I hated competitions.
I played the piano competitively when I was young, and I hated tournaments. The loneliness of winning, the bitterness of losing. How I envied my friends at the orchestra or on the football pitch who would play with each other, not against.
Yet, competitions made us grow.
Me, and the football team, and the orchestra musicians, as we all had our own tournaments, together or alone. The competition gave us the structure to practice towards, and the adversaries showed us how good we could be and how we could be better.
The difference was that teams openly talked about the psychology of competition. How important it is and how to handle your emotions after a contest. In solo disciplines, you didn’t have many people around you to talk about such things. For example, about the importance of having a good rival.
And there is so much that we perceive as solo disciplines. Excelling in studies, at work. Finding the best job. Beating the market.
Competition as cooperation.
Much has been written about the value of cooperation. Much of it is in comparison against competition.
But competition is one special form of cooperation. In the best competitions, we all grow. And even if we forget about growth in the intensity of the contest, we want our rivals to grow as much as us in the long-term. For their growth is what brings out the best in us.
It is the competitor’s innovation that forces us to innovate.
It is each others’ papers that we build our research on.
It is dispute and challenges that form better policy.
Competition for grown-ups
After school, I went into very competitive environments: consulting, and, then, academia. I hated the competition, the persistent pressure to excel, company cultures that seemed to care more about performance than the person. The harshness of it wore me down. After a while, even constructive criticism felt like physical attacks.
It took me a long time to learn, as it always takes time to adjust to a different culture.
I learned that my (perceived) rivals don’t want to hurt me. The more competitive they are, the more they need me to grow. The most competitive will be the harshest, but their criticism will also be the most honest.
I learned to cherish them in return.
That was the most important learning. And the hardest.
We benefit from competition if our rivals are stronger, and our rivals benefit if we get stronger. They want you to grow, not to hurt: keeping this in mind will take off the emotional edge of competition.