Competition in Life, and Why It’s Not All That It’s Cracked Up to Be

As a consumer, competition is usually great – it spurs innovation and leads to more efficient pricing.  In this post, however, I am going to focus on competition in life, and why it can actually be sub-optimal.

Since I “course-corrected” my life in pursuit of happiness entrepreneurship, I have been approached by friends and family who have told me that they wished they “had the courage” to leave their jobs and follow their dreams.  Entrepreneurship definitely isn’t for everyone, but I am a firm believer in living life without regrets.  My advice has generally been something along the lines of, “if you’re in a place in life where you honestly aren’t enjoying what you do and can’t see a better future, you should probably do something about it.”

In fact, the whole premise of spending your life doing something that you don’t want to do is *actual insanity*.

Competition as a Means of Validation

As a byproduct of looking for new ways to improve people’s lives, I have spent a lot more time looking at how people behave.  One thing that I have found interesting is the use of competition as a means of validation – where people go after something that everyone else is going after.  After all, if something is super competitive, it must be great…right?

I will admit that, in general, if a lot of people do something then it’s often good (such as buying a house so that the rent you pay goes into your pension pot rather than a landlord’s).  The problem is that there is not always wisdom in crowds, and this appears to hold true for a lot of careers – look at how competitive companies such as Goldman Sachs and McKinsey are.  Why?

A lot of competition comes down to the human desire for success – to be recognised as being one of the best in your field.  At what point, however, is the sacrifice for success too much?  What if life in your field really sucks?

I joined a leading oil & energy company after graduating and, at our induction, we were reminded of this competition; congratulated on beating 50 other leading candidates to the job.  What was bizarre, though, was the dynamic between people on the outside and people on the inside.  I met and worked with a tremendous amount of people (such as contractors and upcoming graduates) who wanted to join the company, yet there was also this slightly strange scenario where a lot of my friends and colleagues “on the inside” wanted to get out and leave.

And this seems to happen across a lot of fields.  I have good friends at top-tier strategy consultancies, top financial firms & investment banks, global law firms and leading engineering companies, all of which were fiercely competitive to get into.  Yet, I have heard tale after tale of how unhappy they are – how they have lost touch with friends because their lives have been consumed by work; how their wellbeing has degraded as a result of the intense pressure, or how they have spent their best years in a job which isn’t had the positive impact they once dreamed of.  Admittedly “the grass is always greener on the other side”, but many people seem to be standing on flaming-hot coals as opposed to moderately-less-green grass.

Some of my ex-colleagues have told me how great it is to see someone have the courage to leave and actually “escape from prison”.  The irony is that I just walked out – there was no intricate Scofield-esque escape plan.

working a job or trapped in prison
Working a job or trapped in prison?

Sometimes the juice is worth the squeeze.  Competition does make you better at whatever it is you do, because you’re aware of the need to continuously improve.  A couple of my friends would not change anything in spite of the challenges they face.

If you try and rush up the stairs that everyone else is trying to rush through, you might miss the lift that is just down the corridor

The key thing here is to ensure you don’t lose sight of what is important, and not spend too much time looking at the competition.  If you spend all your time focusing on what everyone else is doing, you will stop asking the bigger questions and you will lose track of what is truly valuable.  After all, if you try and rush up the stairs that everyone else is trying to rush through, you might miss the lift that is just down the corridor.