The Competition Will Kill You

The Competition Will Kill You

I don’t have to compete against others in order to gain status and feel good about myself. Bettering myself is where I’ll always come out as a winner. Code #22

I was the kid who was left until last to be picked for the team in school sports. Routinely, the same athletic, fast, talented people would be picked up first, leaving skinny little me to be given away by default at the end.

I just wasn’t interested in sport, so never really tried. I never saw how people could take it so damn seriously when it was just a game, and I didn’t much like the fact that school made it compulsory for me to compete against others in physical sports that I simply wasn’t very good at. I could run fast, but not as fast as others, and I couldn’t catch, kick or throw a ball to save my life. (Fortunately the specific set of circumstances where my life depends on my ball skills hasn’t yet converged, phew).

But then something odd happened.

I must have been around 14 years old when I returned to school from a fantastic family holiday overseas; one of those trips that completely refreshes you. I had a water polo class on that first morning back at school, something I’d normally try to get out of by claiming I’d picked up some rare tropical illness while away and had to be quarantined for the safety of my classmates, but that morning I just went with it.  What the hell, I thought.

In the pool, I found myself marking Adam Vanburgen, one of the star players at everything. I was sticking to him like glue, preventing him from getting his shots in, blocking his passes and intercepting the ball on a few occasions.

After 20 minutes I saw him position himself to receive a long pass from up the pool, and I got myself into the perfect position to intercept. Adam glanced over his shoulder, saw me ready to challenge him once again and said, “Christ Steve, where the hell did you go on holiday?!”

In that session of water polo, I’d become something I hadn’t expected. A decent player, playing a decent game of water polo.

What made the difference?

I wasn’t thinking about the competition; I was just playing.

Some people believe that success in the world is about getting there faster, better and smarter. Some people measure their progress and success by comparing where they are against where other people are. Some people even base their next choice on how well they think they’re stacking up against the competition.

I believe that living your life in competition with others will claim your soul.

The very act of putting your focus on those external measures of competition means that you’re:

  • paying more attention to increasing the perceived pay-off from your choices, i.e. what your next move is to advance you ahead of the competition, rather than increasing the value of your next choice.
  • devaluing what you can do in the face of “superior” players, rather than honestly and gracefully acknowledging your capability, effort or contribution.
  • establishing patterns of thinking based on the belief that you’re not as good as other people, rather than having something extraordinary to offer.

Keep doing that and your soul will become shrivelled like a baked bladder.

I resented sports because I saw it as being all about competing on unlevel ground. So I never engaged. I never played (even though I sometimes pretended to). My thinking was based purely around the competition, my place in it and how irrelevant it was to me, and I’d thought myself out of the game before ever giving myself a chance.

That morning playing water polo, 2 things changed:

  1. I had no thoughts about the competition.
  2. The only thing that mattered was enjoying myself.

My self-worth had nothing to do with winning or losing or being better or being worse than anyone else in that pool; it was based purely on my choice to engage with the game and play to the best of my ability. It wasn’t even that water polo suddenly mattered to me; I still didn’t give a flying fig about water polo, what mattered to me was the value derived from playing bloody well.

Are you more focused on the competition or on playing?  Do you think it’s healthy to compete with others, or is it better to compete against yourself?  Thoughts?


  1. You make an excellent point here, Steve!
    Curiously I always suffered from something similar in my coding endeavors, i was trying to compete with those who were better than me, always trying to measure myself. It was not for the sake of becoming better, but for trying to beat the other guy.
    When I just left that idea (and it took a long while, and sadly not a cool vacation trip), I was finally able to improve and reap the benefits of actually being a good coder. Now I’m happy teaching this to my employees, first before even touching a computer, they must learn to code just because they want to code.
    I think once we really get into doing our thing because it’s what we are doing, everything becomes easier, I think it’s because there is less mental clutter and far more focus involved.
    Thanks again for the wonderful post!
    Keep up the great work Steve.

    • Steve Errey says:

      You’re onto something there Alejandro. Reading your comment I just had a flash in my mind of Yoda teaching Luke Skywalker the ways of the Force (yep, I’m a geek and proud of it). He says, “Do or do not. There is no ‘try’.” Seems to me that having a focus centred around competition is trying to be better than someone else, and you lose site of the doing part. Yoda was a wise little guy.

      • Are you sure we aren’t brothers from different mothers? Because I am a geek too.
        You do have a great point about our little Jedi Master. Maybe we become better at things just because we focus on them, and not because we are trying to surpass someone else. I may even add this idea to the walls of my studio, just to keep it close at heart.
        This sounds to me like a good idea for a guest post on Expert Enough, maybe you should try it!

  2. Johan Gingrich says:

    Interesting thoughts here. I had the same experience a you did in high school with my gym class. I didn’t have the revelutionary game of polo you did, but I did have a good teacher that was really supportive. Somehow, but a stroke of luck, or a good school counciller, I ended up in a gym class full of nerds. It was entiredly comprised of people that had written off gym class years ago. Anyway, what I remember from that class is running the mile, and not having to run it alone for the first time in my life. My instructor was with me for every step, telling me that I was doing great, and asking if I had it in me to push a little more every now and again. It was the first time I felt that someone actually cared that I try. It made the difference.

    More on topic, I was trying to relate this article to my work as a Private Consultant in Traffic Engineering. I work in Anchorage, Alaska, and the professional community here is very small. Everyone knows everyone else, and gossip travels fast. What’s worse is when proposal time comes around. To be a succuessful private sector Engineer you have to be able to “make it rain.” Sell yourself to everyone you meet, write completely self indulgent proposals, and win projects. We have to compete with the other firms, and other engineers out there, otherwise people we collaberate with, and it makes me crazy. I’ve been in this community practicing engineering for 7 years, and as the economy slips I find myself competing with people that have just arrived from out of state, seeking their windfall in Alaska. They have 20+ years of experience, but have just arrived in Alaska. I think to myself, if they had what it takes then they wouldn’t have left where ever it is they came from. It’s pure competition, and you live or die by how much work you can win. The beginning of this year was rough. I was writing 2 or 3 proposals a week, and had not won anything. It paid off, and we won a couple bigger projects, and now the preasure is on to show them that we’re a better consultant than they’ve had before so we can win more work with them. Still in competition, even though we’ve won the project, and they remind us of it any chance they get. At any rate, I agree that life would be more enjoyable and less stressful if I could just stop thinking about it, and enjoy the game. With so much riding on it, and preasure from the firm owners to win projects and always market ourselves, I don’t think it’s possible. Suggestions?

    • Steve Errey says:

      Your gym instructor sounded like a good man – thanks for the story there.

      As for how you can stay competitive in business without having the competition become your whole focus, for me there’s a couple of parts to it. First of all is remembering who you are in your business – when it becomes all about an abstract, identity-lacking business it’s easy to lose heart and to wonder how it’s ever going to work. So don’t forget the reasons you’re in the business, what sets you apart form everyone else and what matters to you about your business.

      Secondly, how do you do your best work? What needs to happen for you to feel like you’re at the top of game, firing on all cylinders, having fun and cranking out the awesome? Look for what those ingredients are and start adding them in liberal quantities.

      And one last thing – you say that you agree that life would be more enjoyable and less stressful if you could just stop thinking about it and enjoy the game, then you go on to say that you don’t think it’s possible. What do you think is stopping you from thinking it’s possible?

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