Updated: Aug 21, 2021
Since the recording of my last podcast, I have been thinking a lot about competition. We had some friends visiting during the past three weeks, and our discussion seemed to also steer towards competition.
Is competition good?
How should one compete?
I went to play tennis today, and the thoughts about competition came back, so I decided to organize my thoughts by putting them on this digital screen.
Typically, when I say to someone that I used to be a tennis player, I often have people respond: "Oh, you must be very competitive." Or many times, others introduced me with words: "Klara used to be a professional tennis player, so she is very competitive." I often took offense to such comments and introductions, but I never let anyone know. The comments sounded negative in my head without a good understanding of why that is, as I had a hard time rationalizing it. When something bugs me this way, I have learned that it is typically a sign that I have to look deeper into a topic to explore what bugs me about it. So here is my attempt:
Competitiveness is good when you focus on improving yourself and using your skills and strengths to become the best version of yourself. Furthermore, I take "becoming the best version of ourselves" as our human and social responsibility. We all are born into this world with specific passions and skills.
How can you take your passion and skills to help others?
How are you using your passion and skills to become the best version of yourself?
If there was nothing else in the world and all we strived for was to be 1% better every day, this would create a tremendous compounding interest over an extended time.
Can you even imagine all the benefits and value we could create as a society?
What amazing things could we achieve?
How would we as a society and planet thrive if we all strived to be just 1% better and could make these minor incremental improvements every day, every month, every year?
Perhaps this is where my athletic mindset has influenced me. The life of a tennis player is somewhat simple: You get on a court every day, and you put your best effort into it. Once you achieve a certain level of proficiency, all you work for are the small and somewhat insignificant 1% improvements that make all the difference over months and years. This is the same for all other athletes and people who are actively trying to master their craft.
Where competition goes wrong is when people start cheating, comparing themselves with others, and competing to win at all costs. Even if you take performance-enhancing drugs, you have to show up every day and put in your best effort to become the best versions of yourself and win. The work ethic and effort don't change. What changes is that one cheated to win - the sports ethics and condition of your win changed. One example that comes into my mind is Lance Armstrong. Lance, the cancer survivor, fighter, and a fantastic competitor who helped earn hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer and won all the cycling competitions that one could ask for. Should he be celebrated for all he achieved despite that he got caught doping? Many people typically respond with: "Almost all of the top cyclists take PEDs anyways, so what's the big deal? He was still the best and won!" We could organize a lengthy debate around this topic as many people celebrate all he accomplished and represented despite being caught. Is this a black-and-white case or rather a grey example of competing well? How about all the other athletes that take PEDs and don't get caught? Anyways, let's leave the sports doping discussion and jump into something more straightforward - a tennis game.
Every tennis player has their style and game, which are created based on their skills and strengths that originate from their physical abilities and predispositions. Example: Tall tennis players usually have a big serve and are big hitters such as - Goran Ivanišević, John Isner, Juan Martín del Potro, Lindsey Davenport. Shorter tennis players typically have a tremendous and steady baseline game and can chase the ball around the court for hours like Michael Chang or Amanda Coetzer. Yes, I took the two extremes to simplify my point, and I am aware there are many tennis players somewhere between those two examples; however, for simplicity, this should suffice. If Goran plays Michael Chang, Goran will focus on playing his game and style that supports his strengths. Goran will serve big and keep hitting those big shots. If Goran would decide to adopt Michael Chang's game style and run around the court to hit 10-20-30 ball rallies back and forth, he would undoubtedly lose the match. A tennis player wins matches by playing their game. A tennis player doesn't win tournaments by adopting their opponent's playing style. If I start adopting and playing a game that is not mine and is not based on my strengths, I would most certainly lose. I hope that the explanation is straightforward, makes sense, and everyone can agree with this point.
I believe that great principles are universal and so let's test this principle for other examples.
Taking this example into companies: If one company tries to copy what another company does, they might be lucky, and it might work for maybe one or two projects, but this will not allow the company to be successful in the long run and most likely the company will lose its identity from copying things from others as well start playing the follower instead of the innovator and trendsetter. One of my favorite books on this topic is the Innovator's Dilemma book by Clayton Christensen. What a fantastic read. If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend it.
Taking this example into countries and economic competition: The USA and China economic race. The USA cannot win the economic race over China if it plays the China game. No one but China can out-China China.
I firmly believe that innovation is fueled by competition; however, true innovation and positive societal impact are created when competition is ethical and is focused on maximizing your strengths and skills = becoming 1% better every day. Don't focus on what others are doing. Don't try to compete with others. Don't try to compare yourself to others. Find your passion. Define your north star. Work hard to be better today than you were yesterday. Strive to make minor 1% improvements that may seem insignificant every day, but they will undoubtedly turn into a compounding interest of greatness over time! Focus on competing with yourself, and you will see positive improvements over time. In my opinion, this principle in its simple form applies to people, companies, or countries.
To maximize our existence, we should find our passion, get to know ourselves, learn about our strengths, and invest our effort into building and playing our game. This includes doing things for the right reason and being yourself. Don't try to be someone else. Compete with yourself. And most importantly, don't forget to have fun while doing it.