How to tell the difference between good and bad competition

How do we decide when it’s okay to compete, and when it’s downright dangerous?

Posted Sep 14, 2013

Bob* was a college professor who was worried that he was not going to get tenure. Although he was very popular with his students, he knew that he hadn’t published enough. His department head had encouraged him to spend some time writing and submitting articles and had offered to help him; but Bob was blocked -- simply unable to do what he needed to do. His wife pushed him to go talk to someone and got my name from a friend. After putting it off for several days, Bob called me and set up an appointment. He spent the first session talking about how he procrastinated. In the second session he talked about how nice his department head was and how much he hated to disappoint the man. And in his third session, he talked about competition.

Living in a world in which competition is highly valued and achievement is directly tied to self-esteem and personal value, both men and women must deal with an often unconscious belief that in every competition there are two possibilities: to win or to lose.

But for some of us, even these two possibilities are not so simple. They can hide other dangers. For example, for some people, winning means someone else is going to hate you and losing carries with it the inevitability of hating yourself.

So how do we decide when it’s okay to compete, and when it’s dangerous? When is it healthy, and when is it just not important?

Many people think these decisions all go back to childhood experiences, of course. Sibling rivalry is a big factor. Kids inevitably feel resentful of their brothers and sisters – the younger ones who get all the attention, the older ones who have all the freedoms. But they’re told not to show off when they get better grades or have better test scores.

Books have been written about how to manage sibling rivalry. And none of them seem to say the same thing. In the list at the end of this post are several expert opinions. Alfie Kohn suggests in his book “No Contest,” that parents can – and should – teach children not to be competitive. In “Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too,” authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish say that children will compete, but parents can teach them how to do so with compassion and kindness. David Light Shields and Brenda Light Bredemeier write in “True Competition:Guide to Pursuing Excellence in Sport & Society “ that we need to show our children how to make competition work for them.  And John Tauer and Matt Richtell both suggest a more balanced approach.   

So what do we do when the experts don’t agree?

There’s actually a simple three-part answer:

First, choose the opinions that make the most sense to you.

Second, assess whether those opinions make sense in the situation you’re dealing with right now. Listen to your instincts (you can check out my post on trusting yourself if you have any doubts about your gut feelings).

And third, remember that nothing stays the way it was for long. Reassess the situation repeatedly. Change your opinion as needed. Switching gears is not a sign of being indecisive or wishy-washy. It’s being smart. It’s a sign that you’re able to be realistic.

When Bob finally started to listen to his instincts, he realized that he was bringing old fears about competing to the situation at his university. “Everyone there is competitive,” he said. He grinned. “I guess that’s true of any college, isn’t it?” But what he came to see was that he had feared allowing himself to compete because he was afraid of both losing and winning. What if he didn’t get an article published? What if he didn’t get tenure?

“When I was a kid,” he said, “my brothers and I would compete over anything and everything. Who got to the breakfast table first. Who got the most cereal. Who got to play with the dog. We even competed over who got to take a bath and who got into bed first.” He stopped and grinned again. “I guess my mother really put that competitive streak to use there, didn’t she?”

Bob felt badly when he lost. “My brothers rubbed it in. I figured I was just a loser.” But, although he did his share of rubbing it in when one of the other guys lost, it didn’t restore his self-esteem. “I’m sorry to say that I didn’t feel badly about it – I figured whoever had lost this time had it coming – but I did hate the fact that someone was going to do his best to beat me afterwards. So I couldn’t relax.”

But as we talked about those old fears, and the ways that he had transferred them to the present time, to his relationships with colleagues and even, sometimes, with friends, he realized that he had just assumed that there were two choices in adulthood as there had been in childhood – either they would rub it in if he lost, or they’d wait to pounce if he won.

He recognized that as an adult he actually had other possibilities. “I have different tools for handling things. If I lose, I lose. And I go on to other things. Well, I have so many other things going on in my life. If an article doesn’t get published, I can send it to another journal. Or I can just spend time with my wife and my own kids. Or I can go for a bike ride. Or change jobs…”

“And if I win, well…I win, and I still go on to other things. Life isn’t static. I have so many different things going on, and so many things I enjoy. And of course, there’s the fact that my friends aren’t little kids. And they’re not my siblings. Actually, some of them are really pulling for me…and now that I think about it, so are my brothers.  Life really has changed.”

*Names and identifying information change to protect privacy

Books and articles about competition:

Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too

by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Winning Isn’t Everything, it’s the only thing. Or is it?  

by John Tauer

The Role of Competitiveness in Raising Healthy Children  

by Matt Richtell 

True Competition:Guide to Pursuing Excellence in Sport & Society by David Light Shields and Brenda Light Bredemeier

No Contest: The Case Against Competition Paperback by Alfie Kohn

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