We are taught early on that to be loved, we need to achieve, usually at the expense of someone else. The notion of competition in the form of a zero-sum game is thus ingrained in us early on. In response to this early cultural conditioning, most of us see life as an ongoing struggle to get ahead. We seek achievement as a way of constantly reassuring ourselves of our own worth. Some of us rebel against this conditioning and instead swear off competition and achievement as undesirable, divisive, and even evil. Almost all of us, however, have parts of both – a desire to get ahead and a nagging sense that competition is somehow wrong. We end up experiencing the underlying tension of this unresolved conflict.
Those who are mostly competition/achievement oriented never seem to be fully satisfied and perhaps experience guilt and shame at times when they do “succeed.” Those who are more cooperatively oriented may experience regret or remorse, proud of their forbearance but secretly envious of the success of others.
For much of my life, I was driven by a burning desire to achieve and get ahead. At some point, I began to question this obsession. I experimented with letting go and surrendering, believing that doing so was more mature and evolved. Yet something still didn’t feel right. And then I realized that I was stuck in a polarity and hadn’t seen it as such. What if I could get the benefits of achievement, success, and competition AND the benefits of acceptance, surrender, and cooperation, without the downsides of either?
At this point, I was reminded of Timothy Gallwey’s excellent book The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance. At the end of the book, Gallwey addresses the phenomenon of competition. He describes how driven he was to prove himself as a young tennis player, and, at the same time, how wracked with guilt he was when he beat other players. He was able to resolve this tension only later in life by redefining competition as “the seeking out of obstacles to overcome as a way of bringing out one’s latent and full potential.”
Think about that. "Competition is the seeking out of obstacles to bring out your full potential." The process of self-actualization, not achievement, is the game. The “sport” – tennis, business, or any other competitive endeavor – is merely the means to win the inner game of self-mastery.
With this insight, Gallwey was suddenly able to see the nature of competition in a much more mature way:
Once one recognizes the value of having difficult obstacles to overcome, it is a simple matter to see the true benefit that can be gained from competitive sports. In tennis who is it that provides a person with the obstacles he needs in order to experience his highest limits? His opponent, of course! Then is your opponent a friend or an enemy? He is a friend to the extent that he does his best to make things difficult for you. Only by playing the role of your enemy does he become your true friend. Only by competing with you does he in fact cooperate! …In this use of competition it is the duty of your opponent to create the greatest possible difficulties for you, just as it is yours to try to create obstacles for him. Only by doing this do you give each other the opportunity to find out to what heights each can rise.
To master the game of life you need a worthy opponent – a true friend that is willing to make things really difficult for you so that the two of you can grow and reach the limits of your respective potential. Competition then is not something to be avoided. Rather, it must be embraced as a vital ingredient to leading an extraordinary life.
Where might you be avoiding competition in your life? Alternatively, where might you be competing in a way that doesn’t capture the spirit of Gallwey’s brilliant distinction? What if you were to reframe your existing situation in business and your relationships as an opportunity to grow and, just as importantly, to give your “opponent” the opportunity to do the same?
Go forth and “compete” and play full out.