Is Competition a Good Thing?

12 years ago, my mentor and colleague Mimi Herrmann said to me, “You hate competition. But you’re very competitive.”  I quickly said something like, “Shhhhhhh!!!  No one knows, and I’d like to keep it that way!”  When you have my personality pattern, it doesn’t feel safe to be competitive.  In my first career as a professional violinist, I would go to symphony orchestra auditions, which are very competitive, and make friends with everyone, encourage them to do well, but be secretly thinking to myself, “But not too well, because I want to win!”

Since then, I’ve done a lot of work to unlearn my buried competitive tendencies, and I’ve thought a lot about this subject.  As a violin teacher, I’ve seen the benefit of competition for students.  Most kids won’t push themselves to master a something as hard as playing the violin without the incentive of “sitting at the front of the orchestra.”  I certainly didn’t, nor have any of my students.  And trust me, you don’t want to hear an orchestra full of players who haven’t pushed themselves towards perfection.

But then, I look at what I’ve gleaned from work on my own competition issues and those of my Quanta Change clients.  There, I see a very different and detrimental aspect to competition.  It is an issue that stands squarely in opposition to expressing your uniqueness.  You can have one or the other, but not both at the same time.  And expressing your uniqueness is what you’re on the planet to do, so maybe competition isn’t such a good thing.

Competition and uniqueness are built on different platforms.  Competition is based on scarcity.  There’s a winner and a loser for everything, and you either try to win it or bury that need to win it.  If you’re one of the people who is saying, “But wait, I’m just not competitive,” you’re like me – you’ve buried the need to win.  I chose a competitive field, so that buried feeling was revealed to me, but you may have it so under wraps that you’re not even aware of it.  In any case, whether you compete or avoid competing, the way you relate to other people will very often be driven by that feeling.

Uniqueness, on the other hand, is built on a platform that is limited only by the number of souls in the universe.  Each of us has a unique gift and voice that is ours alone.  You can’t compete for something that is already yours, and no one can win it away from you.  Nor can you take anyone else’s from them.

A bonus of the uniqueness platform is that it breeds cooperation and teamwork.  Each person brings something different to the party, and everyone’s gifts work together.  When I was a kid in orchestra, it was hard to see that.  Winning the seat closest to the front of the orchestra was the only thing that mattered.  But once I started playing in professional orchestras, it didn’t matter where I sat.  On a very practical level, nearly everyone was being paid the same, playing the same music, and dealing with the same work issues.  And I started to learn that smart orchestras actually put some of the strongest players in the back of the violin section, because that helps keep everything together.  So sitting in the dreaded “last chair” became an honor.

From some bad gigs, I also started to understand the importance of every single player doing their part.  When only a couple of violinists in a section of 20 are playing the music well, the result is awful.  It might not be as glamorous to play in a violin section as it is to play principal flute, but a Brahms symphony only sounds good when all 80 people on stage are playing their own parts well. And of course, this counts for every position and job in society, no matter how humble it seems.

So, in the contest between competition and uniqueness, the latter wins for me, hands down.  I know we’re not getting rid of competition in our society any time soon, but I think we’ll be better off when we do.

Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest challenges.

Posted in Blog, Quanta Change in Real Life.

4 Comments

  1. There was a period in my life where I felt bad because everyone was telling me I was competitive. I felt that was bad because of there being a winner and a loser. Later in life, I began to cherish my competitive drive. It was that drive that made me unique. It helped me to strive to reach to the stars and become the best I could become. It wasn’t about competing against other people but about doing the best that I could.

    I always wonder about the difference between a healthy competitive drive and an obsessive competitive drive. Does my drive actually come from the society around me (Do I Matter) or is it really me expressing myself in my unique way.

    • Sandi, it’s a great question and a complex one. And I think it’s made more complex because we really don’t know what it’s like to live entirely from well-being – so, therefore, without any competition. What would drive coming entirely from uniqueness be like, say, for a young music student or a young athlete? What if kids’ sports were coming from a place of uniqueness, instead of competition, and what additional benefits would there be? Another way to say it – what if we were coming entirely from a creative place, instead of one that is based on pushing against some kind of challenge or boundary? I certainly don’t know, but I think the evolution of society depends on us continuing to move towards that unknown place. Thanks for the great question and fodder for thought!

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