The grown-up game of life presents us with plenty of flags to chase after. Many of these flags are external symbols of our accomplishments: a promotion, degree, bonus, new job, new car, running in a marathon or a special vacation.
Others may represent new levels of internal growth we have been aiming for: contentment, friendships, a legacy in the world, vitality. A life with no accomplishments to aspire to, no flags to capture, would be dreary indeed.
But when the flag itself becomes the goal, and when we assume that we have to defeat others to reach the goal, things can turn bad for us. We might get what we’re after, but inside we feel empty whenever we do just enough to keep someone else from winning rather than excelling in our own right. In many families, communities and organizations, competition has become an immense distraction and a source of unproductive conflict.
An intense focus on competing can become one of the principal barriers to excelling in life or work.
To compete means to run in the same race, in the same way as everyone else, constantly comparing yourself to others and knowing that, in traditional competition, someone else must lose for you to win. The goal is to get across the finish line first by any fair means.
To excel means to reach beyond the best you have ever given because doing so matters to you personally, for its own sake. It means to run your own race as an individual, team or organization. To excel is to know your greatest strengths and passions and to emphasize them while honestly admitting and managing your weaknesses.
To excel demands a willingness to pay exceptional attention and, paradoxically, to know when and how to think less in order to learn and experience more. To excel requires anticipating and exceeding expectations by fluidly and ingeniously working at the upper edge of your capabilities – not once in a while but hour after hour, frequently in the midst of stress, uncertainty, sudden changes and high expectations.
Here are some strategies that may help bring out your best and the best in others:
Every time you get competitive, lighten up – and focus on discovering new ways to excel. Whenever you find yourself zeroing in on a other person’s shortcomings (or, more correctly, on your assumptions as to their shortcomings), or feeling that someone else must lose for you to win, catch yourself. Stop. Remind yourself of how debilitating such competitiveness can be. Get back into the flow of what is most fun or challenging about what you’re doing. Shift gears. Change your view. Surprise yourself. Often competitiveness comes from not wanting to stretch or change yourself. The failure of others can make it appear that you are just fine or are advancing when, in truth, you’re standing still.
Whenever you notice you’re comparing yourself to others, change the view.
How about comparing yourself to the best in yourself? When tempted to settle for what’s common, ask, “I’m making an effort here, but compared to what? Am I stretching deeper inside myself for something new or different that might be possible? What could happen if I call on more of my best here?”
Yes, there are times when the gold medal goes only to the winner. But this is not true in the race of life, where the winners are those who are superior not to others but to their former selves. In excelling, you save time and energy that would have been spent comparing yourself to others and you apply that time and energy to being your best.
At the same time, you maximize the opportunities of others by enabling them to build their success around your success. That’s how submerged resources are brought into the open and individual growth blossoms. It’s also how collaboration takes its wings.