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Competition, defining success, and self-esteem are closely linked. At first glance, competition pits us against each other because there can be only one winner, or at work, only one or a few people get a promotion or recognition. Also, the internet exacerbates competition with follower counts, likes, podcast charts, algorithms that celebrate winners. As a professional athlete, I’ve experienced the elation and celebration of winning a race, and also seen the difference if I finished second or even nowhere near the podium. The problem with linking a “successful” competition solely to the outcome is that it’s potentially damaging to connection with others and to one’s self-esteem.

So, how do we show up for a competition with awareness, get the best out of ourselves without our self-esteem taking a hit, and build connection instead of division?

The Problem with Competition

Competition is often viewed as a zero sum game, but the reality is that it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to push everyone else down around you to rise to the top. This is challenging to explain because when someone lines up for a race (or even competition at school or in the workplace), there can only be one winner on that day.  However, having multiple ways to measure your success and different types of goals can redefine what competition means to you.  With competition, there is no denying that there is a hard line of whether you got that promotion or won that race. A lot of times, the outcome of a competition is out of your control. You can control your effort, your attitude, and your actions, but you can’t control how good someone will be compared to you or a decision someone else will make that will affect you. The good news is that there are other ways to define success so you can compete in a way that helps you show up in a more open way. 

Watch my TEDx Talk on Redefining Success

As a loss-averse culture with a negativity bias, we want to avoid loss at all costs. The problem is that if we focus on winning, we’ll also be focused on what we could lose. That approach might influence how we play. Are you playing not to lose (playing tight) or are you playing to win (open, flow). Winning and losing need not be binary. Because winning shines a spotlight on worldly successses like money, power, fame, and validation, it can be difficult to untangle from focusing on the winning itself. While worldly success isn’t inherently bad, it’s important to have a strong foundation and identity so that when you don’t get the worldly successes, you don’t fall apart. There are still a lot of gains to be had, even when you don’t win. Competition can be scary because it’s vulnerable when you put yourself out there publicly saying “this is my best effort today.” What if that best effort on that day isn’t very good compared to others or to your past performances? Would you feel differently if no one ever knew your result?

What if the primary goal wasn’t based on an outcome that pits you against someone else?

Additionally, some people might use competition to relieve feeling of deprivation. If they can prove themselves today, then they will feel okay. I’ve been there myself. Winning temporarily fills that hole, but really, there is a shaky foundation that needs addressing. The foundation of what makes us flourish is a topic for many other days so for now, I’ll stay focused on competition. Part of that foundation consists of self-esteem, self-compassion, and mastery. Read more about other aspects of a healthy foundation here.

Competition, Self-Esteem, and Self-Worth

Competition can be viewed in multiple ways. Some view it as a threat to self-worth because they have to use it to seek validation or prove they are good (been there), aka “I am only good if I’m better than someone else. I have to prove myself.” Self-esteem and competition can be too closely linked. This poses a problem when someone has a fragile self-esteem. People with fragile self-esteem only feel good about themselves if they are better than someone else. While some people can thrive in a cut-throat environment where self-esteem is on the line, it’s not very sustainable nor is it a conducive environment to growth and greater purpose. According to Academic Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman in his book Trascend, he says self-esteem has two components: self-worth and mastery.

One thing to note is that self-esteem and self-worth are closely tied, but different. Having self-worth means that you generally like yourself, believe you have good qualities, and believe you are a worthwhile human being. Self-worth lies underneath self-esteem.

When a competition is not going well and you feel like your self-esteem or self-worth is dropping, practicing self-compassion is the antidote. Treating yourself like you would a friend who is struggling is the easiest way to start. I interviewed Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field of self-compassion on my podcast. You can listen here about self-compassion and also here about fierce self-compassion (honoring anger, setting boundaries). She says you can still accept yourself without accepting an unwanted behavior. This goes for ourselves and for others.

Competition is not all-or-none. You can want to beat someone and be fiercely competitive, but also do it in a way that brings others up or pushes people to be even better than they could have been on their own. Competing from a place of anger and negativity versus competiting from a place of joy and positivity are completely different feelings. One is a feeling of constriction where the other is expansion. Many people think that a harsher environment, whether it be internal or external provides better results. Research shows that isn’t the case.

Competition is about mastery

Over time, I changed how I viewed competition.  There’s a highly competitive drive in me, yes.  But now my primary mindset comes from a different place.  I no longer line up to prove that I am “good.” I now line up because I want to celebrate my preparation, I want to bring others up around me as I’m racing, and I want to be a part of a community. That’s why I hoot, sing, and cheer while I’m racing. Sharing that energy makes me love competing even more! I try to be the rising tide that raises the other boats in the harbor.

Check out Lea Davison’s TEDx Talk

I focus on how I can master myself- my abilities, my mental states, and my beliefs.  I can do all of those things even if someone is faster or better than me that day.  In some cases, the days when things are not going my way is when I can practice self-mastery the most.

By using the term “better,” I don’t mean a better human. I am using the term better to mean that the luck, skill level, or ability was better on the day. I think we forget about that when we view winners- we think of them as superior humans.  Having strong and motivated competitors around me will ultimately push me to compete to a higher level than I could on my own.  I get to choose how I want to be and show up as a human while I’m competing.  I admit it’s not 100% of the time, but I try to compete from a place of joy, mastery, curiosity, adventure, and connection. I will also add that winning does not always mean you feel proud of your performance. I’ve won races and not felt proud of the win. When that happens, it’s because I’m not competing from a place of joy or mastery. I’ve been more excited and proud of say a 5th place finish when I was focused on mastery, had a good attitude, got the most out of myself, and possibly overcame a challenge.

Being aware of where you’re coming from when you compete can give some valuable insight.  That said, I’m not sure if everyone can get to viewing competition as mastery, a celebration, and transcendence without going through the initial journey of feeling threatened at the start line. It took many years and a lot of personal work on my ego, self-esteem, and headspace to get to the point of viewing the outcome of competition as a secondary or tertiary goal.

If you get to a point where the pursuit of winning can become less self-focused and more focused on how it can help the greater good, it can change how you show up in the world. I believe there can be transcendence in competition. Of course, I’m highly competitive and am striving to win, but it’s not just about winning for the ego. I am no longer trying to win to fill a void. One of the reasons I like winning now is because I am able to help others if they are now paying attention to my work because of my accolades. I want to be a leader who can set the tone of what it means to win, live a “good life”, etc and it’s easier to do that if you “won” an event. Aside from winning, it’s also about how you show up on the race course because you can have a direct impact on the people around you, no matter where you are in the race. How you treat others while you are competing is incredibly important.

Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll’s personal philosophy is “always compete.” He says, true competition isn’t about beating your opponents; true competition is about bettering yourself. Always compete is about never becoming complacent.

Bottom Line

A healthy view of competition is learning to compete from a place of joy, celebration, mastery, curiosity, and connection. Our competitors can help push us to be our best, and that even goes for people we do not like. Setting appropriate goals around competition that have objectives other than an outcome is essential for growth. Competition is only a threat to self-esteem if we have a shaky foundation of self-worth and our own competence. What if competition was about striving together? I’ll leave you with the etymology of the word compete: the word compete comes from the Late Latin word competere “strive in common, strive after something in company with or together,” or in classical Latin “to meet or come together; agree or coincide; to be qualified.”

I wonder how our world would change if competition were viewed from this framework instead of a winner takes all mentality?

Questions for further development:

  • What am I getting from competition 
  • What do I compete for?
  • What are other goals I can set that aren’t based on an outcome?
  • How do I want to be while I’m competing


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