When Working on Personal Goals, Competition Is Beside the Point

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If you're aiming for self-improvement, I’m sorry to say this, but you’re probably never going to become the best at anything. There are 7.25 billion people sharing this planet and it's virtually impossible to land at the tippy top.

If you’re an ambitious, motivated person, you probably thrive on your ability to perform better than other people in specific areas. But no matter how good you are, you have a very low probability of becoming numero uno out of 7.25 billion. This is one of the problems that arises in comparing yourself with others when attempting personal improvement.

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To use a cliché: Remember that winning isn’t everything. Often when people set goals for themselves, they base them on how they compare to others. It’s just convenient to set your sights on another person's achievements to benchmark your progress.

For example, having started to run regularly, I frequently compare myself to other runners. I think, If I could just beat my friend Steve, then I will be completely satisfied. But I know that as soon as I beat Steve, I’ll just find another, faster friend whom I'll want to outperform.

Since there is near zero chance of my becoming the fastest person in the world, I can never really be satisfied if this is the standard I use for success.

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If your standard for success is outperforming other people, it will be nearly impossible to feel like you’re achieving your goals. Alfie Kohn wrote in his book No Contest about the problems entailed with competition. In an article in Working Mother he wrote, "Even when the child manages to win, the whole affair, psychologically speaking, becomes a vicious circle: The more he competes, the more he needs to compete to feel good about himself."

Competition doesn’t just narrow the possible outcomes for people, it also limites the scope of their abilities. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, who studies creativity and motivation, conducted research more than 20 years ago to figure out how competition affects individuals crafting creative projects. In one study, Amabile asked a group of girls, aged 7 to 11, to create collages. Half the girls knew their artwork would be judged as a contest with the winners receiving prizes. The other group was informed that the prizes would be presented randomly in a raffle.

Among the girls told that prizes would be awarded as part of a competition, the artwork was uniformly less creative in a variety of dimensions although more technically proficient.

In other similar studies, Amabile encountered the same results, showing that the motivation for fashioning works of art can dramatically affect the style and creativity of the output. When people compare and compete, they focus intently on winning at the expense of creativity.

Competition and comparison are the most detrimental when they become the focal point of personal goals. When you’re trying to change something big and really important in your life, there’s no need for winners and losers.

When winning is the mindset, people too often end up as losers. Focus on progress, making small improvements over time, and you’ll always see the results of your efforts.

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