off by redirecting our focus from self-improvement and personal responsibility to direct comparison and competition with someone else.
‘The energy you’ll expend focusing on someone else’s life is better spent working on your own. Just be your own idol’ – Sophia Amoruso
The truth is that our only real competition is within ourselves. If we can be the best version of who we are and focus only on being better today than we were yesterday, then who we are competing against shouldn’t matter. Any excess capacity can be channeled to be better at whatever it is we are doing.
So unless we are in a sport or competing against ourselves, does competition really fit into our lives?
Moving our focus away from direct competition with our peers isn’t always easy. Our constant access to information about others has bred a mindset of ongoing comparison, and to be honest, it is not healthy. It translates to how we perceive ourselves, our careers, our families and so on. If we aren’t better than someone else at something, we often find another skill that we are superior at and foolishly place our focus there to have the ‘upper hand.’ In doing this, we often lose sight of our goal and focus on being better than the other individual instead.
I’ve noticed that this often means comparing two people who aren’t equals, and can’t possibly be considered as such. Rarely (if ever) are two people in identical situations, armed with the same skills and resources. Everyone has different challenges, obligations, and motivators. Attempting to compare your journey directly with that of a peer is a waste of your focus – and your focus is valuable. If we can move past direct comparisons, we can also find great value in “cooperative competition” and benefit from working together.
Don’t get me wrong; I am insanely competitive. I always have been and always will be. But I am constantly working on refocusing this competitive nature into productivity. There is nothing wrong with being motivated by those around you, but once it starts to affect your focus, it becomes a problem. Envy often leads to frustration and frustration easily morphs into distraction.
My dad always said “All of the wood behind one arrow”, and with access to more information than ever imagined, this saying has become even more important for us to remember. When all of the wood is behind one arrow, the arrow goes farther in the direction you are aiming. Think about your life through the lens of this analogy.
Focus on what matters
If we are focusing too much of our attention on the actions of those around us, constantly trying to match up with their moves, all of the wood is no longer behind the arrow. Our focus is no longer on our goals but potentially in the direction of others’. We might end up somewhere in the vicinity of where we want to end up, but we are no longer in line with our destination (goal), and it might even be harder to get there.
By channeling our energy away from direct competition and instead focusing on competing with ourselves; we will find we are still competing with our peers, but odds are we will go further. Momentum is a precious asset, why waste it focusing on others when you’ll get further by competing with yourself?
Visuals are always helpful, so perhaps this will help you too. Feel free to fill this template with your goals, steps, milestones, and distractions. It is an easy way to refocus if you ever feel you’re losing your momentum.
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