A sense of competition must be inbred as part of our primitive instinct to achieve predominance, because all of us have it. Most think of competition as trying to best a person or team. But what if we lived alone on an island? Would our sense of competition diminish? Would we only be consumed with survival? No, because as humans our propensity is to create value. Our loftiest tendency is not to survive, or to compare ourselves with anyone else (as it is with competition). Our loftiest instinct is to do better, to be somebody.
Unlike animals, if alone on an island we would not stop at simply surviving. We would be compelled to set higher standards for ourselves—to build a better home, or to create a better place. Our nature is to set the bar a little higher than before. That drive comes not from a need to do better than someone else, it is to do better, period.
When we compete against someone else, our standard becomes that person. When we compete against our self, there is no standard. The sky’s the limit. We seek something that no one has ever achieved before. So think from a reference point of boundless abundance, that you can achieve more than your surroundings appear to offer. The win-lose scenario of competing against someone or something establishes an endpoint that stops creativity. A race toward greater discovery with no end in sight offers boundless possibilities.
Bill Gates once described his philosophy as driving a bus at full throttle, with no need to look through the rearview mirror because competition was irrelevant. It was all about the next adventure, the new frontier. Competition against others adds a pressure to win that often stops the flow of inspiration. It may be fun in sports, but it doesn’t work well as a way of living or for breakthrough advancements.
Competing against yourself is more than just self-improvement; it’s about tapping into your potential and the resources to pioneer greater opportunities. So here’s how to successfully and continually compete against yourself (the only competition that adds sustaining value):
Become your own competitor. Remove yourself from the win-loss equation by transitioning into your own third-party. Question your personal assumptions – each and every one – and reinforce the habit of consistently questioning how you do business and life, how well you understand what your customers want and what you need to be successful in work and life. Anticipate forthcoming needs, and even needs that have yet to form.
You’ll have to get out of your own skin to do it. You must force yourself to block out much of what you may currently hold as fundamental facts about your business and world, your market and/or your customers. You can make your competitors irrelevant by thinking about things differently, by taking a time-out and letting ideas bubble-up from that 90% of your brain that remains untapped.
Don’t try to do your best, do better than your personal average. Doing your best only wears you out. It’s virtually impossible to do our best each day, but we can increase our personal average once we’ve overcome that defeatist attitude of always doing what’s “exceptional.”
For example, think of setting your personal best record – the best of the bests – like being the best in the world. Well, that’s an exceptionally high bar since world records are rare, which is why only one exists at a time. Records, as they say, are meant to be broken, but sustaining one record after another requires far too much exceptionalism. So stop thinking with a “one-and-done” mindset. Think of cumulative performance — sum totals, not distinct performances.
Outliers start with changes in technique. Take Marlon Brando — who popularized the Method style of performing, which stripped away grandiose theatricality in favor of a deeper psychological approach to inhabiting a character. Generations of young actors were electrified by Brando’s work as conflicted characters in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “On the Waterfront” and “The Wild One,” men who were emotionally vulnerable but intriguingly dangerous at the same time. He was the bridge between the heroic screen bourgeois of earlier stars such as Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda to a generation of gritty, conflicted anti-heroes played by the likes of Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman.
Roger Bannister famously redefined middle distance running through his modified running techniques. His outlier performances produced following outliers, making otherwise record setting performances now commonplace – breaking Bannister’s records over and over. High school students now routinely break the four-minute mile.
Some say many professionally trained children in music today are better than Beethoven was when he was their age, thanks to the perfected skills that Shinichi Suzuki developed as reflected in the Suzuki Method. These breakthrough aficionados weren’t trying to best the world, they were just trying to increase their personal average each day. Their goals were incremental, not instantly revelatory.
Herein lies the key. If you want to raise your personal average, which is the median measure of your skill or abilities, then all you need to do is focus on improving your average performance. That probably is refreshing since by nature we humans seem to want to set world records – you know – to be that one and only person who holds the record – to be the best…umm…if only that were possible, statistically speaking. Trying to do so only sets us up for probable failure.
By only trying to best your personal average, there’s a relieving sense that you’re not forced to do the impossible. Your competition is not that “other person” who is not you – duh. And that’s the good news, because your competition cannot be you no matter how hard they try. They’re not even the best, since the best hasn’t happened yet. You have a singular set of skills, aspirations, and abilities that only you can make better. That fact alone should bypass any frustration of having to be the record-setter – the best of the best.
There should be no fear of failure since there’s no arbitrary risk of failure — it’s your unique average, after all — and that should end the self-perpetuating doom of fear, avoidance behavior and self-fulfilling prophecy of never quite succeeding that happens to most after they succumb to failure. You can’t break yourself – by stretching your body at or slightly above average, your “muscle” grows stronger to take on more and more weight. If we stop trying to be the best each day, and just try to be better than average, the sum total of our performance is then readily attainable.
This makes us more technique dependent and less prone to record-setting. Can you imagine if LeBron James felt like a failure each time he didn’t score more points than he did the game before? His personal betterment of perfecting his technique is far more attainable – the other is impossible; otherwise, he’d be scoring something like 400 points a game by now!
Others may “score more points than us.” Heck, they may even be better than us with regards to socially imposed standards. But, no one can be better at what we do. So stop trying to exceed your best or someone else’s best, and just work on improving your skills and abilities. Stop trying to break records, and improve your overall average. Let the records happen by themselves.
More consistency is really what we need in life’s “marathon run.” Let the competition do whatever they do. Run your own race, but do it better than your average and pretty soon your refined technique will make you the best of who you are. The just of 50 years of success research says that “special” is overrated, and only improving the consistency of our above-average performance produces sustainable results, especially in the longterm. In doing so you’re forced to develop good habits – which sustains strong performance.
By repeatedly meeting and then beating your average, you are realistically and quantifiably raising your game, in an attainable, sustainable way. As you consistently meet and exceed the median, your midpoint will rise and you’ll be…well, a better person, a greater performer, and someone you can celebrate.
Too many people try to exceed someone else’s standard, or record. Invariably, they fail and then give up altogether.
Successful people focus on being better versions of themselves. Sure, they dream of doing what’s never been done before, but the successful ones only do it in the context of what’s genuine for themselves, with what they’ve got, and who they’re made to be. Start by computing your personal average, and build from there. The best of who you are is your sum-total, and that is ultimately measured on the last day you try to be more than the same you’ve always been. Did that make sense? Hmm…I’ll work on that one…
– Randy Kay is a CEO of TenorCorp/PACEsetters, a strategic and human development firm. Prior to this he has overseen training and development for top performing companies, been a biotech CEO, Board Member for over 20 organizations, executive for Fortune 100 companies, and has published four books and several articles in business magazines such as Switch & Shift and Forbes as well as conducted interviews through numerous networks. Do you want to grow and develop your career and life? Contact Randy Kay directly or discover more at www.pacesetters.training
“A man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” – Robert Browning